"Let's go grab a sandwich." Sounds easy; we do it all the time.
But how often does the sandwich grab you?
With summer about to hit full throttle, it seemed like a good time to seek out some quality in the overwhelming quantity of delis, shops and quick-stops that beckon us. It proved tougher than we thought, but by no means impossible.
We began with a woefully unscientific but geographically and culturally diverse pool of recommendations from fellow workers and folks we know, then spent a couple of weeks munching and comparing, paying special attention to the key ingredients of a great sand: good bread, great filling, tasty condiments and satisfying combinations. Price got consideration, too.
We stuck pretty close to small places where sandwiches are a primary, if not central, focus of the fare. No hamburgers or wraps. And we concentrated on things that could be wrapped up and hauled back to the office or the back yard for a quick bite without a lot of fuss.
In the end, we found a few standouts, a lot of that'll-do's and a clunker or two. Around downtown Seattle, it was tough, but not impossible, to find a good sandwich for much under five bucks. More difficult to acquire: a fine tuna. Came close at one unnamed place, but the - ahem - ambience, shall we say, was just a little too scary. Scummy shelves says it all.
As for the good stuff: Raves all around for a little place in Fremont called Paseo, serving Cuban fare with finesse and secret sauce. An equally enthusiastic hee-haw for the burly barbecue sandwiches at Pecos Pit Bar-B-Que down south of the new baseball stadium.
A strong showing by Sarducci's in Kirkland and Gilbert's in Old Bellevue put the lie to the sneerers who said we couldn't find an interesting sandwich on the Eastside.
As for those who said we also couldn't find a "real" New York deli sandwich, well, we did. At twin stores CasCioppo's in Ballard and Roxy's near the Pike Place Market - where Seattle native Gus Froyd and Brooklyn expatriate Peter Glick mix it up with specialty meats from the CasCioppo family's wholesale business.
Obviously, our tiny band of samplers in the Food and Scene sections could get to only a handful of places. Surely we missed a few good ones. If you have a favorite, drop us a line and help us share the wealth. Meanwhile, here are highlights from our recent foragings. They're listed in alphabetical order, with only this admonition: If you have multiple orders, call ahead. It saves everybody time and confusion.
-- Cafe Paloma. 93 Yesler Way (Pioneer Square), Seattle, 206-405-1920. One knowledgeable colleague rates the panini here among the best in town. Our tasters were generally pleased, especially with the chicken-grilled mushroom-caramelized onion-tomato. The prosciutto with fresh mozzarella, basil and tomato also did well. Selections (most are $5.95) come between generous slabs of fresh peasant bread and are boxed to go with a spray of greens in a light vinaigrette. Fresh-squeezed lemonade, too.
-- CasCioppo Brothers Italian Meat Market, 2364 N.W. 80th St., Seattle, 206-784-6121. And Roxy's Deli, 1909 First Ave., Seattle, 206-441-1865. Contemplate the navel here - the navel cut of meat, that is, offering the best taste and texture for pastrami, says co-owner Gus Froyd. The peppery pastrami comes in piles; it's tender and moist, a little fatty in some cases, but always flavorful. So is the flank steak on a hero, with "moist and tender, lean but still juicy" helpings of meat and just enough peppers and marinara for accent. All sandwiches are hearty and straightforward. Two admittedly tough critics were unimpressed, however, with the chicken-liver sandwich. Not enough onions, or anything else, to compare with mom's. The tuna was also disappointing. Blah. Stick with the main meats, though, and you'll be quite pleased. Homemade sauerkraut and pickles get thumbs up.
-- CJ's Eatery, 2619 First Ave., Seattle, 206-728-1648. Who would'a thunk it? With its pleasant but standard-issue decor, it doesn't look like a place to get a good Reuben. But it is. An ample mix of lean meat and 'kraut on crisp rye, Thousand Island on the side - and whipped up fast while-u-wait. Tuna is decent, too, with a good chop of celery and Bermuda onion thrown in. Salads come with, but don't measure up to, sand standards. One bonus: friendly, fast service.
