A Triangle-wide search for the transcendental sandwich
By Greg Cox
Review originally published 6/9/2016
It’s hard to beat the trusty sandwich for quick sustenance, but let’s face it: The sandwich that rises to the level of a memorable meal is rare indeed. It could be the locally baked artisanal bread that makes it special, or the house-cured brisket. Maybe it’s the trimmings – a sauce that strikes the perfect chord, say, or onions grilled just so, or even the pickle. In the case of these three sandwich shops that have come on the scene in the last year or so, it might just be all of the above.
Bona Fide Sandwich Co.
104 N. Churton St., Hillsborough; 919-245-7869
When Matt Fox and Dean James announced plans for a sandwich shop in downtown Hillsborough, mouths started watering before the place even opened its doors. The partners had already earned a strong reputation for their Cajun/Creole restaurant, La Place, and for the Wooden Nickel, a popular watering hole a couple of doors down. Bona Fide Sandwich Co., which launched in March just across the street, doesn’t let their fans down.
The menu board at the end of the counter lists a dozen or so sandwiches, covering the spectrum from the straightforward All-American Sub to creations such as Brotha’ Love, a playful riff on the Philly cheesesteak pairing rare roast beef with triple cream brie, broccolini, onions and roasted red pepper mayo. The unifying theme for this diverse offering is, per the shop’s motto, “honest-to-goodness food” with an emphasis on scratch preparation and local food artisans. Even the bologna in that All-American Sub is local, made by The Pig in Chapel Hill.
The best-seller “by a mile,” according to Christopher Jones, the shop’s affable general manager (“I’m the tall bearded fellow behind the order counter”), is an homage to local pork called The Noble Pig: smoked pork loin, bacon and ham with Cabot cheddar, green apple slaw, Dijon mustard and bacon mayo on a grill-pressed sub roll. Like all subs here, it’s available in two sizes. Order the large one at your own risk.
The selection changes from time to time in order to keep things interesting. The K-Town Reuben (Two Chicks Farm kimchi is the “sauerkraut” in this one) was recently brought back by popular demand. The Mozzafiato (garlic-marinated Roma tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and pesto aioli on pressed focaccia) has quickly become a hit with vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike. Meanwhile, the Five Spice Banh Mi – with marinated grilled portobellos taking a “meaty” starring roll with a supporting cast of pickled carrots, daikon radish, cucumbers, walnut spread, Sriracha mayo and fresh cilantro – is a three-napkin vegetarian mainstay.
The menu offers a handful of sandwich alternatives – entree salads and vegetarian ancient grain “Power Bowls” – but sandwiches are the main attraction here. That said, you’d be amiss if you didn’t try one of Bona Fide’s craft fountain drinks, a changing selection that might include anything from Abita root beer to ginger molasses kombucha.
The catch: There’s no seating in this tiny takeout shop. But you shouldn’t have trouble finding a bench or park nearby, and as a bonus you can explore the historic Colonial-era town. Sounds like the perfect excuse for a picnic to me.
Linus & Pepper’s
126 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh; 919-833-3866
Taking my cue from the restaurant’s unconventional name, here’s a non-alphabetical glossary of terms to guide you to an optimal experience at Linus & Pepper’s.
Linus & Pepper’s: The names come from owner Jon Seelbinder’s “flat-faced, funny-looking cat” (his words, not mine) and his niece. Seelbinder’s small but rapidly growing Local Icon group of restaurants and bars also includes The Architect on Hargett Street and Virgil’s Original Taqueria next door.
Sammies: aka sandwiches, served here with your choice of sides: house chips (crisp, not too greasy), potato salad (chunky with a hint of tang – pickle juice?), or coarse, creamy slaw. Build your own sandwich from an extensive list of meats, cheeses, breads and fixings, or choose from the list of house creations such as The Big Cheese, The Frenchy, The Russian or The Southern.
