Bunk and Southside Coffee Enter New York’s Sandwich Pantheon
The bathroom-wall photo of a wolfish ’50s-era Elvis gobbling a sandwich tells you everything you need to know about Bunk. Bunk is all about indulging appetites. And Bunk is all about the glory that is the sandwich. Two ideas, incidentally, that pretty much sum up the philosophy of the Underground Gourmet. The counter-service sandwich shop that opened recently in Williamsburg is a branch of a popular Portland, Oregon, mini-chain run by a crew of musician-cooks including co-founder Tommy Habetz, who once worked for Mario Batali as a Lupa sous-chef.
For his first Bunk foray outside Portland, Habetz hired Jake Adams, a former Milk Bar chef de cuisine, to oversee the kitchen. The sandwich-making modus operandi here is to start with the classics, then by judicious tweaking, scratch cooking, meticulous construction, and the use of outstanding bread and top-notch ingredients, improve upon them. This formula works like a charm. Take, for instance, the Cubano which crams pork belly, pork butt, good New Hampshire ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles into a crackly, well-smooshed roll, its innards swiped with mustard and drizzled with hot sauce. This substantial specimen is rich and tangy but streamlined enough to evoke the kind of sandwich you might find in an old-school Cuban luncheonette on Roosevelt Avenue. The fried-egg-and-cheese on a toasted poppy-seed Kaiser roll also deftly bridges the gap between crowd-pleasing classic and gourmet upgrade. It comes with sharp Oregon Cheddar and an optional choice of bacon, ham, or housemade pork sausage. Get the sausage, and for an umami sensation like no other, do as they do at the original Bunk and order it with add-on anchovies. (A note on the Kaiser rolls: They’re specially made for Bunk by Bien Cuit’s Zachary Golper and they’re terrific — almost as dense and tight-crumbed as a bagel but with a mysteriously easy chew.)
As for the rest of the impressive roster, the roast-chicken salad with bacon and avocado is a contender. The meatball hero is spot-on. The tuna melt is un-mayo’d in favor of oil and balsamic, plus mustard and pickles, and tasty as can be. And an Italian combo that brings together ham, three cured meats from Oregon’s excellent Olympia Provisions, and a Mazzola hero roll could go up against any East Coast hoagie. If there’s an underperformer in the bunch, it’s the grilled Cheddar, undone by pain de mie sliced so thick it’s proportionately out of whack with the relatively spare amount of cheese.
Bunk could easily get away with serving just its signature sandwiches and the bags of Kettle chips that come with them, but the kitchen also turns out some great side dishes. Chief among these are burnt broccoli with garlic and chiles, a spectacular potato salad (credit the addition of bacon and eggs), and fries smothered with New Orleans-style debris gravy that puts the disco-fries competition to shame. For dessert, try a chocolate-chip cookie. After all, they’re baked by the guy who used to help run Milk Bar.
Another excellent new purveyor of sandwiches can be found masquerading as a third-wave java joint in Greenwood Heights. For some time now, Southside Coffee has been serving up well-brewed George Howell espresso and drip coffee to an appreciative crowd of stocking-capped laptoppers and young mothers toting tots in Ergobaby slings. But three months ago, partner Ben Jones (who also co-owns the restaurant Lot 2 across the street) added sandwiches to the lineup along with a talented sandwich-maker named Josh Sobel, and it’s safe to say that Southside Coffee is now as much a destination for Italian heros, tuna melts, and bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches as it is for cortados and macchiatos.
Sobel’s bona fides include kitchen stints at sandwich powerhouses Court Street Grocers and Mile End Deli, and the pedigree shows. Every one of his sandwiches is simply superb. As at Bunk, the focus is on upgrading the classics. Thus the turkey in the turkey hero is roasted over at Lot 2, then loaded with Swiss, lettuce, avocado, and pickled red onion onto a Sriracha-mayo’d Caputo roll. It’s moist, solid, satisfying. Ditto the tuna melt with sweet housemade bread-and- butter pickles on pan-griddled multigrain bread. There’s also much to love about the juicy Italian combo (mortadella, salami, soppressata). It comes with sliced onion, iceberg lettuce, provolone, and Parmesan, and a three-pronged approach to lubrication: a classic oil-and-vinegar dressing, a piquant muffaletta-like olive-and-pepper spread, and a swipe of Duke’s mayonnaise. Yes, among the cognoscenti, dressing Italian heros with mayonnaise — and not even Hellmann’s! — is considered an outrageous act of desecration akin to dousing USDA prime steak with Heinz. But it’s a trick Sobel learned during his stint at Court Street Grocers, and the practice is apparently winning over skeptics, the Underground Gourmet included.
As delicious as the above concoctions are, Southside’s masterwork is the drippy, soul-soothing, hangover-quashing Southside breakfast sandwich: unfathomably fluffy scrambled eggs, Heritage Meats ham, Cheddar, pickled onion, and “breakfast mayo” on a toasted brioche roll. What, you ask, is breakfast mayo? Well, it’s a riff on red-eye mayo, a recipe Sobel freely admits borrowing from the Momofuku cookbook. His take is essentially housemade mayo mingled with maple syrup, Dijon mustard, and George Howell coffee grounds, and something that once sampled you’ll crave forever.
Southside is also known for its pastries and apple pie, baked by Lot 2 pastry chef Amber Sather. On weekends, this young sugar whiz sends over a batch of freshly baked buttermilk biscuits, which Sobel stuffs with eggs, bacon, and pickled jalapeños. The promise of one is enough to roust the deepest sleeper, but happily the BEC biscuit (and every other breakfast sandwich) is available to the very civilized hour of 3 p.m. — or at least until the biscuits run out.
740 Driggs Ave., nr. S. 2nd St., Williamsburg; 347-763-0434; bunksandwiches.com
Open: Daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Prices: $3 to $12.
Ideal Meal: Pork Belly Cubano,
Note: Look for daily soup specials, like a stellar turkey chili.
Scratchpad: Two stars for the solid sandwiches, one for the debris fries.
652 Sixth Ave., at 19th St., Greenwood Heights; 347-927-4870; southsidecoffeenyc.com
Open: Daily for breakfast and lunch.
Prices: $6 to $12.
Ideal Meal: Southside breakfast sandwich, coffee.
Note: House-baked pastries are available Tuesday to Saturday.
Scratchpad: One star for the thoughtful fillings, another for the careful construction, and a third for those biscuits.
*This article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.