-- DISH Urban Market, 2052 N.W. Market St., Seattle, 206-297-1852. This Ballard spot was recommended by readers who were taken by its takeout and wrote us in response to our request last month for places that had Fast Food with Flair. The readers were right on. While the focus here is on pasta and salads, the few sandwiches offered are great. All come on fresh focaccia to match the very fresh ingredients inside. All have slices of tomato, a splash of balsamic vinegar, a dash of pesto, and a main attraction such as eggplant, fresh mozzarella or salami. Proportions are well-balanced so you get a good taste of each ingredient. A good-sized sand is $3.75. While you're there, snare something for a side, or maybe dinner. Our favorite find: pot-sticker salad with hints of soy, ginger and peanut in the dressing and grated carrot for crunch. Different; delish.
-- McSorley's, 307 Madison St., Seattle, 206-233-9690. If you're in for fast and cheap, this is it. The kaiser-style rolls are fat and fresh, the meatloaf is hot and homey. Chopped romaine is a step up from iceberg. Otherwise, nothing very special. Turkey here is the ho-hum pressed stuff, and the tuna is only OK. But whaddya want for $2.75 a pop?
-- MEDI, 1312 Fourth Ave., Seattle, 206-340-1760. Another place recommended by a Fast Food with Flair reader last month. Beautiful baguettes, fresh focaccia and fixings make this a must-stop downtown. Simple cold cuts, good cheese, variety. Readers raved about the take-home goods, too, especially the lasagna.
-- Mr. D.'s Greek Delicacies, 1518 Pike Place, Seattle, 206-622-4881. This Pike Place Market takeout counter does a gyro that you can carry down to Harbor Steps to consume, but take lots of napkins. The chicken version is a tower of tender meat chunks, nicely grilled on the outside, succulent inside. A bit salty for some tastes, but a minor consideration in the overall scheme of fresh tomatoes, onion and lettuce laced with a well-balanced, downright yummy dressing - all folded into fluffy, fresh pita. A good buy at $5.
-- Mudbugs at the Bayou. 2917 Fuhrman Ave. E., Seattle, 329-0988. Creole's the thing at this charming little bistro by the bay (Portage, that is). Open wide for the Mardi Gras Chicken Sandwich, a fat, crisp French roll stuffed with meat and peppers, tomatoes and onions all sauced in those scintillating Southern spices that have made Louisiana one of the country's culinary high spots. At Mudbugs, you can relax and peruse a collection of kitchen treasures from bygone days, as well as a copy of Ebony from the '70s. Bourbon Street Beef ($6.95) and Gypsy Creole Shrimp ($7.95) are among the plenty-ample sandwiches you might sample. The menu changes often, but the service is always with a smile. "Suppah," too, with treats like jambalaya and etouffee. A nice addition to our increasingly diverse eating scene.
-- Paseo, 4225 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle, 206-545-7440. Chicken or pork pounded thin and grilled to perfection with splashes of magic seasonings that add heat and flavor without burying the taste of the meat. A tangy sauce keeps the flavor coming inside plump poor-boy-style rolls. Garnishes of lettuce, tomato and (yeah!) fresh cilantro finish the creation. Worth every penny of the $5.75 price. There's a prawn version that's reputedly just as good, for $6.25. Dinners that are big enough for some solid brown-bagging (with beans, rice, salad and vegetable) go for just $8.25. We'll be back.
-- Pecos Pit Bar-B-Que, 2260 First Ave. S., Seattle, 206-623-0629. Open only Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., lines form quickly here on sunny days - for good reason. One editor, who spent many a year in barbecue-heaven Kansas City, calls this his favorite spot. Choose shredded pork, beef (brisket) or hot-link sandwiches, throw on an extra hot link for a buck 'n' a quarter, dig in. You'll get mounds of meat and big buns that hold up even after a long trip back to the office. Sauces come in gradations of hot, and even the mild is brisk, peppery, sweet and salty. One insta-fan said, "I meant to just eat half and I couldn't stop. I think this is called an addiction." Best to eat these with a fork. As for that hot sauce, in this case it's OK to be a wuss. Even if you're sure you love hot sauce, you might want to go with the medium for starters. Started 20 years ago next April Fools' Day, Ron and wife Deborah Wise are still cookin'.
