There's a sandwich-shaped hole inside of all of us from time to time. A hole that no plate of pasta, bowl of pho, trio of tacos or bucket of chicken can fill. Sometimes you just need a really good sandwich to make it through the rest of your day.
For some of us, that sandwich-shaped hole makes an appearance less frequently. I'm one of those people. I don't need a sandwich every day, or even every week. But about once a month, I have a craving for a truly excellent deli-made sandwich using fresh meats, cheeses and breads. Nothing else will do.
Houston doesn't possess delis in the traditional sense that, say, New York City does. Our delis are bizarre hybrid creatures, made all the greater by their propensity to stock items of assorted provenance. Nundini's is more of a "traditional" deli in that sense: It stocks Italian meats and cheeses along with a small grocery section that also stocks 99 percent Italian goods. And then there are delis like the one inside the giant Spec's downtown and Antone's in the Village. Both stock an amazing variety of foodstuffs in addition to their deli counter, and both make a mean sandwich.
But which one is the best?
Antone's, 2424 Dunstan
There is something inherently relaxing about eating at Antone's, whether you're huddled over a table in the airy, high-ceilinged interior or spread out on the flower-dotted side patio. This was once one of the "original" Antone's, famous for its orange chow-chow-studded po-boys. Now, it's a quasi-Mediterranean market that still offers a wonderful array of sandwiches along with tubs of hummus and plates of baklava.
One of the great things about grabbing a sandwich at Antone's is the variety of sides and other goodies you can pick up while you're there. The tiny tubs of tabbouleh and baba ganoush are the perfect size for just one person if you aren't in the mood for, say, the impressive array of Zapp's potato chips. Don't have time to wait for a freshly made sandwich? You can always grab a pre-made one from the refrigerated case and go. There's a reason Antone's is a routine pre-picnic destination.
I ordered a Cuban at the deli counter, knowing it was one sandwich that I could easily compare between establishments. Freshly sliced ham, roasted pork and Swiss cheese went onto a toasty baguette, with a healthy slap of mustard and thick cuts of pickles on top. Antone's lovingly wraps its sandwiches in wax paper, the hallmark of a truly thoughtful sandwich-making process.
The result was sheer brilliance. The cheese melted into every nook of the sandwich, while the mustard and pickles gave sharp resistance. And the thinly sliced meats stood pertly against the easy crunch of the toasted bread. The perfect sandwich in every way.
Spec's, 2410 Smith
The expansion of Spec's a few years ago didn't include heavy expansion of its food department, but that's all right with me. It's nice to know that even though some things change, that little slice of comfort will remain the same. The scant aisles are still crowded with foods and spices that make it feel like a modern bazaar.
Much like Antone's, half the fun of waiting for your sandwich to be made at Spec's is combing those aisles. (Be careful, though, or you'll end up leaving the store with a shopping cart full of things you did not come in for.) A big bonus is the refrigerated case with all manner of soft drinks from all over the nation and the world. When was the last time you saw Faygo for sale anywhere? Juggalos of the world, Spec's has your back.
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Unfortunately, the Cuban at Spec's didn't quite live up to my expectations. I've had great sandwiches there, but this wasn't one of them. The ham and roasted pork were far too thickly cut, which made the meat difficult to tear with my teeth and chew through, and there was very little mustard slathered on the toasted bread. The pickles were few and far between, and the entire thing was on the flavorless side.
Thankfully, the deviled eggs I picked up as a side (you can get potato chips anywhere, after all) were amazing, and far better than the ones I'd had the day before at Antone's. Safe bet at Spec's: Stay away from the Cuban and stick to what they do well (deviled eggs among them).
In this case, the clear winner is Antone's. I will have dreams about that sandwich for weeks to come. But Spec's isn't the loser here; they're both equally awesome in their own ways.