It started as a lament among friends: Why is it so hard to find a decent French dip in town? You can get just about anything in south city — falafel, pho, hot dogs, lumpia —but a proper roast beef sandwich, served au jus? That's more elusive.
French dips weren't the only thing on the minds of business partners Fred Hessel, Jeff McGraw and Byron Smith when they got together for beers following a softball game in Tower Grove Park last June. As the three friends got to talking, they realized that south city, and particularly the Morganford business district, was lacking more than just roast beef. It needed a spot for high quality sandwiches — a place where neighbors could grab a gourmet ham and cheese and a couple of beers and head across the way to enjoy a picnic in the park.
They knew just how to fill this gap. Hessel owned a vacant Morganford storefront and was looking for a tenant; Smith, a chef whose resume includes Kitchen K, the Science Center and L'Ecole Culinaire, needed a new gig. They enlisted the help of their friend Thomas Crone (a partner in the Tick Tock Tavern and, full disclosure, a regular RFT contributor who has since left the Eat Sandwiches partnership), and got to work converting Hessel's building into the fast-casual sandwich emporium of their dreams, Eat Sandwiches.
It took several months, but the foursome labored tirelessly, renovating the original Local Harvest Grocery location into the sleek, modern space it is today. Eat Sandwiches is a bright and inviting mix of stark white and grey paint and warm exposed brick. A repurposed church pew runs the entire length of the side wall and provides banquette seating for the restaurant's handful of tables. Paintings depicting various St. Louis buildings and locales hang on the walls, as does a wire, three-dimensional herb garden that spells out "Eat." The restaurant's coziest feature is its tiny, succulent-filled, Morganford-facing window seat nook, where guests can nosh and gaze out upon passers-by.
Smith, oftentimes a one-man show, cranks out Eat Sandwiches' wares from the restaurant's open prep area. The menu is small, with just about ten sandwiches offered on a daily basis, but what it lacks in breadth it makes up for in thoughtful details. Consider the meatloaf sandwich, which, Smith explains, is his answer to the difficult-to-eat meatball sub. "I love meatball sandwiches, but the meat always goes flying out the back," he regularly tells first-time patrons. His solution was to take a classic Italian herb-flecked pork and beef meatball mixture, fashion it into miniature, rectangular shaped loaves, and place it flat atop crusty, Vitale's Italian bread. Juicy, oven-roasted tomatoes stand in for tomato sauce, another detail that ratchets down the sloppiness factor. Molten mozzarella cheese finishes this hearty sandwich, which would be safe to enjoy even if outfitted in a white linen suit.
Though it's not advertised, Eat Sandwiches almost always offers a haute version of a turkey melt. The tender, house-smoked bird is sliced into thick hunks and layered with hefty cuts of perfectly cooked bacon. Spice from the chipotle aioli mingles with the smoky meat to create a deep warm flavor that's freshened by sliced tomatoes and crisp lettuce.
If the turkey sandwich is elevated, the ham and cheese is beatified. Layers upon layers of smoked Miller ham are smothered in creamy Ludwig Farmstead Sangamon cheese from local Fox River Dairy, while pungent Dijon mustard and rye bread evoke the sauerkraut-caraway punch of a Reuben. The layers of flavor in such a humble sandwich are stunning.
Delicate, teriyaki-marinated tofu on crusty French bread calls to mind pate on a Vietnamese bánh mì. Crisp Napa cabbage slaw, macerated in vinegar and red chili, serves as Eat Sandwiches' answer to kimchi. Fiery, sweet and garlicky, this meatless offering could convert even the most die-hard carnivore to the veggie side.
I was not as thrilled by the tuna sandwich. Large flakes of tuna steak are mixed with hardboiled eggs and mayonnaise, but the consistency is not saucy enough to be a tuna salad. Granted, it's not advertised as such; perhaps my desire for a heavier dressing or brighter accoutrements came from habit, or a desire to cover up the tuna's fishy taste.
Eat Sandwiches' signature dish, a French dip simply called "the Dip," fared much better. House-roasted ribeye is shaved paper-thin, then firmly packed onto crusty bread, with the accompanying au jus sopping into every crevice like a sponge. Raw red onions, Prairie Breeze cheddar cheese and horseradish mayonnaise give punch to this idealized form of the classic.
However, it's still not the best that Eat Sandwiches has to offer — that honor goes to the pork sandwich. If you did a blind tasting of this mouthwatering, citrus-braised meat, you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for a dish of mild, Indian-style vindaloo. The meat is more succulent than the best pulled pork and is wrapped in the warmth of cumin-forward spices. The meat sops up the seasonings and citrus-infused cooking jus, while fresh cilantro and pickled onions cut through the spice and rendered fat. This sandwich is a masterpiece.
Eat Sandwiches offers homemade creamy dill potato salad and Mediterranean pasta salad as sides, as well as the usual bagged chips you'd expect from a casual takeout spot. They'll be happy if you add one to your order, but they are banking on package beer sales to be the real draw. Currently, the self-service refrigerator is stocked with a good selection of local brews to grab and go, though the plan is to sell logoed coolers so that patrons can pack up their beers and sandwiches and walk to Tower Grove Park.
It's a great idea, and Eat Sandwiches as a whole seems divinely inspired: the kind of low-key shop that fills a niche south city didn't even realize it was missing. With that glorious pork sandwich fresh in my mind, I find it hard to believe it took so long for someone to figure out exactly what we were craving. I thank my lucky stars that the folks behind Eat Sandwiches finally did.