The classic American sandwich shop takes a cue from Burger King—have it your way. Imagine, for instance, ordering a turkey sandwich. Smoked turkey. Not roasted. White bread is fine. Unless there's whole-wheat? Swiss. Mustard. Mayo. Light on the mayo! Lettuce. Tomato. No onion. And can you toast the bread? To go. Actually, for here. Actually, to go.
Such is the difference between sandwich culture in the U.S. and the UK. "In Britain, pre-prepared sandwiches have remained the norm," writes Bee Wilson in Sandwich: A Global History. "By contrast, the American deli sandwich caters for every whim of man, woman, or child."
In this sense, Bona Fide Sandwich Co. in Hillsborough takes a cue from across the pond. I like that.
The sandwich shop, which opened in March, is the creation of Matt Fox, Jeremy Blankenship, and Dean James—the names behind The Wooden Nickel Pub, Hillsborough BBQ Company and LaPlace, a few of the most popular restaurants in town.
Bona Fide's space is blue-shuttered and small, with a thirty-two-person occupancy and zero seating, save for the rarely vacant bench outside. It has colorful walls, six taps of craft drinks (get the ginger kombucha), a shelf of potato chips, a basket of "Whookies" (cookie-whoopie pies with too much frosting for their own good), and not much else.
If the sandwich is the ultimate convenience food—it was invented in the eighteenth century so the Earl of Sandwich could gamble and snack simultaneously—Bona Fide's setup makes sense. Sandwiches thrive at desks and playgrounds, on commutes and road trips. Like birds, they want to be free. Walk around Hillsborough on a sunny afternoon and you'll notice people eating lunch on benches, stoops, and patches of grass—all, it seems, from the same place. Talk about great advertising.
Bona Fide's menu consists of twelve sandwiches as well as three salads and three "power bowls," or Whole Foods-spirited "ancient grain" bowls. There are several rotating sides, reminiscent of a potluck cookout—some dishes disappear within the first hour while others linger. Momma's Potato Salad and CJ's Mac begged to be chosen on both my visits (denied). Buffalo cucumbers, with hot sauce vinaigrette and blue cheese, kept teasing me online, then standing me up in the shop. If you can, snag the pickled peanut carrots—thick orange slabs whose flavors shimmy back and forth between taqueria pickles and Chinese takeout noodles. Some sandwiches are smaller than they should be for their prices, which makes a side seem like a good idea (how convenient).
As for the salads and power bowls—neither will leave you feeling, well, powerful. Hungry, perhaps. In a time when gluten is decreasingly trendy, opening a sandwich shop comes with the obvious risk: If everything is on bread, what about all the people who avoid bread?
Of course, it's bad business to give a menu-middle finger to the growing group of anti-glutens (roughly one percent of people genuinely have Celiac disease, but we won't get into that). Hence, the sympathy items. The Waldorf-reminiscent "Harvest" salad. The Cobb. The Kabouli, with kale, walnuts, apples, pomegranate, sumac, and a lemon-caper vinaigrette. The last was just all right, like a "free" salad bar at a buffet.
The power bowls with ancient grains—quinoa, lentils, and amaranth—feel ancient only with respect to the term, which has become as overused as a tea bag on its tenth brew. "Beet It," with roasted beets, pistachios, shaved fennel, and Hillsborough Cheese Company feta, offered the most promise, but disappointed in the way a dressing-on-the-side, to-go salad inevitably does.
After all, the threshold to the shop reads, "Enjoy Every Sandwich." It makes no promises about anything else, but it keeps its word.
Bona Fide sources bread from Weaver Street, and the various items—hoagies, sliced rye, seeded buns, focaccia—accomplish all they set out to. Hoagies with parchment crusts and fluffy centers. Rye that loyally supports Russian dressing. Focaccia that stains your fingertips with olive oil and salt flecks, prompting you to lick them clean.
The sandwiches themselves are familiar, like a high school reunion: old friends, updated look. For some, it's just a haircut. Take the Italian Hero: a mound of shaved salami, pistachio-dotted mortadella, and locally cured ham. But instead of soggy iceberg and mealy tomato, it sports a lively salad of roasted red peppers, spicy arugula, red onion, and herb oil.
Likewise, the Torpedo is a classic turkey sub, all dressed up—funky provolone, a ton of avocado, and enough shredded lettuce and onion to break up the richness.
The five-spice banh mi features soy sauce-wasted portobellas (and seemingly zero spices?), plus the standard pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, and cilantro. The vegetables would have been better off had the panini press kept to itself. But thanks to the buttery walnut spread—a creative substitution for paté—I still ate every bite.
I hate to say my favorite was the girl-next-door Mozzafiato, but it was. You know the one: focaccia, mozzarella, tomatoes, pesto. This version puts the others to shame. The mozzarella is milky and melty, like an Italian grandma's grilled cheese. There is almost too much olive oil, balsamic, and garlic, which is exactly right.
The Brotha' Love offers an ode to Philadelphia: a generous portion of rare roast beef, fat pieces of broccolini, onion slivers, and roasted red pepper mayo. Triple cream Brie replaces the drippy neon sauce that is the cheesesteak's signature. And, as the shop likes to say, that's bona fide.
Other sandwiches try harder than the rest and don't get much in return. The K-Town Reuben—corned beef, Two Chicks Farm kimchi, Russian dressing, Swiss—attempts a clever reboot of the classic sandwich. Unfortunately, the beef was not only scarce but also so chewy that I couldn't decide if the measly portion was a curse or a blessing.
If I visit Bona Fide again, it'll be for that Italian hero. Of course, it is my go-to. I can't visit a sandwich shop that offers an Italian hero and not order one, and the more I think about that, the more I wonder if this is the whole point—to tune into customer nostalgia and strike a chord. And they got me. But what about you?
This article appeared in print with the headline "We Can't All Be Heroes"