City Sub I’ve
450 Bergen St.
(Betw. Flatbush & 5th Aves.)
never been one to sniff out the lunchtime trails of cops, firemen or cabdrivers
on the assumption that the members of those professions know all the best cheap
places to eat. In fact, I operate on the opposite assumption: Sure, it’s
true that lawmen, axmen and Pakistani hacks have palates that incline toward
the cheap; but, unfortunately, "cheap" in my book infrequently equates
with "good." Yes, I cherish the three-dollar falafel as much as the
next guy, but I’m under no illusions that a three-dollar falafel is going
to transcend its humble station. Likewise, the chow favored by New York’s
Finest and New York’s Bravest is often scant on flavor, long on gutbusting
caloric heft. Case in point: the perfectly understandable enthusiasm that firemen
seem to harbor for the Food Network’s Emeril Lagasse, whose food is bulky,
fatty, often repulsive, but rarely…small. Don’t get me wrong here–five-alarm
high-rise blazes in this cramped tinderbox metropolis demand bravery and calories…to
burn. I’m not interested in dainty-dining firemen. By the same token, I’m
wary of cops who look too buff, too vain, like L.A. cops. Chubby New York cops
should stick to the donuts–it prevents then from developing that vaguely
fascist, narcissistic West Coast demeanor, that BMOC Aryan vibe. A fleet-footed
felon can outrun a New York cop, and maybe that’s good. An unstated catch-and-release
policy, sort of, that allows criminality some humanizing slack.
That’s the way it’s
been ever since I moved back to Brooklyn, about three years ago. I live right
down the street from a precinct house, on a thoroughfare that connects Flatbush
Ave. to Boerum Hill. A few doors down from my shabby place resides City Sub,
the default lunchtime choice of, it seems, every fireman and cop (certainly
every cop) within a 5-mile radius. City Sub’s whole concept is quaintly
alluring. When was the last time you stumbled across an old-school sub shop?
Not Subway, but a true-blue old-fashioned sub shop that makes only hero-sized
sandwiches with all the fixings? The corner deli? No, that doesn’t count,
because delis fall into a different category and spring from a different ethos,
an urban identity. Sub shops are, to my mind, more Middle American, more small-town.
And that’s what Brooklyn is: the small, neglected town, the bumpkin village
in the shadow of Shangri La.
Apparently, when I first
moved out, City Sub (and even that name means something, now doesn’t it?
City Sub, not Bergen Sub or Cop Sub or anything like that) was run entirely
by its proprietor, a lanky Asian guy who had developed a rigorous, almost machine-like
means of assembling his sandwiches. The first few times I stopped in, I stood
there mesmerized as he took the orders down on a preprinted pad (all he needs
to do is check off customer selections), then kicked into the sub-shop equivalent
of a Benihana cook’s mojo. Italian bread sliced and spread with a variety
of classic condiments, hunks of Boar’s Head deli meats and cheeses heaved
onto the slicer, wax paper used to hold sliced meat and cheese to be heated
in the microwave, so that they can be easily flipped on the waiting bread. The
fixings–lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, olives, peppers, salt and pepper,
oil and vinegar–applied a la carte once the basic sandwich is prepared.
A selection of 24 different sandwiches, numbered, displayed on the wall, ranked
by price from $4.99 to $5.99. Which doesn’t mean that you’re bound
to those choices. I usually compose my own sandwich when I order, generally
something a lot simpler than the wall combos.
Over the past few years,
City Sub has done nothing but grow. The Asian master sandwichmaker has stepped
into more of a managerial role, leaving the day-to-day labor to a pair of Hispanic
guys who, clearly, have studied at the master’s feet. Neither is quite
as crisply efficient as his boss, but both are skilled and focused, and they
look sharp in their City Sub whites and peaked paper City Sub hats. Even when
the joint is packed, I’ve never waited more than 10 minutes.
There’s nothing stupendous
about City Sub’s product. For the most part, the subs taste like just about
nothing. The bread is soft and chewy, but crustless (there are, however, sesame
seeds, which provide a slight improvement on the texture); the cold cuts industrial-grade
and devoid of salami-ness or turkey-ness or corned beef-ness; the cheeses also
industrial, and rubbery; the mustard bland; the fixings out of jars and cans.
And I’m a raving sandwich snob–I like my sandwiches to be composed
of prime meats, layered onto great bread and dressed with impeccable, curious
condiments. But City Sub, despite its general mediocrity, has worked its charms
on me, turning me away from the slickness of places like Cosi. I usually drop
in at least one day a week, order roasted turkey with spicy mustard, pickles
and something else, add a bag of Utz chips and a SoBe Elixir and amble back
to my pad to eat lunch while watching ESPN. If I’m feeling like a show,
I’ll order by number. Number 2: Smoked Ham with American Cheese. Number
4: Pastrami with Melted Provolone. Number 15: Turkey Pastrami with Jack Cheese.
Number 19: Ham with Genoa Salami and Provolone. Watch the guys kick it into
autopilot, whip them subs right out. The door is almost always wide open to
the endless stream of customers. There are a few tables up front. The neon "City
Sub" sign cheerfully beckons. Half the patrons are armed, the other half
And that’s maybe one
of the hidden benefits of City Sub: it’s a shop that has figured out how
to make itself a neighborhood institution and keep the streets safe, at the