More impressively still, a few feet away, stood a counter, of three old-school beer casks–complete with a home-hacked system for drawing pints from these vessels. I don’t want to go down a beer rabbit hole in this post about sandwiches; suffice it to say that cask-conditioned beers, which are still literally alive with yeast, are highly prized by beer nerds like me. The place offers an ever-changing selection of three.

Then I discovered that the cheese counter had mostly disappeared, and that a sandwich counter stood in its place. At first glance, it looked simple and unremarkable–an afterthought in a beer temple. Then I noted that Bierkraft clearly took plenty of pride in its food offerings–lots of house-cured this and house-pickled that. A sign offered a list of sandwich-combo “suggestions,” plus a dizzying array of meats, cheeses, veggies, and condiments from which to construct your own.

bierkraft2Sandwich makers ply their nobel trade at Bierkraft.Along with a pint of cask-conditioned Heavy Seas Loose Cannon IPA, I ordered the pastrami-spice brisket, featuring house-made pastrami and saurkraut, plus arugula, tomato, onion, and grainy mustard. It was divine–each individual element crackled with flavor, yet came together in this balanced, ethereal whole. The bread was crusty and terrific. What may be the greatest bottle shop/beer bar in the nation now has a sandwich counter to match that level of excellence.

Also, I love the space – the way it works in the neighborhood. Hipster dads queue up to buy growlers of beer for an evening at home; a stressed-out lady barrels in to order a bunch of take-out sandwiches for an impromptu party breaking out in her apartment; at the communal tables that take up a third of the footprint, small groups of people–some highly stylish Japanese tourists; an older couple; two guys with lots of piercings and ink–huddle over growlers, blocks of local cheese, shared sandwiches.

Bierkraft is a wonderful, wonderful place to eat and drink–and I hope chef/entrepreneurs from around the country will visit it for inspiration.

More recently, I found myself in New Orleans to attend a board meeting of the Chef’s Collaborative. There’s a great restaurant there called Cochon, which applies traditional Cajun techniques to terrific local and regional ingredients. Cochon chef and co-owner Stephen Stryjewsk recently joined the board, and he and his partners were kind enough to host our gatherings — and cater our meals — at a space above the restaurant.

It was an amazing experience; but this post will focus on Butcher, Cochon’s side project: a hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop/low-key wine bar. Butcher essentially takes Cochon’s array of house-made charcuterie and offers it  to the masses between slices of bread. For lunch one day, Cochon treated us to sandwiches from Butcher: a superb example of the iconic NOLA sandwich, the muffaletta; terrific house-made roast beef; and more.  I couldn’t wait to check out the shop myself. On the day the board meeting ended, I had a few hours to kill before my flight. I gravitated to Butcher. The big doors were open, letting the mild, sunny Louisiana spring stream in. The place was laid-back and appealing: a charcuterie case, a sandwich counter, a small selection of wines, a few tables.

cochon butcherImmensely appealling: wine and sandwiches at Butcher.Photo courtesy of Rockdoggydog, via FlickrMy main goal was grab a sandwich to go for the plane. Honestly, after an immense and rich meal at Cochon the night before, I was in the mood for something simple and light. I had my eye on the “house smoked turkey” featuring watercress, grilled onion, lemon thyme, on pecan bread. But I ran into my fellow Collaborative board member Robin Schempp, a hardcore gourmand of the old school. She was scandalized that I planned to order the turkey. She would simply not hear of it. She informed me that Butcher was famous for its house-cured hot dogs, and its banh mi, a famed Vietnamese sandwich featuring various pork products and pickled veggies in a sliced baguette. (I note that the latter is no longer on the menu.)

With a sigh, I manned up and ordered the banh mi to go–and a glass of wine to enjoy with Robin in the afternoon sun. I didn’t want this Hemingway-esque figure to think I was the type of guy afraid to have a drink by daylight! The wine and the company were wonderful–again, like Bierkraft, the Butcher people have created a lovely place to have a bite and a glass of something delicious.

Later, on the plane, I gingerly opened the sandwich. As I feared, the pungent scent of pork-liver pate escaped into the air, enticing or outraging my neighbors. On first bite, I stopped caring. Chewy bread, earthy pork product, the tangy bite of pickled veggies. Heavenly.

I can envision an age when great sandwich shops dot our cityscapes, combining the skills of local farmers, butchers, and cooks, making their wares accessible to all.

Sigh. I love the sandwich trend. Readers, any interesting sandwich joints where you live?

For other accounts of the sandwich-shop trend, see the winter issue of Edible San Francisco. Or this piece in the NYT, which highlights a place I long to try: Saltie, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.