Tuesday, February 16, 2010

From Afar: Hoagie Haven

242 Nassau Street
Princeton, NJ 08542
(609) 921-7723

by Yuri "Grinder" McCarver

It’s 11 AM on a frozen winter day in Princeton, New Jersey. You’re a Freshman in High School – barely fifteen years old - and you are skipping Algebra! You walk to the edge of campus. You look right and spy Frank Kurst, the lacrosse coach who doubles as a Truancy Officer. Kurst rounds a far corner and disappears. You look left. No one there. You step off the sidewalk; and several paces later there you are: just another citizen on the street.

In a few minutes you make it to downtown and enter the workaday world that has been hidden from you for every school day for your entire life: you see scurrying shop owners, Republican businessmen in their too-serious suits, mothers bargaining with toddlers, hungover University students trying to make sense of their day break.

As part of this crowd you push open the door to Hoagie Haven. 1970s vintage refrigeration units with sliding doors stuffed with sodas line the walls. At the front of the shop there is a long counter. Behind the counter are bins of cold cuts, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes, hot peppers, and onions, along with a well-seasoned griddle and a deep fryer. Manning this operation is its owner, George, a Greek immigrant with hair the color of stainless steel and a friendly silver moustache.

“What’ll it be, my friend?” George asks.

“Cheese steak, half,” you say with a dry mouth, the adrenaline from your escape still zipping around your chest.

The process begins: George produces rectangles of thin beef slices from the freezer and slaps them on the grill. The meat greets the heat with the sound of a roar from a far away stadium. George slices half of a foot long Italian loaf down the middle; spreads it open and places it beneath the coils of a heating apparatus. He turns the meat with a twist of his wrist and places two slices of American cheese on top. George slides the bread out of the heater. You ask for lettuce, tomatoes, onions and hot peppers with ketchup, hold the mayo. George assembles your hoagie and glides the meat and cheese on top of the vegetation with the finesse of an Atlantic City blackjack dealer. “Salt, pepper, oregano?” George asks. Only, George has asked this question a million times, so the three words cannonball off his tongue in one sound: Sal’pe’pregno!? Sal’pe’pregno?!

“Yes!” you reply and moments later you are sitting outside with your half cheese steak, unwrapping it from its parchment paper. The key to any hoagie is the bread, and the Haven’s Italian loaves are crispy on the outside and soft inside with enough heft to support the fillings. It is impossible to fit the entire width of the cheese steak in your mouth, so you switch between bites of the veggies on the bottom and the unctuous beef and cheese on top, until you reach the far edge of the hoagie. This is the best part, the moisture from the veggies and ketchup and the fat from the meat and cheese have all been absorbed by the end of the bread. This sum of cheese steak accompanies the last of the beef. You punch the entire end into your mouth and chew with your cheeks puffing out.

The rhythm of the Haven becomes the rhythm of your own stumble into adulthood. You eat there several times a week, sometimes twice a day. Sneaking off campus proves to be a non-challenge, but kind of a thrill anyway. You like George, because he is a silent accomplice to your truancy, but also because, in his own way, he is one of the first people to treat you like an adult. Even as a quiet, awkward Freshman, inside the Haven you are an equal with the cusp of college Seniors with their cars. You are one with the evil eating club boys and joyous University girls, the end-of-the-day businessmen and the truck drivers, the Guatemalan laborers and the police officers who George, after much back-and-forth, always insists on feeding for free. Everyone is greeted with the same sincere, “What’ll it be, my friend?”

Over three and a half years you have the opportunity to sample the entire menu. You develop a rotating collection of favorites: there is the chicken parm with its peppery tomato sauce topped by several slices of bubbling provolone cheese; the cheese omelet whose whisked eggs explode from their liquid to solid state upon contact with the grill; the round tin of chicken nuggets and French fries, for just $3.50!

You are at the Haven at all hours and you witness the details of the operation: the repetitious slicing of tomatoes, onions and lettuce. The careful construction of the tomato sauce from scratch each morning. Making a Haven run becomes a requisite part of social activities. Everyone writes down the specifics of their order and hands their dollars to the Haven Runner who returns with a box full of hoagies, stacked like greasy artillery shells.

Soon, you are one of the hooting and hollering Seniors with cars, and you discover that one of George’s other fine attributes is that he is good at talking to drunk people.

