A life-changing stint in Philadelphia during my formative years left me with an irrepressible yearning for a truly great sandwich, coupled with enormous sadness over the difficulty of finding one.
The hoagie of yore — a generously filled, crusty Italian roll doused with olive oil, vinegar and Italian spices and lined with shreds of raw onion, lettuce, pickled peppers and a few slices of provolone — is a thing of beauty and today almost a museum piece, even in the Quaker City.
You’d think New York, with its distinguished history of four-star pastrami and hot dogs, would be packed with great creations on bread. But as far as hoagies go, the New York deli and submarine shop — with a few exceptions — are not at all what they used to be and maybe never were.
Too often, both the bread and what they sandwich lack flavor, texture and character. New Yorkers are so accustomed to bland kiddie fare — Boar’s Head sliced turkey on a spongy roll, anyone? — they no longer remember the sub as art form.
Now for the good news. Two new sandwich joints fairly near the UN are bringing back a little of the old excitement. Respectable rolls with credible fillings and notable condiments are making a statement in capital letters at Num Pang on 41st Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues, and at Lil’ Shorty’s on 31st Street just west of Lexington.
Both are friendly and efficient. And both are take-outs, with just slivers of space to eat in. But you can always take it outside. Check them out!
Num Pang, which means “bread” in Khmer, won fame and presumably fortune with a shop near Union Square before opening its 41st Street location. The owners like to point out that the Union Square location’s 26 score in the 2010 and 2011 Zagat guides was “the highest rating for a sandwich shop in New York City.”
The new spot is a bit hidden, set back from the sidewalk and partly concealed by construction scaffolding. But its nightclub-style entrance and exit, kept orderly by rope lines, hint at its popularity.
At busy times, you place your order at a walk-up window, then step inside to watch teams of sandwich makers actually prepare your meal. On the counter are a huge supply of sriracha hot sauce and giant piles of napkins and foil-wrapped handy wipes, hinting at some spicy, messy, satisfying eating ahead. Spurning Styrofoam and plastic, the shop packs up its fare in biodegradable cardboard containers and paper bags.
Num Pang describes its dishes as “Cambodian inspired.” Like the Vietnamese sandwich shops springing up around town, it serves sandwiches on “baguettes,” which, while not the same shape or as crusty as the real thing, do have a crunchy exterior and chewy interior and, more important, are wide enough to accommodate a goodly amount of stuffing.
There’s a sizable choice of sandwiches, some labeled “classic” and others called “seasonal specials.” All come adorned with shredded carrot, thinly sliced cucumber and a tangy mayonnaise sauce, and all are pretty inspiring, the better to mollify customers who balk at the menu’s “no substitutions” rule.
Among the best seasonal specials is the ginger barbecue brisket ($8.50), as near to a perfect sandwich as you can find in Manhattan. A thick, tender slab of beef, bursting with flavor, juts out from its topping of fresh coriander and pickled red cabbage as well as the standard carrot shreds, cucumber slices and spicy sauce.
Another excellent special is the grilled Khmer sausage ($7.75). Having never been to Cambodia, I couldn’t vouch for its authenticity. But this is an unapologetic sandwich aimed at sausage lovers. It is expertly grilled and explodes with spice.
Then there’s the grilled local bluefish with leeks ($8). Bluefish can quickly become funky, particularly during the current season. Num Pang’s bluefish is utterly fresh and juicy. The result is really a work of art, sandwichly speaking.
There are three types of old-fashioned root beer in the cooler and also some interesting sides, soups and salads. A refreshing order of tropical fruit salad ($4.75) was a nice break from traditional deli fruit salad fare: an 8-ounce jumble of watermelon, pineapple, lychee, mango and bits of mint on the day I tried it. Another side of “seasonal market pickles” was an explosive palate cleanser with chunks of turnip and watermelon rind.
Shorty’s made its debut as a sandwich shop on Ninth Avenue near 42nd Street but then turned into a bar. A second bar-and-sandwich shop then opened on Madison Avenue just north of Madison Square. There’s also a food truck, but I can’t find it.
Lil’ Shorty’s, the third fixed-address link in the New York City chain, sits outside the UN pale, but if you can’t get down there it delivers. The storefront is tiny but the new location has a full menu including salads, snacks, fries and even breakfasts. Along with classic subs there are veggie sandwiches.
To bolster its creds, the outfit trucks in bread from Philadelphia. Maybe that’s too far for a hoagie roll to travel: the ones I sampled were a tad deficient in crusty crunch.
Nonetheless, the two classic hoagies, the cheese steak and the Italian cold cut (often called an Italian stallion or similar), are first rate.
In Philadelphia a cheese steak consists of thin slices of beef and onion that are simultaneously chopped and fried on a big griddle and topped with hot peppers and a product commonly known as cheese whiz. Lil’ Shorty’s offers an authentic Philly cheese steak as well as a nonwhiz version, confusingly called “old-fashioned,” with grilled fresh tomatoes, provolone and Italian spices.
Other variations include a pizza steak (with marinara sauce), a chicken cheese steak ($9), a veggie that boasts broccoli rabe and provolone, and a Buffalo Chicken Steak oozing blue cheese dressing and Buffalo-wings-style hot sauce. All sandwiches are $9 to $11.
The menu claims that Shorty’s cheese steaks are “NYC’s most authentic cheese steaks.” I can’t vouch for that, but the ones I tried were very good. I also liked the Italian.
There’s also a turkey hoagie that, while imperfect, is still better than what you’ll find in a New York deli. The turkey bears only a faint resemblance to what you have on Thanksgiving, and the provolone is subdued. But the sum of the parts is nonetheless flavorful, packed with chunks of tomato and shreds of lettuce, raw onion and yellow sandwich peppers.
The Italian and turkey sandwiches come with tiny tubs of olive oil and vinegar. Now that’s a touch that ought to spread, maybe even to Quaker City.
Num Pang is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and on Sundays from noon to 9 p.m. It is at 140 E. 41st Street between Third and Lexington Avenues. (212) 867-8889.
Lil’ Shorty’s is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to midnight, and on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m. to midnight. It is at 133 E. 31st Street, just west of Lexington Avenue. (212) 779-8904.
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.