Big Cheese, The: Molten alloy of white cheddar, Swiss and smoked gouda with roasted mushrooms, caramelized onions and Romesco sauce for peppery punch; an aptly named VIP of grilled cheese sandwiches.
Frenchy, The: Garlic- and herb-roasted beef, smoked Gouda, caramelized onion and Horsey Sauce (shh! don’t tell Arby’s); so juicy that the beef jus served with this elevated take on a French dip is optional.
Russian, The: House-made pastrami, Swiss, coleslaw and Russian dressing on grilled marbled rye; they had me at “house-made pastrami.”
Southern, The: Roast turkey – the real deal, slabs of breast sliced thicker than a Thanksgiving bird (and juicier to boot) – with black pepper bacon, balsamic-marinated tomatoes, white cheddar and Mornay sauce.
Chalkboard: Where you’ll find specials such as crab cake po’ boy, pork belly banh mi and sweet potato bisque.
Gooey-licious: See The Big Cheese.
Serendipity: Linus & Pepper’s started out last fall as a pop-up in the ground floor space below the Level Up bar and arcade, which Seelbinder also owns. “It seemed like a good way to make use of the empty downstairs space,” Seelbinder says. The sandwich shop was so popular that it morphed into a permanent restaurant after a month.
Irony: Given the hipster vibe of the place, a fitting term for the fact that one of the area’s best sandwich shops is located in a space formerly occupied by a Subway.
Person Street Pharmacy Cafe
702 N. Person St., Raleigh; 919-977-3805
“Is that the shrimp roll? It looks really good.”
This from a guy in the line that snaked behind me as I sat at one of the vintage counter stools, eating my lunch in the cafe that had been revived under new management late last year in the Person Street Pharmacy. Daniel Whitaker of Green Planet Catering had teamed up with veteran chef Patrick Cowden to create a modern spin on the soda fountain/lunch counter concept in the circa 1910 neighborhood pharmacy.
I replied over my shoulder that I was indeed enjoying the Carteret Catch Shrimp Roll, and it was very good. Cowden’s Southern take on a lobster roll, the sandwich features North Carolina shrimp tossed in a pickled okra remoulade, piled generously into a locally baked club roll.
The sweet potato salad I’d chosen as my side (sandwiches come with one; other options include macaroni salad, fruit salad, Zapp’s chips or a cup of homemade soup) was also first rate. So was the old school pharmacy cola, which is refreshingly less sugar-laden than Coke or Pepsi.
In fact, the Cafe’s beverage selection – ice cream floats, fizzes (here’s where you homesick New Yorkers can get your egg cream fix), bitters and soda, and taps dispensing local beer, wine, prosecco, even cold brew coffee – is almost as much a draw as the sandwiches. And by all means, help yourself to a few of the house-made pickles (the selection changes, and might include anything from spring onions to summer squash) in jars at the end of the counter.
The shrimp roll is just what the doctor ordered on a hot summer day, and the chicken salad is a popular respectful nod to tradition, made with Duke’s mayo, celery and pickle relish. But my favorite sandwich of all I’ve had so far is The Duck: succulent shreds of braised duck, napa slaw, pickled carrot, hoisin and a streak of Sanjay hot sauce, served on a lightly toasted baguette.
By “so far,” I mean that I’ve barely scratched the surface of the Cafe’s extensive and eclectic sandwich selection. I have yet to try the grass-fed burger with North Carolina prosciutto and homemade bread and butter pickles, or the pimento cheese with pickled green tomato and arugula on grilled sourdough, or the black-eyed pea cake with green harissa mayo and a pecan-golden raisin-pepper relish. And I still haven’t managed to arrive before 11 a.m. (when they stop serving breakfast) to try the JoCo biscuit (pulled pork, sunny side up egg, cilantro, chipotle ketchup and pickled red onion). But I will.
When I left after finishing my shrimp roll, I spotted the guy who had asked me what I was eating, sitting at one of the handful of tables in the dining area. Sure enough, he was tucking into the Carteret Catch, and as I walked by he smiled and gave me a big two thumbs up.