Then, you head off to College, and you quickly learn that they do not have places like Hoagie Haven in Southern California. And no, dude! Subway is not the same thing! You return home for Winter break and make your dad take you directly to Hoagie Haven from the airport. “What’ll it be, my friend?” George asks. His silver moustache has specks of white.

Over the breaks and summers of your college years Hoagie Haven becomes a Salon, the place where you encounter all of the people you vaguely knew in High School. George’s tubes of bread, meat, sauce and vegetables remain the fuel for humid summer evenings of Texas Hold ‘Em, three-on-three basketball, rambling conversations, and Yuengling beer.

You graduate from college. The pace of time accelerates. You visit home less often, and no longer recognize most of the faces in Hoagie Haven. You see George’s hair go from stainless steel, to silver, to grey. By your late 20s, your pilgrimage to Hoagie Haven feels obligatory, the way elections must have felt in Communist Russia.

You are thirty years old and hanging out with your old friends during the holidays when they tell you that George has sold Hoagie Haven. It’s still good, but not what it was, they report. “The tomato sauce on the eggplant parm was hearty and spicy,” one woman laments. “Now it’s sweet and cloying.”

You order a cheese steak to see for yourself. There seems to be less meat in the meat-to-bread ratio. The edges of the steak are a bit dry. The veggies, meat and cheese still meld and sing, but there is nothing in the last bite but a trace of ketchup and a few wayward strands of lettuce. The bread is still an inch longer than the meat, but George placed the meat on the bread so that this inch was at the front. The new guy puts it at the end. The evidence is in: profit margins are being expanded, magic is being nickel-and-dimed away.

You peruse the bodies inside Hoagie Haven. They all look like modern versions of the people you recall from your teenage years. They will have their own moments of truant rebellion and inebriated infatuation with their own irreverence inside Hoagie Haven. You realize that in your teenagehood Hoagie Haven was at its apex. Those countless visits when you should have been in class were the peak. Hoagie Haven will never be what it was then, even if this current cohort doesn’t know it.

You ponder how disappointing it is that there are no stupid rules to break as adult. Your life has surfed highs and lows and taken turns that you could not have comprehended when you were fifteen. Yet, your existence has never felt more visceral then it did on those nights when you were a teenager cruising up and down Route One with your friends trying to find a liquor store that would sell you a bottle of Smirnoff. Back then that bottle of liquid poison was a victory. An occasion. Now, it’s Tuesday. And the truth is that you don’t even want to drink on Tuesday. The few rules there are do not hold you back: You have no desire to harm anyone. You don’t even speed on the freeway. Life just isn’t as intense without half-wit lacrosse coaches to outfox on the way to Hoagie Haven.

It’s a damp winter evening in Portland, Oregon. Today your job managed to be both dull and stressful. Because you could only find 20 minutes to work out you spent too little time warming up and exercised too aggressively. The rain soaked your socks on the bike ride home. Your muscles ache. Your mind is split between the convenience of extracting fast food from Burgerville and the effort necessary to convert broccoli, brown rice and chicken thighs into something wholesome at home. Then the memories breathe in the sinew of your being. You cry out, “I could really go for some Hoagie Haven right now”. And the musical sound of George saying “salt, pepper, oregano” ricochets through your brain: “Sal’pe’pregno?!” “Sal’pe’pregno?!” “Sal’pe’pregno?!”

Hoagie Haven on Urbanspoon


AS said...

Unbelievable. I feel like this is going to tint the rest of my day in a haze of youth. Brilliant debut, sir.


Anonymous said...

It's going to be hard to follow up with another review after that... guess you'll have to wait another ten years or so.

AS said...

The teenagers there now will, in fifteen years, look back and think that their years were Hoagie Haven at its peak. La meme...

Anonymous said...


Andrew Simone said...

You just summed up my high school years beautifully and now I am craving a BBQ chicken cheese steak (later added officially to the menu due to my circle of friends ordering at least one among the lot of us everyday).

Justin said...

Beautifully written! And I sure can relate having grown up with Hoagie Haven in Princeton and now living in Portland, Oregon...wish we had a Haven here...

AS said...

This still makes me tear up.


kokopelliwoman said...

Wonderful story about our old friend George (and Mina, Jimmy, and Lea!) Our daughters went to Witherspoon and Princeton H.S. together.