-- Philly's Best, 1400 23rd Ave. (at Union Street), Seattle, 206-860-5000. Two ex-Philadelphians say these phillies are the best of the local breed. The hoagies bulge with flavor-filled, moist, lean meat propped up with peppers or wonderfully gooey cheese, if you dare. Grilled onions are great in the mix. The pepper steak has good kick without going over the top, and the chicken version is full of tender bites. Everything stayed in reasonably good shape even after a 15-minute drive back to the office. The wondrous pepper cheese steak version is $6. Lots of variations here, even a veggie deluxe for $5.50. Go for it all, or demur with a half. But don't figure on lingering here for quiet talk and ambience. This is a joint. A drive-up window helps move things along, but you'll likely have a wait at this hoppin' place during the lunch rush.
-- Seattle Deli, 1221 S. Main St., Seattle, 206-328-0106. Wedged into a little mini-mall just west of Boren Avenue, this is one of many little storefronts in the International District and down Rainier Avenue South offering great banh mi - the Vietnamese version of a sub sandwich. Borrowing the baguette from their French occupiers, the Vietnamese added their own slivers of pickled veggies and herbs to standard fillings. Here, the chicken was cut very thin and tasted of teriyaki; slender strips of crunchy daikon radish and carrot paired with fiery slices of jalapeno and a fresh sprig of cilantro to create a tasty treat and a great deal for a buck-twenty-five.
-- Shultzy's, 4114 University Way N.E., Seattle, 206-548-9641. Advertising "brats, burgers and beers," this down-home haunt on the Ave sticks to its mission, and accomplishes it well. Sausages and links are homemade. Featured favorites include The Shultzy, a big sausage patty flecked with fennel and black pepper, then dressed up with grilled onions and your choice of mustards and assorted accouterments ($3.65). They've got good links, including a mild Andouille and a Ragin' Cajun that has kick without knocking you over. Tinges of garlic and smoke add character. "Big, bold, satisfying," says one fan.
-- Three Girls Bakery, 1514 Pike Place, Seattle, 206-622-1045. At "the oldest business in the market (1912)," choose from a wide selection of to-go sandwiches, served from a takeout window. Lots of good buys for $5. The liverwurst was lovely - no dried edges, which often happens at places where liverwurst is little ordered and they have to dig into the back of the cooler to find it. Good choice of breads, and of course they're fresh. A vegetarian praised the hummus sandwich as happily piquant as well as "thick and hearty, as few veggie sandwiches can be." No charge for cheese. No muss, no fuss, just good grub served with a smile.
ON THE EASTSIDE
-- Gilbert's Deli, 10024 Main St., Bellevue, 425-455-5650. Pricier than most we tried. Like $7.50 for a pastrami, corned beef and Swiss number. But it had plenty of pizazz, and enough Russian dressing to keep things moist but not drowning. Fresh caraway rye; tasty, crunchy coleslaw. And get this: roast beef that was still pink in the middle! Lean, too. Generous portion, plus cheddar, piled into fresh bread. Too bad they were out of horseradish; it or a good mustard would have added the proper punch. Accompanying pasta salad was serviceable. Soups, made daily on site, were better.
-- Sarducci's, 955 Sixth St. S., Kirkland. This unassuming place in a dime-a-dozen strip mall was a great find. A clean, well-lighted place with good variety and a little attitude. The homemade bread is unique - a light version of ciabatta that holds in the flavors, keeps out the sog. The Pecan Chicken Salad gets good texture from the nuts, but isn't as inviting as the meaty boys. The Sarducci's Sub still feels light, despite a generous dose of ham, pepperoni, salami and provolone. We think it's the peppers. Best was the B-B-Q Chicken Breast Sub. Even though the sauce is merely squeezed onto the precooked meat, the resulting combination with real leaf lettuce hit the spot. The pastrami was pleasing, too, complete with some crunchy kraut. Beware: The menu says spicy mustard, and they're not kidding.