THE LOWLY SANDWICH may not be considered food of culinary consequence -- a last resort for brown bags and late-night snacks. Indeed, sliced meats, cheeses and edifying roughage loaded between two pieces of bread usually inspire little comment other than, "It's good."
Sometime in the 1930s, though, in the city of Philadelphia, someone had the bright idea to shave off some roast beef, layer it between two halves of an oblong Italian roll, top it with some melted provolone cheese and sprinkle the whole with grilled onion rings. Thus was the Philly cheesesteak born, and suddenly a sandwich was more than a convenience: it was transformed into an emblem of an entire city, a slice of culture that varied from town to town and culminated in our national passion, the hamburger.
Enter the sandwich as cuisine.
Sandwich fare, then as now, appeared on the menus of some of America's most elite restaurants; but nowhere was the emerging art form more expertly executed than in the humble deli and small shop. Without the aid of extravagant presentation, the primary concern was to have ingredients of outstanding quality: lean meat that was tender and tasty, and a wide variety of aged cheeses and garden fresh slices of ripe tomato, crisp lettuce and rings of sweet onion. Each place developed its own signature accent: a zesty vinaigrette, fresh-baked bread, diced pepperoncini or homemade "special" sauces.
Amidst the variety and idiosyncratic interpretation there was only one prevailing bit of wisdom: any way you sliced it, all the best "sub" sandwiches resided on the East Coast. But times have indeed changed, and here at the close of the century it's time to set the record straight. Great, East Coast-style subs have fulfilled their manifest destiny with outposts right here in Tucson, Arizona.
Jersey Joe's, located right across the street from Arizona Stadium, was the first entrepreneur to win our hearts with a piece of the East in the West; but close on his heels is East Coast Super Subs, which opened recently just up the street at Sixth Street and Campbell Avenue. And the competition has yielded mouthwatering possibilities.
EC Super Subs has the advantage of spacious parking to the rear of the building, no small amenity when you consider the steady flow of traffic in and around the UA periphery. In addition, EC has a comfortable, sit-down dining area with ample space amidst a homey setting of wood floors, cheery windows and several small rooms. The walls are generously decorated with movie and sports posters, with the dominant theme being Robert De Niro-type films and East Coast sports teams. It's comfortable and casual, and the promise of a beer and wine license in the near future certainly won't hurt.
A full sandwich here is 16 inches of sandwich splendor ($7.75-$11.25); and an 8-inch half is certainly a full meal for one person ($3.95-$5.75). Don't bother coming in unless you're seriously hungry, because in addition to the extra inches, EC piles on toppings like it's your last meal.
Our first stop had to be the famous cheesesteak. If EC was going to lay claim to authenticity, it all hinged on this item. Owner Keith McNesby will not disappoint Philly transplants.
The fresh-baked bread is soft and yeasty, the perfect bed for a luminous pile of shaved roast beef, nicely seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic. On top, the requisite mound of golden, sautéed onion rings imparted a gentle sweetness under a blanket of melted provolone. So far so good. The masterstroke to the sandwich, however, is a zesty red-chile sauce that provides a remarkable balance of piquant, tangy and sweet. Every bite was delightful.
EC offers several cheesesteak variations, including a Broad St. Bully super cheesesteak, and pepper, mushroom, bacon and pizza styles. Given the quality of the basic version, we're of the opinion you can't have too many cheesesteaks on the menu, an opinion EC's customers seem to second.
Irish subs are another specialty here, a sub developed by McNesby's father. Ham and turkey supplant beef as the distinguishing feature of these hot subs, which are served on the same delicious bread and feature many of the same cheeses and vegetables. This grilled sandwich of sliced ham, melted cheddar, sweet onions and a slather of honey mustard was a scrumptious diversion. A side of curly cheese fries (with decidedly non-Irish jalapeños, $1.95) was a decadent but thoroughly enjoyable accompaniment.
A hot veggie sub was also a winner, filled with plenty of melted provolone and a melange of grilled onions, mushrooms and bell-pepper strips. The same fiery-sweet red chile sauce could be detected here, to luscious effect.
Tortilla wraps, soup, fried vegetables, soft pretzels and an assortment of chicken dishes round out EC's menu, all served by a friendly and helpful staff. In short, East Coast is a great place to eat or hang out, a winning combination for a university-area eatery.
ON THE OPPOSITE side of the UA campus is Sparky's, which also specializes in subs. This time, though, the influence is West Coast: in particular, Spokane, Washington, where owner Mike Spark's family owns four shops. In keeping with Sparky's trademark fire-station motif, the Tucson store has been dubbed Station 5. The sandwiches are all nicknamed for numbered engines, squads and ladders, as well as house specialties like the backdraft, the haz-mat and the response. T-shirts from fire departments spanning the country hang from the ceiling, and fireman's gear is set in displays around the tiny space. Tables are laminated with local newspaper stories of fires and fire department actions, which make compelling if at times unappetizing reading.
Sparky's subs (12 inches or 6) are primarily served cold, with an abundance of fresh and tasty ingredients. A Ladder 1 roast beef sub was wonderful ($3.35, half), with loads of tender, thin sliced beef served on a French roll with provolone, oil and vinegar, lettuce, tomato, onions and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. It never ceases to amaze that the simplest of ingredients can conspire to create the most extravagant tastes.
Also of merit were the firehouse special of turkey and bacon ($5.89, full) and a junior firefighter turkey. The kid's meal ($2.29) is a generous, 6-inch sandwich that comes with chips, small drink, fire hat and goodies. While the sandwich was quite good, I can't attest to the rest of the meal, as someone forgot to pack the remaining items into my to-go order.
The all-cheese Squad 1 ($4.99, full) was a cheese lover's paradise, amply stacked with provolone, Swiss, American, pepper and cream cheese, along with a smattering of shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and onions.
Sparky's may not have that east-of-the-Mississippi pizzazz, but they definitely serve a respectable sandwich, and one that will please a wide variety people.
Even outside of these two relative newcomers, the sandwich is attaining new heights on the Tucson cityscape. Whether it's the chaos of the turnpike or the blare of sirens that whets your appetite, East Coast Super Subs and Sparky's stand by, ready to respond at your command.
East Coast Super Subs. 1820 E. Sixth St. 882-4005. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. V, MC. Menu items $1.25- $10.25. Sparky's Subs. 2721 E. Speedway Blvd. 881-7827. Open 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. V, MC, checks. Menu items: $1.25-$6.70.