Detroit’s Own Zip Sauce Brightens Up Just About Anything

By: Karen Dybis | March 8, 2019
Bottle of the original zip sauce and a vintage ad for the product

Photo courtesy of The Original Zip Sauce

Some call it a dipping sauce. Others describe it as a buttery, salty glaze. The bottom line for foodies of all kinds is that the delicious condiment known as Zip Sauce is the ultimate complement to steaks, soups, seafood and even vegetables.

For newbies, Zip Sauce is one of those mysteries that make Detroit famous for its food and legendary restaurateurs. Like the stories behind who was in the Purple Gang or what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, there is controversy behind what goes into Zip Sauce, who created the best version and how to make it at home.

The actual recipe for Zip Sauce, much like SpongeBob’s Krabby Patty, is a closely guarded secret. But there are some universal ingredients shared among food experts. Most say Zip Sauce is a mix of butter, beef base, Worcestershire sauce, sometimes mustard and a blend of spices including garlic, thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper.

The history of Zip Sauce starts with Mario Lelli, who owned and operated a high-end Italian restaurant along Woodward Avenue that opened in 1939. As the story goes, Lelli’s restaurant was a hot spot where northern Italian recipes reigned supreme. But what made it a household name was its steaks and famous Zip Sauce.

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People came from far and wide to eat at Lelli’s and savor the Zip Sauce. Its popularity grew to the point where other restaurants started making their own version, according to Michael Esshaki, who now owns the trademark to what he calls the Original Zip Sauce.

“It’s a household name in Michigan. Every person who goes to a steakhouse asks for Zip Sauce,” Esshaki said.

Esshaki, who began his food career as a waiter for Lelli’s, formerly owned Larco’s restaurant in West Bloomfield. That is there that Esshaki learned how to make Zip Sauce from the masters, he said. Every chef has their own recipe, Esshaki says, but Lelli’s knew how to make it best. Every time a chef moved, he or she brought their own version to the kitchen.

When Esshaki got the trademark for the Zip Sauce name about a decade ago, he wanted to make it commercially available. Through Esshaki’s company, the product he calls The Original Zip Sauce is based on the recipe he learned. It is now sold online, in 25 casinos, more than 200 restaurants and across 4,500 retail stores, he said.

So what’s the future for the Original Zip Sauce? Well, the bottled version that’s being sold now will continue – that’s the one where home cooks add butter to the Original Zip Sauce base to whip up your own version. But Esshaki said he is preparing to put a ready-to-eat version out on the market toward the end of 2019, making the sauce easier to serve. He’s also planning on a version featuring sriracha, his favorite hot sauce.

Esshaki has a few Zip Sauce suggestions for the home cook. He recommends putting it in a spray bottle and coating your steaks and hamburger patties with it as they cook. Another idea is to use the Original Zip Sauce in French onion soup as well as corn on the cob. “You’ll never eat corn any other way once you’ve tried it,” he says.

And anyone can enjoy it because the Original Zip Sauce is 100 percent vegetarian and vegan, Esshaki said. “It’s very versatile,” he added.