I Spy

Restaurant reviewers and spies have a lot in common. We work covertly, report our findings, and get to attend the occasional cocktail party. True, the life of a spy is more important, exciting, and rewarding, but, on the other hand, we eat better. This past week I spied on the Secret Sandwich Co., and while I don't like to toot my own horn, within seconds of entering the two-month-old shop I was able to keenly ascertain that the house specialty was, as I suspected all along, sandwiches. I also deduced that its "secret" was not, as I had admittedly been incorrect in presuming, the Design District location on an unassuming, untraversed block of North Miami Avenue off NE 39th Street, but is rather tied into a vague spy theme. I picked up on this theme after scanning a paper trail left behind -- the menu.

Soup of the day and a half-sandwich were dubbed "double agent"; lime-marinated chicken breast sandwich with caramelized onions and cilantro dressing was a "Mata Hari"; there was also a "French connection" sandwich, "covert caesar" salad, "stealth burger," and so on.

The minimalist décor offered few such thematic clues -- just a world map on one of the walls, and four clocks representing the time zones of New York, London, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires (luckily, being a worldly person, I knew to check the New York clock to find out the time in Miami). Eleven stools at counters running along two walls and the storefront window provide the only seating -- most business is take-out and delivery.


The Secret Sandwich Co.

Madonna Building, 3918 N Miami Ave

305-571-9990. Open for lunch Monday through Friday 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. (take-out and free delivery 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.)

Sandwiches are broken down into five groups, beginning with a quintet of "deli" offerings: turkey, roast beef, ham, and chicken and tuna salads, all with field greens and tomato slices on a reputable baguette. The menu allows for the option of whole wheat baguette, but it's been discontinued due to dissatisfaction with the quality.

"Pressed" sandwiches, also on baguette, feature melted combos of Genoa salami and provolone; tomato, basil, and mozzarella; and ham, pork, and Swiss cheese. The grilled cheese subplot continues in the "Americana" selections: Grilled cheese or grilled cheese and ham sandwiches, and a foot-long, kosher, all-beef "haute" dog.

The fourth sandwich grouping concerns burgers on soft onion boules. The ten-ounce beef version was quite good -- thick, succulent, assertively chargrilled. Turkey burger is another choice, as is buffalo burger with barbecue sauce and "secret" slaw (which I unmasked as regular cole slaw). You wouldn't guess by looking at a buffalo that it would be considered a "lean" meat, but it is. The burger was juicy enough just the same, and added mustard seeds are a nice touch, but I found the mildly gamey flavor a bit off-putting.

Seven specialty sandwiches compose the main menu section. They are, like all sandwiches here, very modestly priced -- most between $5.50 and $6. They are also, like all sandwiches here, served on baguette with mixed greens and tomato. The grilled salmon sandwich with caesar dressing, and grilled mahi-mahi with creamy garlic, were excellent -- fresh, zestily flavored, and as good as anything else on the menu. The "grilled onion and mojo marinade" that was to dress an oven-roasted, pulled pork "Bay of Pig" sandwich came disguised as a nongrilled onion and mojo salad dressing on the side, yet the bits of pork were flavorful just the same. Nothing could cover up the dry nature of the palomilla steak sandwich, but a topping of potato sticks only made matters worse. The thin strip of beef, cut with the grain and unpounded, was less a comestible than a tiresome exercise for the jaw. In fairness, it was the only bad sandwich encountered here.

Soup of the day was an excellent yellow split pea, of pleasantly thin consistency, flecked with carrots and tender nubs of ham. Salads (caesar, house, tomato-mozzarella) and desserts (homemade brownie, chocolate chip cookie, flan) were simple and satisfying, as well as ultimately uninspiring.

That lack of inspiration is my only complaint about the Secret Sandwich Co. I understand its strategy of keeping the menu concise, basic, and uniform in order to make assembly of soups, salads, sandwiches, and desserts quick.

Getting timely deliveries out to working people on tight lunch schedules is the lifeblood of this particular type of business, and my sources on the street tell me Secret Sandwich does a solid job of doing that. Still one wishes it would add a special sandwich or two each day with the sort of interesting ingredients that might propel it beyond the routine. I'm speaking here (and I don't believe I'm divulging any secrets) about watercress, arugula, romaine, and other lettuces and sprouts; about countless cheeses more intriguing than Swiss; about grain breads and focaccias and ...

The Secret Sandwich Co. is new, its attitude upbeat, and you really can't get a fresher, better sandwich at these prices. That's why I'll return -- but not before I dye my hair, of course.


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