Why get the same boring bites, when sandwich shops are increasingly trying to dazzle your palate?
When is the last time you ate a sandwich? I'll bet it was within the last week. What's more, I've got a dill pickle spear and a bag of potato chips that say your sandwich was OK, but not one of the best you've ever had.
Granted, that's not a very risky bet. The sandwich is universally popular, after all, thanks to its portability and infinite variability. It's a staple in virtually everyone's diet, so commonly -- and often, hurriedly -- consumed that we tend to think of it as little more than mere fuel consumed on the go. And, let's face it, it isn't that difficult to make a sandwich that satisfies that minimum requirement.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of sandwich shops are content to do just that. And because we don't generally think of the humble sandwich as a culinary creation on the level of, say, a perfect soufflé, we often settle for mediocrity. So what if the bacon is skimpy and the tomato mealy on our BLT, or if the corned beef on our Reuben tastes of little more than salt? It's just a sandwich, right?
Wrong. It isn't too much to ask that a sandwich be made with as much care and attention to detail as a meal at a sit-down restaurant. Indeed, as a small, but growing, number of area sandwich shops are proving, it's possible to make sandwiches so good that they transcend the genre. Just check out the goods at these four counter-service eateries, all coincidentally in the western Triangle, and taste for yourself.
In fact, I'll wager you double or nothing that you'll find yourself slowing down so that you can savor every bite.
2706 Durham Chapel Hill Blvd., Durham
The granddaddy of sandwich artisans in the Triangle, Guglhupf will celebrate its 10th anniversary in November. The eatery's claim to fame is its in-house bakery, which turns out a variety of Old World-style breads and pastries. Indeed, Guglhupf sourdough and rye loaves are the foundation for the sandwiches at a number of other area premium sandwich shops in the area.
Good as it is, the bread isn't the only thing that makes a Guglhupf sandwich special. Every bit as much attention is paid to what goes between the slices. Turkey breast is roasted on the premises and paired with crisp cucumber slices, watercress and fresh basil aioli for one popular sandwich. House-roasted leg of lamb is piled with sliced tomatoes (local when in season) and minted yogurt sauce on rustic bread. A vegetarian sandwich featuring roasted beets, arugula and a mix of blue cheese and walnuts is an enduring favorite. And a current sandwich special serves up a locally made bratwurst, so juicy it spurts when you bite into it, with sauerkraut on a coppery, salt-crusted brezel sub roll.
Guglhupf's offering has expanded over the years and now includes a tempting assortment of salads, small plates and platters, as well as a breakfast menu and locally roasted coffees. Owner Claudia Cooper has plans for more changes, including offering full dinner service. Regardless of what the future brings, it's a good bet that Guglhupf will remain a sandwich shop at heart. And one of the best sandwich shops around, at that.
100-C E. Main St., Carrboro
Neal's Deli has only been open for four months, but the shop comes with an impressive built-in pedigree. Matt Neal, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Sheila, is the son of legendary Crook's Corner founder and chef Bill Neal.
The junior Neal lives up to his father's reputation with an obvious passion for quality ingredients and the skill to make the very best of those ingredients. Neal's house-cured pastrami and corned beef have already won him a dedicated following, and I dare say the Reuben and Manhattan sandwiches he makes with these would draw rave reviews from even the most discerning New Yorker.
But Neal's talents are hardly one-dimensional. His brief but varied sandwich offering covers the spectrum from muffuletta (with meats cured by Giacomo's in Greensboro and a housemade olive salad) to smoked turkey with avocado salsa, bacon and mayo to marinated albacore tuna on rustic white bread.
Even the side dishes, many made with produce from the Carrboro Farmers' Market, are memorable. Recent options have included a marinated green bean salad, a melange of local cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion in cider vinegar, and a German-style potato salad with caraway seeds. A salad of watermelon in a dressing of lime juice spiked with fresh mint and a whisper of cayenne makes you realize that Matt Neal could easily have opened a "serious" restaurant. That he chose to open a deli is extreme good fortune for sandwich fans.
431 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 929-2114, www.sandwhich.biz
Sandwhich gets the quirky spelling of its name from the nickname of chef Hicham "Hich" Elbetri, who owns the shop with his wife, Janet. The eclectic sandwich menu is a reflection of the chef's background, which began in his native Morocco and has included work in a wide variety of restaurants, notably Mercer's Kitchen and Union Square Café in New York.
Elbetri's experience shows in the succulence of grilled-to-order Ashley Farms chicken breast, topped with grilled onions, roasted peppers, provolone and pesto on ciabatta; in the rich complexity of tuna salad, made with whole, house-poached tuna loin, slab bacon and garlic mayo on sourdough; and in the stick-to-your-ribs satisfaction of Niman Ranch meat loaf with Vermont cheddar cheese on sourdough toast.
Regulars have learned to arrange their schedules so that they can eat here on Thursday-Saturday, when the sandwich special might be Indian short ribs or lamb tagine on French roll. A vegetarian sandwich featuring roasted eggplant and Celebrity Dairy goat cheese layered with oven-dried tomatoes and roasted pepper confit on focaccia will win over the most diehard carnivore. And the OBLT ("Outrageous" BLT, a twist on the classic jazzed up with avocado and jalapeños) lives up to its name.
Come to think of it, just about anything you order here is so good, the traditional word "sandwich" doesn't quite do it justice. A better name might be, oh, I don't know, maybe Sandwhich.
345 W. Main St., Durham
First-rate ingredients are as key to the success of the sandwiches at Toast as they are at any outstanding sandwich shop. That includes the breads, which are supplied by the bakeries at Rue Cler in Durham and The Bread Shop in Pittsboro. But here, once the ingredients are assembled, the sandwiches aren't yet quite complete. They have yet to undergo the final step, the pressing between the plates of a special grill that transforms them into panini.
And boy, does Billy Cotter know his way around a panini grill. Cotter, a Durham native whose résumé includes such notable area restaurants as Magnolia Grill and Lantern, owns the restaurant with his wife, Kelli, an erstwhile Magnolia Grill server who cheerily takes your order.
It's a good thing she's cheery, too, because I'm guessing she frequently has to be patient while customers (if they're like me) wrestle with the decision of just which crisp-crusted sandwich they want. Will it be rapini with sweet Italian sausage, roasted garlic and asiago fresco? Or spicy tuna with olivada, fennel and lemon? OK, I'll go for the three cheese with truffle oil. No, wait! Make that local farm egg with Taleggio and chives.
And that's not even considering the alternatives to panini. Tramezzini, for instance, cold sandwiches on crustless white pullman bread, with fillings ranging from egg salad with capers and chives to house-cured salmon with watercress, pickled red onion and lemon aioli. Then there are bruschetta and crostini, with toppings such as North Carolina shrimp with pancetta and radicchio; and chicken liver with pickled fennel.
To date, Toast is the only restaurant in the Triangle to bill itself as a paninoteca, a sandwich shop that specializes in making panini. Lucky for us, it's a very good paninoteca indeed.