We have reached the sandwich stage of the pandemic, perhaps kicked off by a couple of meaty openings: Lucinda’s Deli in Alamo Square started rolling sweet mortadella to walk to the park with your pit bull in May; and Palm City Wines, in the Outer Sunset, started packing Philly-style hoagies to romance on the beach just the month before. Both new spots have been blowing up, selling out of their limited quantities daily. Everyone’s always home. And done with cooking. And apparently hungry for sandwiches.
Shortly after opening, sandwich obsessives started making comparisons. Could these new contenders be … as good as Merigan? Merigan Sub Shop, of course, was the San Francisco sandwich authority for several years running, filling a void in the city with East Coast–style parm and meatballs.
Sadly, Merigan closed a few years back. These two new shops are totally different personalities, each putting out their own flavor combinations. But thanks to the pandemic, big sandwiches are back in a big way.
Lucinda’s Deli is serving up meat-packed sandwiches from the former Alamo Square Deli, just steps from that quintessential SF park with its border of Painted Ladies. Ryan Chinchilla was most recently the chef at nearby cocktail bar Horsefeather and lived in the neighborhood for five years, where he liked to grab a coffee and a sandwich and take his pit bull to the green. (Her name is Lucy, or in fancy Italian sub circles, Lucinda.) His sandwich shop was already in the works well before the pandemic, Chinchilla says, as he was burnt out from the grind of service and thought sandwiches just sounded fun.
“I’m not like some crazy sandwich head,” the chef says. “This wasn’t my lifelong vision … But it just made sense. And now that this thing happened with corona, like wow, it couldn’t have been more perfect of a business model.”
Lucinda’s is putting out simple sandwiches layered with a few chef touches. Bay Area born and raised, Chinchilla doesn’t worship any specific regional sandwich, which leaves him free to switch it up. He’s stacking Boar’s Head meat on Acme ciabatta rolls, what we might call the basics, but playing with spreads and toppings, sweet and salty flavors, and crunchy textures in each bite.
The mortadella has a triple punch of tapenade, bagna cauda mayo, and hot pepper chili relish, with thinly sliced red onion and peppery arugula. The roast beef hits sweet and sour with blue cheese mayo and a Thai-inspired barbecue sauce, and doubles up on pickled onions and crispy onions.
Just blocks from Ocean Beach, Palm City Wines was intended to be a natural wine shop with cheese and charcuterie until the pandemic inspired a big sandwich pivot. Husband-and-wife team Dennis Cantwell and Monica Wong are from approachable but upscale spots like Nopa, Zuni, and A16, but both Cantwell and chef Melissa McGrath grew up in Philly, and they always wanted to do a hoagie night. Once the city shut down, the hoagies became a big deal. They’ve been featured in the SF Chronicle, popularized by food nerd Kenji Lopez-Alt, and now they’re selling out every day.
Just don’t call them sandwiches. “It’s not a sandwich, it’s a hoagie,” Cantwell insists, demanding use of the regional term. Palm City offers a variety of iconic Philly hoagies, not often seen here in the Bay: the Italian American bundles up mortadella, finocchiona, mozzarella, and parmesan with peppery arugula and nduja mayo (“like a spicy pepperoni mayo”). The roast pork, inspired by John’s in Philly, packs in garlicky pork, bitter broccoli rabe, and toma cheese.
Cantwell is just as particular about bread as he is about terminology: Palm City hoagies require a long seeded roll that can take a lot of sauce and still hold a perfect U-shape. When he couldn’t find exactly what he wanted, he convinced Pacifica’s Rosalind Bakery to make a custom roll. Starting at $16, these hoagies are not cheap, but they star local ingredients and are roughly “the size of your forearm.”
“The West Coast has some of the best food in America, if not the world,” says Cantwell. “But the East Coast just does sandwiches better.” He’s talking big sandwich game, adding: “We’re planning to be the premier westernmost hoagie destination in the country.” Calm down, it’s a joke — the shop is seven blocks to the beach.
Given the the big sandwich hype, Eater SF also took the opportunity to check in with Liza Shaw of the late, great Merigan Sub Shop. Shaw has left the city, is now living in Petaluma, and recently fled the wildfires, taking shelter with her family in Maine. What does she make of SF’s pandemic sub boom?
“I’m so grateful to not have a restaurant right now,” she says. She’s been consulting on various restaurants and projects, and doesn’t plan to reboot Merigan anytime soon. “But I’m also impressed and inspired by these chefs, and happy that people are paying attention to sandwiches.”
The key differentiator between what we see now and Merigan is that Shaw was doing whole-animal butchery, breaking down pigs once a week, grinding her own meatballs, and making her own pickles. It was next-level care about ingredients, and a big effort for a low-cost menu item. “Nobody smart would do that!” she says. “But if I had to do again, I wouldn’t do it any differently.” Back when she opened, she got so much grief for charging $13 for a chicken parm, a price that now seems like a bargain. We might have come a long way in the past few years, if Palm City can charge $17 for a custom roll from a local bakery. Or maybe Merigan was a sandwich master before its time.
Shaw is and isn’t surprised by big sandwiches making a big comeback in 2020. She does point out that all of the city’s downtown sandwich shops lost their lunch business, as evidenced with the demise of Specialty’s, known for catering and cookies, and the long temporary closure of the Sentinel, another big sandwich institution. But out in the neighborhoods, sandwiches do make the perfect takeout item. “You don’t need a fork — although any sandwich that doesn’t require a napkin is not worth my time,” Shaw says.
“And sandwiches can be nostalgic for people,” Shaw says, sounding wistful herself. “It’s a platform with a lot of creativity, when chefs put love and care into it.”