| Uptown Deli & Grill |
612 McCullough Ave.
Price Range: $4.25-$7.49
It’s tough to develop a serious restaurant from the ground up these days. Not only are construction costs likely to mount into the millions, but there are the at-times insurmountable-seeming rules and regulations of federal, state, and local governments to cope with — all that before the joys of bucking the bankers begins. Given the failure rate of first-time restaurateurs, it’s a miracle that the industry hasn’t become even more dependent on deep-pocket chains.
The mom ’n’ pop sandwich shop is a different animal to a degree. Slipping into a storefront in an established shopping center near good noontime traffic is a much-less-expensive endeavor, counting on substantial take-away means less required square footage to begin with, and a limited menu implies an equally limited kitchen — and consequently no expensive vent hoods with fire-suppression systems … you get the picture. The issue now is to distinguish oneself from the Quizno’s and Subways of the world.
|Platefuls of sandwich, such as the “Bourbon St. Muffelata” `sic`, are Uptown Deli’s stock and trade, but our critic recommends the soups.|
Uptown Deli & Grill, which shares a building with a Sherwin Williams paint store, has elected to do this in three ways: name, décor, and menu. First the name: Uptown is not a deli in the traditional sense (there are no cold cuts, cheeses, and other take-away items for sale), and it is certainly not a grill despite a battery of panini machines and an electric range. (The casual use of the term “grill” is by no means exclusive to Uptown, of course.) But fine: nobody regulates these things, and if it gets more bodies in the door then the name has served its purpose.
Uptown has also pushed the limits a little in the décor department — not that it’s wild and crazy, mind you. In fact, despite the strip fluorescent lights, the Pier 1 plaques and the inventive paint application, it’s almost clubby due to the round tables and the loungy upholstered chairs on rollers. These chairs would be great if this were indeed a lounge; they could encourage one to linger over a drink. But for eating, they’re actually a challenge: especially when consuming soup, you’re obliged to sit on the edge of your seat to get close enough to the bowl.
The soup is a good segue into differentiation tool number three: the menu. It is all over the map (and the globe) with salads, salad sandwiches, panini, deli sandwiches, and gourmet soups. “Gourmet” is another term tossed about liberally, but let’s give them this one. The two soups I’ve tried have both been simple — one a dense split pea with smoky bacon, the other a white bean with ham — but very good. I’d go back for the soups alone.
I will have to go back if I want to try the French dip or Philly sandwiches; neither was available on a recent visit due to lack of the appropriate roll, and this exposes the major flaw in the shotgun-menu approach: it’s nigh onto impossible to keep all the ingredients at hand. The problem gets even more serious when the takeout menu includes the following statement: “All of our sandwiches are prepared as they are written on this menu.” Oops, red flag.
I have to admit here that I didn’t miss the absent sauerkraut on my Jersey panino until I had finished the whole thing; the blend of peppered pastrami, Swiss cheese, and Creole mustard on Russian rye was pretty good without it, and the pressed construction didn’t seem noticeably understuffed. But the experience did make me more cautious the next time, when the target was a Bourbon St. Muffelata. (OK, it’s usually spelled muffuletta in its Crescent City of origin.) Though about half the height of a N’awlins model, Uptown’s may actually include a broader variety of meats and cheeses, and the round, flat roll is certainly of the appropriate shape. What it lacks is any detectable quantity of the “signature Olive Tempenade.” The olive salad, a mixture of green and Greek olives plus pickled vegetables, is the heart and soul of a genuine muffuletta, along with freshly chopped garlic. The addition of Creole mustard and garlic mayo, as good as they are, doesn’t compensate for its paucity. That pesky red flag again.
On the other hand, a much simpler sandwich I assume to be of Uptown’s own devising, the Big Ivan panino, gets a checkered flag. The roast beef, Black Forest ham, Swiss cheese and horseradish mayo on sliced sourdough bread come together in a beautifully balanced blend that needs nothing else, and the toasting renders the cheese wonderfully creamy.
Uptown’s chicken salad, a sandwich-shop staple I love to complain about, is another paragon of preparation — though the romaine it was said to be bedded on looked suspiciously icebergian. It’s relatively chunky, riddled with pickled and pimiento parts, and even comes with an additional vinaigrette for the lettuce, tomato, and cucumber accessories. More than a massive menu, roller chairs, or gratuitous grill monikers, this makes Uptown stand out from the pack. May their tribe increase.