An Ode to the Genius of Immigrant Food


DETROIT—Running parallel to the endless stories about the “revitalization” (read: gentrification and resegregation) of Detroit are stories about its burgeoning restaurant scene, itself a marker of the startling development and influx of corporate cash that have reshaped the city in recent years.

Just drive through downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods, as I did recently on a reporting trip for this website, and you’ll find restaurants helmed by James Beard-nominated chefs and chic bars, all filled with young, (mostly) white members of the creative class that have steadily flocked to the city in the past decade, taking advantage of its relatively cheap housing and eager to insert themselves into the narrative of a city rising from the ashes.

“Detroit is in the midst of a culinary transformation,” wrote the Washington Post in 2016. That same year, Zagat proclaimed Detroit one of its “hottest food cities,” ranking it above San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, and New York City. A city that even a few years ago was described as a food desert is now a “culinary oasis.” Detroit is “cool,” typified in the popular imagination by Shinola, the purveyor of overpriced watches and bicycles, and worthy, even, of a goop travel guide.

The best thing you can eat in Detroit isn’t some artisanal doughnut or vegetable carpaccio or pork belly sliders—it’s a freakishly good $3.38 egg roll filled with corned beef and cheese

Fuck all of that. These narratives—of Detroit on the rise, of a rebirth of a city that was devastated by deindustrialization, white flight, and a callous economic retrenchment—conveniently elide the the black Detroiters, who are more than 80 percent of the city’s population, and immigrants that have for decades actually made Detroit “cool,” an erasure that is also reflected in the coverage of its food scene. The best thing you can eat in Detroit isn’t some artisanal doughnut or vegetable carpaccio or pork belly sliders—it’s a freakishly good $3.38 egg roll filled with corned beef and cheese, from Asian Corned Beef, a homegrown chain with seven locations (largely in still-black neighborhoods outside of the downtown core), and the brainchild of Kim White, an immigrant from Vietnam who moved to Detroit in 1974. Today, she runs the restaurants with her son Hasan, and an eighth location is in the works.

I met White by chance when I stopped by what happened to be the original Asian Corned Beef for an egg roll, on the recommendation of a friend who told me that I needed to eat there while I was in town. She was behind the counter, as she is six days out of the week, ringing up a steady stream of orders.

White was born in what was then known as Saigon; as a teenager, she met a black American GI. They married, and in 1974, she moved to Detroit, where her husband lived and where his family was from. (They had two sons, and have since divorced.)

In Detroit, she worked at a Jewish deli, where she learned to cook corned beef. In 1980, she decided to open her own restaurant. Initially, business was slow, she said. One day, White began tinkering around with her menu, wrapped thinly sliced corned beef in an egg roll wrapper, and thus an icon was born. “At first, people were scared to eat it,” White said of the egg roll. “After they tried it, they love it.”

One bite of her perfectly fried egg roll stuffed with tender slices of corned beef and melted cheese—each egg roll is fried to order—and I was in love. I can only describe the experience of that egg roll as a full-body orgasm but localized in my mouth. “When I cook, I put my whole soul in there,” White told me.

Only an immigrant, I suspect, would have the imagination and yes, genius, to create something like the corned beef egg roll—what the New Yorker writer Hua Hsu describes as the “improvisational skills” of people like White. Her egg roll is representative of a kind of egalitarian American cuisine that is increasingly vanishing—the merging of food traditions, created out of necessity, to birth something new and uniquely American, in the most generous and best sense of what it means to be American. (The St. Paul sandwich—egg foo young topped with mayo, pickles, lettuce, and tomato, all nestled between two slices of white bread—is another example.) While second-generation Asian American chefs are increasingly celebrated for their inventive takes on fusion cuisine—think Roy Choi or David Chang—there is a key difference, encapsulated in price, in perceived culinary value, and in the imagined and real audience for their food, when compared to restaurants like White’s. One wouldn’t, after all, find a Momofuku in the neighborhoods where Asian Corned Beef has set up shop.

White has a more modest take on her food. She just wanted to make a living, she said. But she clearly takes pride in how much her customers love her egg rolls. “Everywhere I go now, everybody know me,” she said. Corned beef egg rolls have now become an iconic Detroit staple, copied by everyone from food truck proprietors to Detroit’s Coney Island hot dog slingers.

It’s the ones who have remained in Detroit even as others fled who should be celebrated. Fuck the gentrification of Detroit. Fuck Shinola, a scam if I ever saw one. Fuck Dan Gilbert and all the money grubbing billionaires like him who are reshaping the city in their own image, with the eager backing of the political class.

No one needs another pie shop or New American diner or gastropub that serves the same tired, expensive food in the same tired settings. Give me a $3 egg roll stuffed with corned beef and cheese any day.

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