Cookbook author, gourmand idol, and culinary award icon James Beard put it best: "Too few people understand a really good sandwich."
Add Raleigh's Linus & Pepper's to the ranks of those who do.
What began as a pop-up shop last August beneath the arcade and bar Level Up has since morphed into a gem of an affordable lunch spot in an increasingly expensive downtown. Part of the budding restaurant group The Local Icon, which owns Level Up, The Architect, the soon-to-open "brewing-and-provisions" company Little City, and the forthcoming Virgil's Taqueria next door, Linus & Pepper's dropped the pop-up designation a little more than a month after opening. The change stemmed from an enthusiastic response to its sandwiches. After trying them all, I understand.
Linus & Pepper's is small and welcoming. Exposed brick and unfinished walls attest to the building's age. You navigate past a handful of tables toward the counter, choosing from a large chalkboard that hangs on the wall, listing all the house specialties and options you can add to them.
You can choose among an assortment of breads, from sourdough and Texas toast to ciabatta and rye, and meats, including pork shoulder, capicola, and lunch-counter standards like turkey, ham, and beef. The accouterments are a tad overwhelming, really—romaine, tomato, bread-and-butter pickle, caramelized onion, horseradish sauce, giardiniera, roasted mushroom, and too many more to name. You can shape a personalized sandwich from this stock, but that DIY gluttony is best kept in the privacy of your own kitchen.
Instead, I explored the menu's named favorites, eating my way through the six sandwiches one by one—no, no, not in one sitting.
THE BIG CHEESE: With its white cheddar, Swiss, and smoked gouda, The Big Cheese oozes ooey-gooey goodness, arriving on your palate as luxurious comfort food. I had it sans mushrooms, as I didn't want them to get in the way of the cheese combination. Indeed, the blend was delectable, taking the sandwich far beyond the standard grilled-cheese fare made from unwrapped, unremarkable slices that are far too common in American diners. Keep the caramelized onions; they add a touch of savory sweetness to the melted mix.
THE RUSSIAN: Similar to a classic Reuben but with a couple of key changes, The Russian features thick slabs of moist, flavorful, house-made pastrami. Melted Swiss oozes around the meat. The coleslaw, a Southern stand-in for sauerkraut, is an interesting addition, and the warmth of the sandwich gives it a welcome wilted flavor. The Russian dressing that trickles through the sandwich is rich and fresh. Although a bit too much fat marred a few bites, The Russian at my table drew raves—and declarations of intent to order it on return visits. The quality of the pastrami shoulders the weight with ease. Rye bread may seem like the obvious choice here, but Linus & Pepper's leaves it up to you.
THE FRENCHY: The Frenchy is piled high with so much tender, tasty beef that it spills out the sides. A generous veil of melted smoked Gouda weaves throughout the slices, pushing it past similar standards that favor Swiss or provolone. Caramelized onions, "horsey sauce," and au jus complete the lineup. It's juicy and more than a little messy. Or perhaps I was just overly enthusiastic in my consumption.
THE SOUTHERN: Finger-thick turkey slabs are piled atop one another, shaping an impressive tower that's held together by white cheddar. Some shops use turkey that's dry enough to crumble, like feta cheese, but you'll find no such abomination at Linus & Pepper's. This turkey is moist. Strata of peppered bacon and balsamic-drenched tomatoes lend a tangy edge, while the subtle Mornay sauce, made of cream and cheese, helps add balance. Sandwiches at Linus & Pepper's are generously portioned, but the Southern is the clear choice when you're famished.
THE CUBANO: A long stretch of life spent in Florida supplied me with some seriously high standards for Cuban food, including the sacred sandwich. I approached this offering of ham and pork shoulder in North Carolina's capital city with understandable skepticism. But the pickles provided a satisfying crunch, and the assertive Dijon mustard slapped my taste buds and sometimes my sinuses. I had to remove a bit of ham that was too chewy to be enjoyable. The sandwich is outside-Florida good, maybe even North Florida good. (You'll only find South Florida good in Miami, so there's no sin in falling short of this unattainable goal.) I'm not a believer in dipping sauces with Cubans, but if you must, the mojo sauce is better than most, with citrusy notes that add more flavor complexity.
THE ITALIAN: With its lines of red, green, orange, and white, The Italian is the prettiest creation at Linus & Pepper's. It delivers as much flavor as color. The Genoa salami, capicola, and ham are delicious, and the giardiniera—a chopped mix of pickled peppers, carrots, and cauliflower—adds a spicy kick. Of these six sandwiches, it's the boldest.
All of these sandwiches are nine dollars, not a bad deal in a city that seems to be experiencing as much growth in menu pricing as in luxury condos and apartments. That price is especially nice since it includes a side. It's not much more than you'd spend at a Subway or at a fast food place for, frankly, a much less satisfying meal.
Be warned: the inclusion of a side makes Linus & Pepper's a nightmare for the indecisive. The three excellent sides rival the sandwiches themselves. The coleslaw is creamy and neither too sweet nor too tart. The house-made chips are crisp, more full of flavor than grease. Best of all is the potato salad, itself worth the trip to Linus & Pepper's. It boasts a bright, hearty mustard body with hints of lemon. The potatoes are soft enough to chew with ease but firm enough that it's not some mushy, bland mess.
As if these staples and sides aren't enough, the occasionally shifting menu includes some new options like a crab cake po'boy, a banh mi, and an "ABCDGLT," a mix of avocado, bacon, chowchow, dilly goat cheese, lettuce, and tomato.
If you're as resolute as I am, though, you should have no problem unequivocally saying that next time you visit, you're getting the potato salad—or maybe the chips—with The Southern. Or The Frenchy. Or, if it's a bad day, The Big Cheese.
As its popularity grows, perhaps Linus & Pepper's will extend its hours into the evening. It would be a great spot to stop by and fuel up before a night on the town or upstairs in Level Up's arcade—and to give me more time to make my way through the choices again.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Subway Pass"