The “Best Sandwich Shop” in Metro Detroit is inside a modest brown brick building at the corner of Capital and Republic in Oak Park. And that’s for five years running, according to a local television station’s online voters’ poll.
Though I became aware of Ernie’s Market only last spring, it’s literally an institution for people living or working in southeastern Oak Park or across the city limit in Ferndale. Customers dig the place not only for its freshly made deli sandwiches at bargain prices, but for charismatic owner Ernie Hassan himself.
Where else is ordering a sandwich this much fun?
“Who loves you, baby?” is the frequent refrain of the lively, unpretentious gent stationed behind the deli counter. When the customer naturally answers, “Ernie,” he replies with a chuckle, “That’s right, baby!” He might even throw in a fist bump.
As Ernie greets and jokes with customers, his booming voice and lots of laughter fill up the place. The merriment helps so that “when you leave ‘Ernie’s World,’ you can take things better on the outside,” he said.
Ernie likes surprising his newbies. He tells them: “Are you ready? Are you sure? Look out, baby!” and into an open palm comes a clump of foil-wrapped chocolate kisses.
Although Ernie really does seem to remember his customers, he says calling everyone “Baby” covers the embarrassment of using the wrong name. “Hey, Baby!” and the WDIV Vote4TheBest logo adorn the Ernie’s Market T-shirts he sells, a different color for each year he’s won.
Ernie’s parents, Ernie and Virginia, started the market in 1950. Young Ernie started helping five years later, riding the Wyoming bus from Detroit’s McKenzie High School. He earned a business management degree at University of Detroit and worked from 1960-68 for Chrysler Tool and Die. It’s been sandwiches ever since for him.
Time stands still upon entering the room, where high shelves display all manner of nostalgic and antique items. There’s the boat Ernie made for a class project and a mounted sailfish caught by his mother in 1958. The oldest item is a bottle-capper contraption used by winemakers.
At eye level are toilet tissue rolls, paper towels, chips, pop and buns — items with a connection to the main event — Ernie’s amazing deli sandwiches.
The owner’s day begins at 6:30 a.m., purchasing vegetables from local wholesalers. Employees Cheri and Joann help with chopping tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green peppers and even green apples for vegetarian sandwiches, or for adding to the others.
“Everything is fresh and nice,” Ernie said.
Each sandwich is custom-crafted. There is no menu, just as there is no outside sign advertising the sandwiches. Customers pick out the ingredients they want from anything Ernie has on hand that day. Bread comes from “a guy who lives up the road” — white, wheat, rye or a wonderful onion roll.
Ernie deftly feeds refrigerated blocks of meat and cheese through his trusty Hobart slicer to create thin, perfect slices. Nothing is pre-sliced. Ernie uses up one block of cheese before starting another.
Piled high with layers of meat, cheese, veggies and a choice of condiments, the sandwiches are $3, $4 or gargantuan at $5. He can go even larger.
Customers in the know order their sandwich “with a little love.” Ernie’s secret love spice mixture is legendary. He claims one man who asked for “heavy love” unexpectedly ended up fathering twins.
“Now he gets his sandwiches plain — doesn’t want any more kids,” said Ernie.
My recent sandwich, composed of smoked turkey and lots more, was simply delicious. Containing all my preferred fixings made this possibly the best cold sandwich I ever ate. Ernie can make your favorite sandwich — and make you smile too — starting 10 a.m. daily except Sunday. Phone orders are also accepted.
Oak Park, MI 48237
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