Patience Is Rewarded at Fozzie's Sandwich Emporium

Sep 15, 2010 at 4:00 am

The Juicy Lucy (or, for purists, Jucy Lucy) is a Twin Cities oddity, a cheeseburger with the cheese stuffed inside the patty rather than laid atop it. When you bite into it, the molten cheese gushes out of the burger's center, scalding your lips and tongue, shirt and slacks. Why the Juicy Lucy hasn't yet attained the universal presence of the Philly cheesesteak or Chicago deep-dish pizza I can't fathom. As far as I know, the first St. Louis restaurant to serve one is Fozzie's Sandwich Emporium.

As befits its stealthy status, Fozzie's Juicy Lucy looks no different from a run-of-the-mill burger: decent-size patty (not too thick, but with an ample circumference), lettuce, appealingly red tomato slices, caramelized onion, soft bun. Take a nervous first bite around its edges expecting an Old Faithful of cheese, and you might not encounter anything surprising. A bite or two later, though, it's there, viscous yellow American, Swiss or pepper-jack cheese shellacking the meat and the inside of your mouth.

Sure, you can order an ordinary burger here — or a variation like the "Greek Burger," which includes gyro meat and hummus, or "The Cardiac," topped with bacon, a hot dog, chili and cheese (no, really) — and be pleased. Even at well-done (I was never asked a temperature preference), the meat is tasty, and the accoutrements are generally excellent. But the Juicy Lucy gives your meal a dash of excitement. Danger, even. It's one of several small touches that make Fozzie's not simply new, but different.

Fozzie's opened in June at the corner of South Big Bend Boulevard and Wise Avenue in Richmond Heights. The small, stand-alone building is a complete overhaul of its former occupant, a dowdy Chinese restaurant, clean and bright but somewhat Spartan. All food is packaged to go, though there are a few tables inside the restaurant (on my visits these were occupied mostly by those waiting for takeout), as well as a patio. The most striking aspect of Fozzie's design is the garden located directly behind it. Here grow many of the vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen — another small, unexpected touch.

Mark Lucas runs Fozzie's. (The eponymous Fozzie is his fiancée's cat.) I last encountered Lucas' work at El Scorcho, an ill-advised, kitsch-laden "Tex-Mex" restaurant — emphasis on those quotation marks — in Maplewood, now shuttered. Fozzie's might as well be from another universe altogether, sincere rather than ironic, fun without trying to be funny (or, worse, hip), the focus on the food, not how the food is peddled.

The menu follows the "more is more" principle. There are twenty sandwiches, almost all of them overstuffed, as well as burgers, hot dogs and gyros (and salads, appetizer dips and milkshakes, too). The "B.A.B.L.T." might be the best example: It stands for bacon and bacon, lettuce and tomato and is made with a half-pound of bacon. There's also the "Big Bend Mafia," its garlic hoagie roll soaked with the juice from what must be at least eight ounces of thinly sliced and shredded Italian beef, with salsiccia, provolone cheese and spicy, chunky giardiniera. You can barely hold the sandwich in your hands, but you'll savor every last garlicky, meaty bite.

Even more impressive, though, are the subtle notes here and there. "The Big Cheese," which I believe is meant to be a grilled-cheese sandwich (more on that confusion in a bit), adds tangy oven-dried tomatoes to its combination of Gouda, mozzarella and Swiss cheeses. "The Gracey" already has the key component of a good falafel sandwich: good falafel, the chickpea fritters crisp on the outside, moist inside. To this it brings roasted peppers, grilled onions, baby spinach and a delicious artichoke-spinach spread.

True to its name, the "Classic" gyro doesn't mess with the basic formula: lamb (or chicken), vegetables and tzatziki spilling out of a pita. The lamb is sliced thicker than what you'd get at a true gyro shop, but it doesn't lack for that rich, lightly gamy flavor. The only disappointment I encountered among the sandwiches I tried was the most restrained: "The Pretzel," a small pretzel roll with a fat stack of sliced ham, pepper-jack cheese and (too much) honey mustard. It wasn't bad, just one-noted. Any sandwich benefits from a side of the housemade potato chips tossed with herbs and Parmesan cheese.

Like the burgers, the hot dogs range from the simple to the dressed (chili dog, Chicago-style) to the outrageous. This last category includes the "Hair of the Dog": a beer-battered hot dog topped with American cheese, chili, sliced jalapeños and cole slaw. (You can also add bacon. For once, I did not.) If this appeals to you, you won't be disappointed. If this repulses you, you might be surprised. The beer batter is thin and crisp, even under the slop of cheese and chili, and the jalapeños give the whole shebang an honest kick. It's fun, even if you can't finish it.

Would you rather have a salad than a beer-battered hot dog? Fozzie's salads are more than a token gesture: Silly name aside, the "Just Beet It" is downright sophisticated, with roasted beets, oven-dried peaches and spinach tossed with toasted walnuts and blue cheese in a sherry-walnut vinaigrette.

The kitchen looks to be the same size as the dining room, which is to say very small. When Fozzie's is busy — and it was on each of my visits — the orders tend to stack up, and there can be missteps. "The Big Cheese" I ordered had cheese warm enough to suggest an attempt at grilling but nowhere near the texture we associate with grilled cheese. While the kitchen does need to improve its efficiency (a wait of nearly a half-hour for two sandwiches was excessive), the backed-up orders are also proof that Fozzie's has already found a following among those seeking a local, fresher, more interesting alternative to the usual chain sandwich shops and burger joints.

Like the cheese hiding from your first few bites of a Juicy Lucy, it's worth the wait.