When it comes to grabbing lunch in the UN neighborhood, you can’t say there’s nothing to eat. There are lots of choices. It’s just that few of them are inspirational, particularly when you need to run out and grab something to eat at your desk.
This is particularly true of that most noble and time-tested of portable lunches, the sandwich. Like many things in the modern age, New York sandwiches just aren’t as good as they used to be, and they are only getting worse — and costlier. When was the last time a store-bought sandwich’s individual notes of flavor and texture dazzled you with a symphony?
That is why it was exciting to learn earlier this year that a legendary sandwich establishment was headed to Manhattan: Potbelly, which started in 1977 in Chicago, where sandwiches remain an art form.
Potbelly’s Web sitefeeds the frenzy, bursting with accolades from across the country: “Best Sub Sandwich” (Detroit, 2010), “Readers’ Favorite Sandwich” (Washingtonian Magazine, 2009-10), “Best Deli” (Fairfax, Va., 2008), “Best $10 meal” (Food & Wine, 2006). The New York media dutifully chimed in, predicting our lives would never be the same.
Arrived Downtown First
Potbelly opened its second Manhattan shop last July on East 44th Street, just blocks from UN headquarters. (Its first shop is on Maiden Lane, near Wall Street.) Some recent visits revealed that Potbelly produce a decent sandwich at a good price. But this has more to do with mass production than dazzling flavors and textures.
True, Potbelly gets some things right. While the decor in all its stores is supposed to resemble an old antique shop, it put up some pictures of the UN, dated ones, on 44th Street. Potbelly’s sandwiches ($5.50 to $5.80) are made to order, in a manner of speaking, and they are served up hot and gooey on a sublike roll fast. Its employees seem genuinely friendly, even if they appear to be working like dogs. Potbelly also hires local singers during peak lunch hours. The public restrooms are clean. And much of the food comes wrapped in paper made from recycled material rather than landfill-challenging polystyrene.
But the roll, whether you pick “regular” or multigrain, is soft and puffy, a bit crusty not because of its baking technique but because of its recent toasting. Many ingredients are bland, as if factory-made, although you’ll find exceptions. The meatballs, for example, are nicely spiced and the hot peppers are truly incendiary. While the sandwiches are made to order, what this boils down to is a sophisticated assembly line that gives you a last-minute choice of toppings, including those very hot peppers, oil and “Italian seasonings,” pickle slices and onion.
The place is mobbed during peak lunchtimes (noon to 1:30 or 2 p.m.), so that, as you step into Potbelly, you join a long line. Mercifully, an employee with a tablet computer rushes in to take your request and shoots it wirelessly to the sandwich-making crew. By the time you get to the customizing counter (“I’ll have the peppers”), as long as 10 minutes later, the sandwich has been put together and toasted, and a staffer is standing by to not only slap on your condiments but also to wrap everything up in butcher paper and hand it to you with a smile.
Hint: The Real Treats
En route, you can scoop up soft drinks at $1.25 to $2.25, small salads like cole slaw and cubed tomato, cucumber and cheese at $1.85 each, potato chips, cookies and pickles. Alternative lunch choices include soup, chili and salads ($3.60 to $8.25).
For a special treat, check out the milk shakes, malts and smoothies (at $3.20 to $3.50). The best of these is an unadvertised special: a root-beer float made of a bottle of Boylan or IBA root beer and a large paper cup holding a hand-dipped scoop of vanilla ice cream.
“We let you pour on the root beer yourself, so it doesn’t fizz up and overflow,” a staffer volunteered.
Then it’s on to the final counter, where your purchases come together and you pay. While there’s fairly comfortable seating (actual wooden chairs!) for 36 people, most customers carry out; no wonder: the music and the din from waiting customers can be deafening.
Of the sandwiches I tried, my favorites were the Wreck, the Italian and the Pizza. Like the omnipresent Boar’s Head brand, you’ll find that the roast beef, turkey and ham all taste remarkably alike, particularly when smothered in gooey cheese. A hint: each meat is a different color. Potbelly says the turkey breast with cheese is one of the chain’s most popular. But if you don’t chew carefully, you could end up with a mouthful of butcher paper and not even know it.
Potbelly Sandwich Shop is open Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Its UN neighborhood branch is located at 150 E. 44th St. between Third and Lexington Avenues. (646) 289-4202.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.