No Matter How U Slice It: The U provides much-needed sandwich sustenance to midtown — even in the wee hours

The U

3108 Olive Street; 314-371-1718.
Hours: 11 a.m.-3:30 a.m. Mon.-Sat. (Closed Sun.)

The U
Hot Italian beef...$6.75
Chicken ranch club...$6.95
Fries (large)...$1.95

God knows how I survived my first two years of college. And I don't mean surviving the usual existential doubts that befall English majors. You know: "Who am I? What is the meaning of life? Why did I buy a box of Trojans when the health clinic gives them out for free and I have no use for them anyway?"

And I don't mean surviving the usual existential threats that befall all college students. You know: "I wonder if it's a good idea to mix this $10 plastic jug of vodka with Sprite."

(It's not.)

No, I mean survival on a basic sustenance level. I didn't gain the Freshman Fifteen or even the Freshman Five. Quite the opposite, in fact. By the beginning of my sophomore year, I had dropped 35 pounds that I hadn't needed to lose.

Now this was partly due to a summer spent in Ocean City, Maryland, during which I subsisted mainly on cornbread scavenged from the rotisserie-chicken dinners sold at the deli where I worked. But even before then I was shedding pounds like a starlet because the food at my college was simply, unrelentingly godawful: watery deli meat stacked high between slices of stale bread, pizza iridescent with congealed grease, mushy pasta in thin, sugar-sweet tomato sauce.

There was one exception: ice cream from the university's own dairy. (The barns were below my dorm room's window. Stories of what frat pledges had to do with the animals were legion. And did those barns smell awesome once the weather turned hot and humid? Yes. Yes, they did.) But the ice cream was so rich that I couldn't eat more than a few spoonfuls without becoming violently ill.

So I nibbled at my waterlogged sandwiches and drank a lot of coffee and read dour mid-twentieth-century European literature and wrote crappy poems and lusted after a girl who — I would learn later — not only wasn't interested in me but also thought I was gay.

Would I have been a less miserable unsexed English major had something like The U opened near my college? OK, probably not. But I wouldn't have lost so much weight.

The U opened in April just east of the intersection of Olive Street and Compton Avenue in midtown, in the same complex that houses Pappy's Smokehouse and the Buffalo Brewing Co. The name is a natural choice, given the restaurant's proximity to the Saint Louis University campus, and the sandwich-intensive menu has a course-catalog motif: The cheesesteak is "BEF101," the chicken Parmesan sandwich is "CHK301" and so on; fries and other sides are listed as "Extra Curricular Activities." I didn't spot the famous poster of John Belushi in his "College" sweatshirt, but it's there in spirit.

Sandwiches are served hot between slices of thick bread — the same bread for each kind of sandwich — that has been basted with garlic butter and lightly toasted on a flattop grill. The bread is pretty good in its own right and works well with most (though not all) of the sandwiches.

My favorite is the "U" Ben. (This is "BEF501," which I guess makes it a graduate-level sandwich.) Except for the substitution of the U's bread for rye bread, this is a traditional reuben: shaved corned beef with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and thousand-island dressing. The elements are in excellent balance here. The corned beef is the prominent flavor, but doesn't stifle the sauerkraut's tartness, while the melted cheese and the dressing provide enough texture without turning the sandwich into a gloppy mess.

The hot Italian beef sandwich is less like an Italian cold-cut sandwich than an Italian-American take on the cheesesteak. On the flattop sliced beef is mixed with provolone, green and banana peppers and a spicy, vinegar-tart giardiniera sauce. The whole shebang is then dipped in jus, giving the sandwich an additional savory note — but also soaking through the bread. It's tasty, though, and very spicy.

Both the barbecue bacon cheddar and chicken ranch club sandwiches seem ideally suited to the college student (not to mention the rest of us) seeking to soak up some of that nasty hangover. Both include fried onion strings, which lose some of their crispness on account of the two sandwiches' respective sauces but still provide a nice crunch and a dose of deep-fried indulgence.

The barbecue bacon cheddar combines those onion strings with sliced beef, cheddar cheese, bacon, tomato and a very good, tangy barbecue sauce. The chicken ranch club offers even more: chopped chicken, provolone, bacon, mushroom, lettuce, tomato, onion strings and "five peppercorn" ranch dressing. Though I'm not a big fan of ranch dressing on sandwiches, the peppery note gave this version a welcome depth.

The cheesesteak falls a little short of the Cheesesteak Quest ideal that I found a few weeks ago at 9th Street Deli (see "Cheesesteak Quest," May 22, 2008), and not only because it's served on the U's bread. Thrown into the mix besides the steak, provolone and onions are mushrooms, banana peppers, lettuce, tomato and — gack — mayo. Still, on its own merits, it's a decent sandwich, though I wished there were more steak and cheese and fewer peppers.

The U has two sandwiches geared toward vegetarians, and I stupidly ordered the one with tofu. Look: I don't hate tofu. I've had tofu in place of meat in certain dishes and liked, if not loved it, and once or twice I've had fried tofu that was awesome. But in this sandwich the tofu — served with Napa cabbage, green onion, red pepper and provolone in a sesame-orange vinaigrette — was flavorless, and its texture was only slightly more solid than the melted cheese. The sesame-orange vinaigrette didn't pack much punch.

Both chili and a soup of the day are available. The chili has the sweetness of canned tomato sauce and not much chili-powder flavor, let alone heat. Sides include the aforementioned onion strings and crisp, tasty French fries. You can order the fries topped with cheese or chili and cheese or bacon and ranch dressing. This seems an appropriate moment to mention that the U is open until 3:30 a.m., a godsend in a town where most places close in time for Leno's monologue and ideal for the bar-hopping college student (and the rest of us).

If you've been bar-hopping and looking to get laid, I'd skip the chili cheese fries.

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