Many years ago, while interviewing for a position as counterman at the New York Delicatessen in Boulder, Colorado, I claimed former employment at the renowned Katz's Deli in New York. Truth is, I had never toiled at any deli, or for that matter at any restaurant, but the Katz effect got me hired on the spot. Two days later, my right index finger slid from a surprisingly slippery turkey breast into an electric slicer, and some stitching was required. A scant few days passed before a similarly shocking knockwurst-and-knife incident necessitated my left index finger get the same treatment from the same doctor — who politely suggested I might consider a line of work that didn't involve sharp objects. I persisted, though, and became a masterfully fast assembler of corned beef and pastrami sandwiches (and of a compendium of combos too). Nowadays, I mostly use this experience as a cloud of credibility from which to rain judgment upon other peoples' sandwich-making skills. Which brings us to this week's look at the new Chicago's Bakery & Deli in Coconut Grove and the old La Sandwicherie on South Beach. To put it bluntly: One slings, the other doesn't.
The counterpeople at La Sandwicherie are the slingers, meaning they exhibit the speed, mental deftness, and dexterous hand-eye coordination needed for turning out massive quantities of sandwiches in a short period of time. Except here the short period of time goes on over and over again, pretty much from late morning until early the next morning (open until 5 a.m., 6 a.m. weekends). A crowd always seems to linger along the lengthy counter that extends up an alley off 14th Street between Washington and Collins avenues (across the street from Club Deuce). This has been the case ever since the French-owned eatery began selling sandwiches, salads, smoothies, and shakes here in 1988. The food is fine, but the funky alfresco charm no doubt accounts for a large part of the appeal.
La Sandwicherie's counterfolks consistently start with fresh, crusty French bread from Le Chic Bakery and then ply it with the patron's preference of meat, cheese, or some combination thereof. Crisp toppings of choice come next: lettuce, tomatoes, green peppers, hot pickled red peppers, black olives, red onion, cucumber, and — the pièce de résistance — cornichons (the little French pickles that particularly perk up pâté, but more important, contribute a tantalizing tang that normal pickle slices only weakly mimic). Garnish-work is followed by a finishing splash of tart Dijon-based French vinaigrette. Voilà! — a damn good sandwich.
La Sandwicherie|Chicago's Bakery 305-532-8934; lasandwicherie.com. Sunday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 5 a.m. Friday and Saturday 8 a.m. to 6 a.m. Chicago's Bakery 305-774-9981. Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Fillings include typical cold cuts and sliced cheeses such as ham, turkey, roast beef, salami, Swiss cheese, and so forth — as well as more distinctive, Euro-friendly choices such as Camembert, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, saucisson sec (garlicky French salami), and pork/duck liver pâté (the one I keep coming back for). The latter choices, along with a turkey/Camembert combo, have over time become crowd favorites — at least among those in the crowd with discriminating taste. La Sandwicherie's weakest effort is chicken salad. To paraphrase Woody Allen, it was bland and dry and there wasn't nearly enough of it in the sandwich. Tuna was only appreciably better, with an overly fishy flavor.
Berries, peaches, oranges, and tropical fruit get blended into either smoothies or shakes, the latter frothed with frozen low-fat yogurt. Carrot, celery, cucumber, tomato, apple, and beet are juiced to order. Best beverage bet (but far from the most healthful): a rich, creamy, espresso-based "café shake" that chills and thrills.
Chicago's Bakery & Deli didn't thrill at all. Are New York delis really so much better than the Windy City's, or is this just a poor representation? Probably both, but let's begin with the positives: The sandwiches are pretty tasty, a quality that admittedly carries weight when judging a sandwich shop (speaking of which, there are eight ounces of meat in the offerings here). The Al Capone roast beef combo pops with flavor, thanks to a topping of giardiniera vegetables (celery, carrots, spicy banana peppers) in olive oil.
Flaunting even more flavor: the Chicago Fire, a Reubenesque sandwich featuring thinly sliced corned beef doused with horseradish sauce, spicy mustard, banana peppers, and pepper jack cheese. The Chicago dog was decent in a poppy seed bun with mustard, onions, tomatoes, sport peppers, and relish. We also liked the Harry Carey, with turkey, Gouda cheese, crisp bacon strips, lettuce, and tomato — except it contained a very piquant spicy chipotle mayo not mentioned on the menu. That's not cool, and it brought out a rather glum mood in the 14-year-old lunch guest who ordered it. We didn't try the Wrigley Field combo of turkey, cheddar, and spicy mustard, but hasn't this poor stadium experienced enough indignities already?
Prices are fair enough, all dozen sandwiches except the Al Capone costing $7. Some come on assigned bread, but otherwise you can choose from rye, ciabatta, baguette-shaped roll, or croissant. We suggest sticking to rye. Two of the sandwich stuffings are salads (chicken and tuna), but neither is made on the premises; evidently there was a problem getting recipes. The turkey, roast beef, corned beef, hot dogs, and sausage come from the Chicago company Vienna Beef. The quality of corned beef and roast beef did not impress, and both get sliced early in the day. Folks from American cities — be it Chicago, New York, Anywhere — usually expect a steamy-hot corned beef to be lifted onto a slicer or board and cut per order.
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Potato salad has been removed from the menu, but chintzy, mass-produced coleslaw and macaroni salad (also from Vienna Beef) remain. One side dish — tri-color pasta salad with olives, tomatoes, and carrots — does get prepared in-house, but it was an old, soggy, vinegary mess.
There is no waitstaff as such — you place your order at the counter and pick it up when ready. Every item comes in a bulky square clear-plastic take-out container with fold-down lid attached; plasticware, paper cups, and packaged condiments are used as well. Eating a single sandwich here leaves approximately the same size carbon footprint as the Loch Ness Monster might if it stepped in a vat of carbon.
The freshly baked desserts at Chicago's Bakery & Deli are cupcakes. The rest of the restaurant's glossily iced cakes are brought in from outside. A worker informed us desserts would be prepared onsite "once we sell out the ones we have." Judging from those sugar-laden cupcakes, we think they needn't rush.
Chicago's Bakery & Deli may well become a bakery, but it is more of a fast-food sandwich shop than deli — and only an average one at that. The same owners have recently premiered Chicago's Steakhouse & Tavern next door. Let's just hope Vienna Beef doesn't provide the sirloins.