Tuesday, July 27, 2010

From Afar: No Name Delicatessen, Columbia, South Carolina

2042 Marion Street
Columbia, SC 29201

By Don Archebaub

I’ve been an avid reader of the Cleveland Sandwich Board since I met Beau at the wedding of a mutual friend. We’ve stayed in touch, and knowing my love of food, he encouraged me to try my hand at reviewing some of my experiences shoving chow down my gullet. While I am extremely outspoken with my opinion on any topic, I’ve never fancied myself a writer of any skill, and the idea of committing my personal thoughts on a subject so dear to my heart and arteries was nothing short of intimidating. I’ve finally decided that there are some places in this town that truly deserve an honest assessment of the sandwiches they produce. So, here goes.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the No Name Deli is how busy it was. The dining room was completely filled, there were two lines backed up close to the door, and there was constant movement of people between the different areas of the store. I wasn’t sure where the line formed and what the process was, and within seconds of walking in, more customers streamed in behind me. These people were obviously regulars and knew exactly what to do; sensing my confusion they quickly walked around me to the stack of trays and began making their way through the line to get their lunches. I took this opportunity to watch the process and learn how this place works.

I fell in line behind a group of people who were obviously co-workers in a nearby office. I noticed an old menu board on the wall that, aside from the prices, has probably not changed in over 20 years. There is nothing unusual about the offerings: ham sandwich, salami, turkey, pimento cheese, etc. As I slid my tray down the line, I grabbed a cup and filled it up with diet coke from the ancient soda fountain, slid past the self-serve refrigerator with a hand written sign offering the best banana pudding you would ever eat, and got ready to tell my order to one of the numerous young people moving in a chaotic ballet of sandwiches and side dishes.

The teenager behind the counter shouted “NEXT ORDER!” and immediately began looking at me impatiently. “Chicken breast sandwich, on wheat!” I said loudly. In less than a minute the line had moved down numerous spots and it seemed like I was rushing past the sandwich line as a flurry of workers put together sandwiches, bowls of soup, sides of pasta, and deli pickles. As I quickly moved closer to the cash register I was asked by a different teenager, “you want fries or pasta salad?” Again I hesitated. I started looking around and see movement all around me; yet again I am stalling the well oiled machine. “Pasta salad” I manage to mumble out. “LettuceTomatoMayoHoneyMustard?” she asks in a single breath. “Uhm…sure.” I replied before I had even understood what it was I was being asked. The line kept moving and suddenly I was standing next to the cash register with an empty tray. I started to tell the guy I got a chicken sandwich, but before it is out of my mouth he says “Number Two with pasta and a soda, $7.70 please.” His fingers then began dancing over the buttons; he knew the price before the register did. Clearly the man had sold a sandwich or two in his day. Seemingly out of nowhere a plate appeared with a large sandwich and a heaping pile of pasta salad and was placed on the counter in front of me. I took my change, grabbed my plate and found a small table in the dining room next to an elderly couple.

I took a look at my sandwich and immediately realized how sloppy it looks. Chicken hung out irregularly around the parts of the large rectangular bun. After my first bite, any concerns about the presentation disappeared. The bun was a large wheat bun with a slightly sweet taste, toasted to be firm enough to hold a large piece of chicken without falling apart within the first few bites. I quickly realized that the chicken was hanging out from parts of the bun because it was a real chicken breast that looked like it was grilled right there in the store, not a processed chicken patty, or neatly formed grilled and pressed breast meat creation. The bulk of the meat was juicy and easy to bite through, with a few dry areas around the periphery. The honey mustard was sweet and mild, adding flavor to the chicken but not overpowering it. The shredded lettuce fell out from the edges of the sandwich as I begin to devour my meal. I was immediately impressed with the sandwich and ate half of it in only a few bites. I realized how fast I wolfed down the first half and look around at my fellow patrons, hoping that no one noticed. I take a few bites of the pasta salad. It is your typical multi-colored rotini pasta with some veggies and what tastes like Italian dressing; it was the standard good compliment to just about any sandwich.

As I forced myself to slow down while I ate the rest of my meal, I started to people-watch. I decided that the slightly graying man working the cash register must be the owner because he kept a watchful eye on everything that is going on. Occasionally he gave out instructions to the sandwich makers and table bussing staff. He always had a slight smile on his face and didn’t look stressed out, no matter how busy the line got. There were two children walking around the dining room offering to clear away trays the moment patrons were done eating. I assumed that they were the register guy’s children from the way he kept his eye on them. The pace of the line hardly let up as I ate. Seconds after I put my napkin down on my plate, one of the children immediately came up and asked me if I was done and could he take my tray please. I nod to him and he quickly grabbed it.

I looked around and realized that if the flux capacitor in my Delorean was working, I could have had this exact same experience in 1985, or even 1995. Everything about the No Name Deli is likely the same as it has been for years. The reason for this is no doubt because there is no need to update anything. The menu is simple, straight forward, and good. The service is quick and efficient. There are no gimmicks or trendy ideas, just fresh food made and served quickly- and that puts it on my list of my favorite places in Columbia.

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