The sandwich can be, should be, and in its proper incarnation is, the perfect meal. For breakfast there is nothing better than an egg sandwich (preferably with red onion, hot sauce, cilantro and cheddar cheese). Whoever invented the ice cream sandwich deserves a spot in the food hall of fame. The barbecue sandwich, the BLT, the grilled cheese--who could live without them? In my mind, there's no doubt, though, that the king of sandwiches is the deli hero.
To be honest, I have no idea, but I would guess that the sale of the humble sandwich makes up a billion-dollar industry in this country. Much of those sales are concentrated in the Northeast, where most of the population must subsist on heroes, otherwise I have no idea how the two delis on every block stay in business.
Alas, here in the Triangle we have no such glut of delis, and most of the sandwiches available are either of the egg salad on white bread variety or the grapes in the chicken salad, overpriced with a hint of goat cheese variety. It's true that we have an ever-growing number of corporate chain "delis" and "cafes" that turn out sandwiches of varying quality, but it is my opinion that dining, even when it comes to ordering something to-go from a counter, should have a smidge of soul, preferably the type that hasn't been market tested.
On this front the Triangle is both gaining and losing ground. Horowitz Deli in Cary, the area's only kosher deli, recently closed its doors to be replaced by an Italian restaurant. I had heard that Horowitz made a fantastic liverwurst sandwich, but alas, I never had the chance to find out.
Raleigh's The Village Deli in Cameron Village does a fairly decent rendition of the deli sub, and their Village Classic sub with ham, proscuittini, capacollo, salami and pepperoni would satisfy my lust for cold cuts any day. Their choice of cheeses is a little limited (Swiss, provolone, American or Cheddar), and the place doesn't have all the trappings of an authentic deli--a true deli is supposed to exist as much to sell sliced cold cuts and cheeses by the pound as to dole out lunch in a bag, and it is obvious that this place is geared toward the latter function. I miss the high glass counter with the meats behind, and the jaunty deli guys who slice stuff to order.
The place that has all this stuff and more is J&J's Deli in the Timberlyne shopping center in Chapel Hill, the long unsung hero (pun not intended--really) of Chapel Hill sandwich lovers. This place is the real deal, a true Long Island-style deli, with sandwiches sliced to order, suspicious-looking sides in the deli case, The New York Times on sale, and cheap, good sandwiches. This is authentic New York right down to the hand-written sandwich specials on fluorescent construction paper cut into the shape of a cartoon "BAM!" and stuck to the side of the deli case with tape.
If you get there early enough, you can get one of the best bagels in town, flown in specially. But the real draw for me are the low-brow but immensely satisfying subs. When I first moved to New York in high school, a girl took me down the hill from my school to the deli and ordered a turkey hero with lettuce, Muenster cheese, mayonnaise and salt and pepper that changed my outlook on lunch forever. That has been the sandwich I order at almost every deli ever since, and J&J's makes one that tastes just like that first one I had.
Around this time last year though, a deli opened in Meadowmont in Chapel Hill that gave me reason to switch sandwich loyalties. La Russa's Italian Deli wins the award in my book for best sandwich ever. This is due mainly to the very high quality of their ingredients, as well as nice touches like a variety of house-made aioli. This place is family run, and I'm talking Daughter takes your order, Mom makes your sandwich, and Dad brings it to your table kind of family run. My sandwich of choice at La Russa's is salami or soprasatta with fresh mozzarella, lettuce, tomato and garlic aioli. Their special sub called The Soprano, with ham, Genoa salami, capacollo, pepperoni, mortadella and provolone, is also fantastic, as is their chef's salad with cold cuts and house dressing.
They also serve a variety of lunch and dinner entrees and have a decent dinner crowd in the modest dining room (they close at 8 though, so get there early). On nice days the patio, which borders a huge lawn, is a really good place to sit, and the decent wine list (great for a deli), as well as pastas and entrees to-go from the freezer, help to make it about as versatile as a neighborhood restaurant can get.
La Russa's one drawback is that it isn't cheap. In fact, the first time I went I was shocked that it was possible to spend $15 on a sandwich (to be fair, a sandwich that could easily feed two people), and was grumpy enough about it to imagine that I might not come back. Since then though, I have had the craving and have found myself back there week after week, happy to shell out for my salami and mozzarella fix.
So while some of us mourn the loss of a good liverwurst in Cary, others of us can celebrate the coming of great soprasatta and fresh mozzarella in Chapel Hill. The moral is simple though: Support your local sandwich maker. There are economies all over the country that are driven in part by mom and pop delis and the workforces they feed. In fact, this column was brought to you in part by a turkey hero with Muenster cheese, lettuce, mayonnaise and salt and pepper.