Photo courtesy Jason Perlow, via Flickr. In the late 1990s, if you wanted to go out for a skillfully cooked meal made from top-quality local/organic ingredients, you pretty much had to find to a cutting-edge white-tablecloth restaurant: say, Berkeley’s Chez Panisse or Manhattan’s Savoy.
At such places, you could expect excellent food sourced with top-quality ingredients from the surrounding foodshed–and a pretty steep check. And while such restaurants remain a vital part of the scene and undeniably contribute to the food movement, they don’t do much to dispel the notion that caring about where your food comes from is an elite preoccupation.
Since then, we’ve seen two major economic downturns, and an influx of bright young people into both farming and kitchen work. All of that new energy, and the harsh reality of wealth destruction, has given rise to a trend that I love: the ascent of accessibly priced eateries that utilize carefully sourced ingredients prepared by skilled and creative cooks.
To be fair, Chez Panisse and Savoy have contributed to this trend, too. Years ago, Chez Panisse opened an upstairs cafe, where the food is significantly cheaper (though still not exactly inexpensive) than it is in the restaurant. And back in 2007–while the housing bubble was still puffing up–Savoy chef/owner Peter Hoffman presciently opened Back Forty, which he calls “a burger joint, but a high-quality and responsibly sourced one.” Entrees are priced about a third lower than ones at Savoy.
But in recent travels, where I’ve seen the affordable/excellent/local trend bubble up most impressively is in the sphere of the humble sandwich. In cities across the nation, chefs–typically young ones–are forsaking the white tablecloth, the sommelier, the million-dollar investors, the ruinous lease, and the expense-account clientele. Instead, they’re slinging cold cuts, cheese, and condiments between two slices from neighborhood holes in the wall.
And while their sandwiches aren’t cheap by fast-food standards, they pack a whole lot of culinary skill and ingredient quality into a relatively accessible price.
For me, they’re making a long-time dream start to come true: that everyday fare in the United States not be brutally bad. The stuff of weekday lunches–including a sandwich from a neighborhood joint–can and should be magnificent. Everyday food is fabulous in most of Mexico, and much of Europe. And it can be here, too. Now, my sandwich-making heroes (not to be confused with hero sandwiches) are making it happen.
I first got hip to the possibilities of the sandwich shop a few years ago in Chapel Hill, when I stumbled upon Sandwhich, nestled in a courtyard near the University of North Carolina campus. Co-owner and chef Hich Elbetri made his bones as a cook working in Danny Mayer’s New York City restaurant empire. From his Chapel Hill perch, Hich has estabished himself as a master of proportion: he knows how to put the right ingredients together in the right ratios. I haven’t had one for months, but I remain haunted by his “outrageous BLT,” which balances smoky, crisp artisanal bacon, sweet local tomatoes, and the sharp sting of fresh jalepeno pepper. Such treasures dot the menu. Hich specializes in blunt, powerful flavors that harmonize without losing their distinctiveness.
In recent travels, two other sandwich joints have particularly impressed me.
Photo courtesy iandavid via FlickrThe first is Bierkraft, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood. Bierkraft has been around a while. It opened when I lived in Brooklyn back in the early 2000s. At first it was known for its encyclopedic bottled-beer selection. Then it added a terrific cheese counter, and began to offer a variety of carefully curated products, from chocolate to coffee beans and bread. And that’s pretty much where it was when I left New York in 2004.
When I went back for the first time late last year, the place was transformed. It still had its vast wall of beer-stocked fridges, featuring craft brews from across the country and globe. But now, even more impressively, in the back of the shop, stood a complex of kegs and taps, offering pints drawn from the northeast region’s thriving craft-brew scene.