Soon even the most isolated American will be only a brief car ride from a burrito, panini or bowl of noodles — or all three.
They keep opening, these fast-casual restaurants. Soon even the most isolated American will be only a brief car ride from a burrito, panini or bowl of noodles — or all three. How does a new entry into this crowded field stand out? It is easy, of course, when your concept is new, but such ideas are rare. More likely, your restaurant is one more variation of a joint selling panini, burritos or bowls of noodles.
Two sandwich shops new to St. Louis, one an out-of-state chain and the other an outstate import, have very different answers to this challenge.
If any area of town has reached its restaurant saturation point, it must be the Delmar Loop, yet new restaurants continue to open — I can't remember a time when I visited more new eateries here, and not merely because my office overlooks the Loop, and I become lazier with each passing day.
Snarf's joined the fold in late September, the second attempt for the Boulder, Colorado-based chain to establish a foothold in St. Louis. (Its previous incarnation was in Clayton at the beginning of last decade.) The space is brightly colored but spare. Even the logo, a drawing of three people holding sandwiches, is charmingly amateur. If you didn't already know, you might not guess Snarf's is a chain.
At first glance the menu isn't very distinctive. There are basic sandwiches (various cold cuts, tuna and chicken salad, meatballs and a hot dog) and "specialty" sandwiches, all of them toasted. The specialty sandwiches might not seem very special to diners used to the test-marketed and branded offerings of, say, Saint Louis Bread Co.: pastrami, beef brisket, steak and provolone. Yet here Snarf's begins to separate itself from the competition.
Consider the steak and provolone sandwich. This isn't a cheesesteak, per se. Instead, it brings bite-size pieces of tender steak that, by all appearances, have been cooked only a shade past medium. The result is a truly meaty flavor accented by the cheese and (in my case) Snarf's signature blend of hot peppers, moderately spicy and quite piquant.
The smoked brisket is pretty good barbecue — certainly more tender and flavorful than what you'll find at many barbecue joints in town. It is served in a sauce more tangy than sweet. There is a lot of this sauce on the sandwich, maybe too much. Grab a few extra napkins.
The cold-cut sandwiches are solid. I'm not sure anything made the pastrami "special," but it brings a generous serving of meat, topped with Swiss cheese. The Italian sandwich provides a sensibly porky combination of salami, pepperoni, capicola and mortadella, with provolone.
The eggplant-Parmesan sandwich was the surprise standout. The eggplant is sliced lengthwise and very thin, breaded and fried, topped with mozzarella for its run through the toaster, then finished with marinara sauce. The result is as good as any eggplant Parmesan I've had in town — traditional, I mean, not sandwich form.
This is indicative of Snarf's as a whole. There are no bells and whistles, no clever names. The steak and provolone, the beef brisket, the eggplant Parmesan: These are simply very good sandwiches, notable not because they are new, but because the shop makes the extra effort to make them better.
A reliable rule of restaurant criticism: A place that includes "gourmet" in its name likely isn't. However, the logo for Pickleman's Gourmet Café is, in fact, a giant pickle, which suggests the restaurant's creators are aware of the irony. Pickleman's certainly isn't gourmet, but it is a reliable concept (toasted sandwiches, again) in a killer location: smack-dab in the middle of Saint Louis University. On my visits, be-hoodied and trackpantsed students so thronged the space that the school should just go ahead and include it on the campus map.
The first Pickleman's opened in 2005 in Columbia. There's now a second Columbia location, as well as an outpost in Springfield. The St. Louis outpost opened this fall on Laclede Avenue, about halfway between South Grand Boulevard and Vandeventer Avenue. The large space lacks much character but is open and bright.
As at Snarf's, the menu is fairly straightforward, with cold-cut sandwiches — including an Italian version more or less identical to Snarf's — as well as a few more-ambitious offerings. The latter group includes several variations on a chicken sandwich, one with breast-meat strips tossed in tangy, mildly spicy Buffalo-wing sauce with blue cheese, provolone and ranch dressing. The chipotle chicken sandwich lacks the smoky, spicy qualities usually associated with the Mexican mainstay. The menu's fine print explains this: The chicken is tossed in a chipotle-ranch sauce.
The best sandwich I tried was the Italian beef: thinly sliced beef soaked in jus (with additional jus on the side for dipping; fair warning: dipping adds a definite salty edge to the sandwich) and topped with hot peppers.
In addition to sandwiches, salads and soup, Pickleman's offers pizza. The crust is St. Louis thin; the cheese is a blend — unspecified on the menu, though it tastes like a mix of mozzarella and provolone. The pizza is "baked" by sending it through the sandwich toaster multiple times to melt the cheese and heat up the crust and toppings. The result is perfunctory — the bland crust kills the flavor of the sauce and the cheese, and the seasoning (oregano, mostly) is applied with too heavy a hand — but it'll do in a pinch. For a restaurant aimed at the college crowd — and open late to accommodate their hours — its inclusion on the menu (and the menu as a whole, for that matter) is hard to fault.