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What if East Coast Grill married a Manhattan sandwich shop and had a baby? The result would be All Star Sandwich Bar, located just four doors down the street from ECG. The concept, born from a playful argument former All Star Sandwich Bar owner Chris Schlesinger was having on sandwiches one day, is to offer the classic (or “all star”) sandwiches from the past and from other regions of the country.
Regional specialties like beef on weck (Buffalo, NY) and the muffaletta (New Orleans, LA) offer something new. For the nostalgic, All Star offers iconic sandwiches like the Reuben, the Cuban and the BLT. There's a vegetarian sandwich of the day and a grilled cheese of the day. Other daily specials feature "funky" and an "extra funky" sandwich offerings that showcase the creativity of the kitchen.
Other classics include the Rachel, the Monte Cristo and the Pastraminator, all of which were relegated to once-a-week status as specials of the day in a November 2006 menu revamping. Among these weekly specials is the not-to-be-missed Atomic Meatloaf Meltdown (Saturdays), served hot on grilled sourdough with ECG’s famous Inner Beauty hot sauce (Inner Beauty is one of my favorite hot sauces and a true all star in its own right).
You’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with barbecue. Two of the best sandwiches here feature barbecued meats from the East Coast Grill smoker. My favorite is the Texas Reuben ($8.95, available Tuesdays): sliced smoked brisket, Monterey Jack cheese, cumin seed cole slaw and chipotle Russian dressing on grilled light rye. This sandwich is a symphony of flavors and textures, with each of the ingredients contributing harmoniously to the score. The high quality bread is sliced slightly thicker than normal, with a crunchy crust and a decadently buttery crispness from grilling everywhere else. The brisket is sliced slightly thinner than normal, with its own crispness on the outside, and a bright pink smoke ring and juicy tenderness inside. The contrast of the crunchy slaw and velvety melted cheese enhances the meat without upstaging it.
And then there’s the BBQ Pork Sandwich ($6.50, available Thursdays), done in a fairly traditional Eastern North Carolina style, with the pork piled high on a cheap bun, cole slaw underneath the moist pork mound, and Tabasco-infused vinegar hiding in the crevices. It’s the kind of sandwich that doesn’t look like much until you take a bite and the juices explode in your mouth with authority. A closer look at the meat inside reveals pieces of varying textures and sizes. This sandwich is spicier than the rendition a few doors down at East Coast Grill, with a redder, less vinegary sauce. It’s also not as smoky, but it’s very good.
Most of the other sandwiches are around $9, served with housed pickles. Most arrive cut in two halves, making them ideal for sharing. I like to tell my wife that that’s the only way I managed to try 12 different sandwiches in their first month. I think she believes me.
Of the sandwiches I’ve tried, most were at least very good, with some truly great (the Pastraminator, the griddled cheese with bacon, the Texas Reuben). The Cuban was my only disappointment; I thought the mayo was a little out of place and heavy handed.
There have been at least three versions of the chili, billed as Texas State Pen chili ($3.50/cup; $5.50/bowl). All had brisket, none had beans and all were very good. The uniquely exotic original version had lots of spices (I think cumin was the main ingredient) but not a lot of heat. The second version used less spice but kicked up the heat level significantly (though nowhere near East Coast Grill Hell Night hot). The current version is the best of both worlds, with the spice of the first version and the heat of the second. This is a very good chili, among the best I’ve had when it's served hot.
French fries are available four ways: Pile of Fries ($3.00), Gravy Fries ($3.75), Cheese Fries ($4.25) and Chili Cheese Fries ($4.50). I’ve only had the basic fry pile, and it was a pretty good portion of hand-cut, skin-on, thin and crispy fries. These are very good as long as you eat them before they get cool, and the quality of the coarse sea salt at the table makes these even better. After cooling, they tend to get a little soggy.
There is a soup of the day ($3.50) and three different salads (mixed greens, grilled chopped vegetable and Cobb; $4.50 to $9.50).
Hamburgers, introduced in mid-October 2006 and available only after 3:00PM, are 8-ounce patties with 25% fat. They're made to order and arrive bursting with juices and beef flavor. They'll cook these to any desired doneness, with no problem for rare and medium rare. I'd rank this among the best burgers I've had in a restaurant, although at $13 for a bacon cheeseburger (including fries and slaw), it should be.
This joint was a big deal from day 1, with anticipation building into frenzy even before it opened. Menus were posted on Chowhound, a profile appeared in Stuff at Night and progress was reported on this site. Expectations were high, based on Schlesinger’s history and the sheer tantaliciousness of the menu. Immediate visibility cost All Star Sandwich Bar the luxury of ramping up in relative anonymity the way most similar places do. They lived up to the promise (and then some) as far as the food went, but the service was a little shaky in the beginning. The counter servers had trouble entering orders and the kitchen struggled to keep up with the demand. They took advantage of the Labor Day 2006 weekend to regroup, and emerged with table service and improved wait times. After the November 2006 menu shakedown, the kitchen found its stride at the expense of its previous menu breadth. They’re still working out some of the service kinks, but I’m gladly willing to wait 15 minutes for a meal that’s only a little more expensive than Burger King but 100 times better.
The bottom line: It's no longer part pf the same ownership as East Coast Grill, but the meats and methods have not changed. All Star Sandwich serves some damn good sandwiches, barbecue or otherwise, along with a burger that'll stand up to anyone's and a brisket chili that kicks some serious butt. If they'd serve all my favorites (barbecue or otherwise) all the time, I'd be very happy.