It was a bummer to make the pilgrimage to Mecca only to find out the holiest structure was back home the entire time. About a decade ago, as an 18-year-old from the Detroit suburbs, I made the trip to New York. Carnegie Deli was the first Jewish deli I hit and the only thing I took away from that gargantuan corned beef on rye is that size, at least in the case of sandwiches, does not always matter.

I chalked it up as an amateur move, ordering a corned beef sandwich in a city that reveres pastrami, and doing so in a tourist trap I embarrassingly first heard about from Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song. Years later, I would move to the city and make stops at Second Ave. Deli, and finally, Katz’s. And while the pastrami was excellent, the sandwiches were still fatally flawed. The problem started at the top. And at the bottom.

At Katz’s, like virtually every other deli in the city, the hand-cut, lovingly spiced pastrami and corned beef sits between two dry, flavorless pieces of bread that pass for Jewish rye by default — similar to the way DiGiorno can technically be called pizza. It turns out that the holy water that New Yorkers love to credit for its divine pizza and bagels apparently does nothing to save its rye bread from condemnation. 

Back in metro Detroit, and the rest of the Midwest, corned beef is by far the No. 1 choice. The best local delis serve tender slices with perfectly marbled layers of fat. Nearly all of them get their uncooked, pickled brisket from the king of Midwest deli, Sy Ginsberg, owner of United Meat and Deli, and cook it onsite — giving each a slightly different character. Regardless it is, invariably, more tender and more flavorful than any corned beef you’ll find on either coast.

Equally important in this two (or three, if you count mustard) ingredient sandwich is what bookends the corned beef. The best Jewish rye in the area, and maybe the country, comes from Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. Since it opened in 1982, Zingerman’s transformed from a modest deli into a food empire that's stayed true to its hippie, college town roots: community involvement, fair employment practices, top quality ingredients across the board.

The baking arm of the empire, Zingerman’s Bakehouse, makes a relatively dark, old-world loaf, using a higher rye to white flour proportion to make a bread with an earthy aroma that’s both dense and crusty, and actually tastes like rye. But equally important is Zingerman’s uses a classic Detroit double-baked method.

Metro Detroit has had the best rye since Jack Goldberg opened Stage & Co in 1962. Unsatisfied serving anything but the freshest bread, he began ordering his loaves just short of fully cooked. He finished them off in a steaming oven in-house, and served sandwiches on warm, fresh bread. The method soon caught on, and double-baked rye became the standard in Detroit area Jewish delis.

That last-minute steam gives the loaf a soft, moist inside and a crackly crust. It’s thick enough, and strong enough to support the hulking pile of fatty meat without falling apart, which can be a difficult task. Stage, and other local joints like Steve’s Deli and the Bread Basket, all use roughly inch-thick, hand-cut rye that employs considerable doses of actual rye flour mixed with the white flour, unlike most of the loaves in New York masquerading as Jewish rye. That chewy crackle mingles with the flakey, perfectly fat-laced corned beef, creating a guilty pleasure so heavenly it’s worth the heartburn. 

Zingerman's Delicatessen
422 Detroit Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48104

Zingerman's Bakehouse
711 Plaza Drive
Ann Arbor, MI 48108

Stage Deli
6873 Orchard Lake Road
W. Bloomfield, Michigan 48322

Steve's Deli
6646 Telegraph Road
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48301

Bread Basket Deli
15603 Grand River Avenue
Detroit, MI 48227

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