There is no sandwich more of the moment in Detroit than the Döner Kebab. It’s been featured in both of Detroit’s major dailies, about two weeks after it was covered in The Metro Times (for those of you interested in the Detroit food scene, MT and its excellent food writers, particularly Jane Slaughter and Tom Perkins, are usually first with the news from any eatery that doesn’t have its own PR staff). It’s all over Twitter (@IWriteforFood), and Instagram (@iwriteforfood). The Döner Kebab is Detroit’s social media darling.
For the uninitiated, let’s start with what the Döner Kebab isn’t.
The Döner is not a kebob. It’s not chunks of meat on a skewer, and it’s not those same chunks made into a sandwich.
The Döner is a sandwich from the same family as a gyro, or shawarma. Turkish in origin, the Döner features meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie, usually a combination of lamb and beef, carved from the spit in thin strips, and tucked into pita bread.
In the food world, the Döner is perhaps most famous in its German iteration, particularly in Berlin. Purists tell me the East German version was the superior choice, the winner of the Berlin version of the Lafayette vs. American debate.
There, the sandwich is so popular that Germany boasts over 40,000 kebab shops, with over 4,000 in Berlin alone.
In Detroit, there’s one.
But that may change, as more people get a taste of the Döner Kebab sandwich at The Balkan House in Hamtramck.
But wait, you say, Hamtramck? Isn’t this a series on Detroit’s Best Sandwiches?
Well, technically, all of Hamtramck is within Detroit. So it’s still a sandwich you buy within Detroit’s city limits.
When you visit The Balkan House, and order the Döner, the first thing you will notice is its heft. This is a substantial sandwich!
The next thing you will notice is the bread.
Here’s where the sandwich begins to differ from its Turkish and German origins. Rather than the pita we are all familiar with, this sandwich is stuffed into lepinja. Also called somun, or lepinje, lepinja is the household bread of Bosnia, a soft and chewy bread with a buttery crisp crust. It might be the perfect sandwich bread.
You’ll also notice is that it’s really hard to tell what’s in the Döner, as all you can really see is the white döner sauce and the red spice covering everything beneath it in the sandwich.
So we spoke with Juma Ekic, the owner of The Balkan House, to find the secrets of the sandwich. She promptly introduced me to her nephew, Dennis, who spearheaded the effort to build a real Döner. And we’ll talk more about that in a moment.
But what’s Juma’s story? How did she come to own a restaurant in Hamtramck?
I learned that Juma is originally from Bosnia, but fled the country in 1992, after her father was released from a concentration camp.
I had to have her repeat that line “when her father was released from a concentration camp”. To hear her say it so matter-of-factly told me this woman has seen things I can’t even imagine. I began asking more questions about her story.
Once her father was released from the camp, the family fled to Germany. There, they were placed in a refugee camp.
Germany’s official position during the Bosnia-Herzegovina War was that the refugees were not in fact refugees, but “temporary guests”.
That distinction was everything, as “guest” status meant there was no path to integration in German society. The Bosnians refugees were “officially tolerated” during the conflict, but were expected to leave Germany as soon as the War was over.
12-year old Juma spent seven years in Germany, and she doesn’t remember those years fondly. It seems her treatment mirrored that of her official status–she was (barely) tolerated, not welcomed. School was unpleasant for a girl that didn’t look like her classmates, or speak the language.
Outside of Europe, two countries were offering Bosnian refugees a new start – the US and Canada.
Juma’s family emigrated to the US, entering America through the Port of Detroit in 1999. They immediately settled in Hamtramck, and the city became their home.
Five years later, Juma and her family became US citizens.
Twenty years later, she bought a restaurant in her adopted hometown of Hamtramck, and has achieved success, and a level of local fame, serving a sandwich best known as a product of the country that offered her and her family cold comfort.
Irony appears to be a dish best served stuffed into lepinja.
Back to that sandwich:
Each sandwich is made when ordered, so you’ll have about a 10-minute wait. Think of it as In-N-Out, rather than McDonald’s.
A loaf of lepinja is generously buttered on the outside, and then placed in a (genuine–yep, I checked!) George Foreman grill. After a couple minutes, the outside is crispy, and marked with charred grill marks.
A thin slice is cut from the edge of the loaf, allowing the interior to be pulled apart like a pita, opening the loaf for the fillings. First, a 2-count shot of the yogurt-based garlic sauce, as a base for what’s to come.
Next, a generous portion of gyro meat is added. It’s not carved from a vertical spit. There’s no way to fit one in the present kitchen configuration, so for now, they’re using gyro meat heated on the flattop.
Trust me, you won’t notice, or care about, the difference.
The meat is topped with shredded lettuce, red cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, and onion. Those vegetables are then bathed in a 3-count from the döner sauce
squeeze bottle, sprinkled with sumac, dusted with red pepper flakes.
The first bite is incredibly crunchy, savory from the döner sauce, buttery from the bread’s crunchy crust, kissed with heat from the pepper flakes. It’s also deceptively light.
Once you get a bit deeper into the sandwich, you realize it’s more substantial. The gyro meat adds the protein punch to the veggies, and the sauce blends beautifully with the meat, in that familiar shawarma/toum way.
You also realize you’re in the middle of a 3-napkin sandwich. Döners are MESSY!
And a bargain at $9.
And one of Detroit’s Best Sandwiches.
But really too much to eat for a lunch that doesn’t end with a 45-minute nap.
So here’s what you should do.
Grab a friend.
Drive to The Balkan House at lunchtime.
Order a Döner Kebab. Cut the sandwich in half, to share. Enjoy this messy mouthful with your friend, laughing at the döner sauce mustaches on each other’s faces.
Order the Nutella crepes (there’s 2 per order) and Turkish coffee for dessert.
And say thanks to Juma, Dennis, and the crew, for bringing another piece of the world to Detroit’s table.
The Balkan House is located at 3028 Caniff in Hamtramck. You can find them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thebalkanhouse/ . Hours are 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday.