Everyone has a favorite hole in the wall.
Fans of nondescript places that are low on atmosphere and big on honest-to-goodness real-deal eats know what I’m talking about.
Many sub-genres exist within the hole-in-the-wall category – burger stands, barbecue joints and my current personal favorite – sandwich emporiums.
I’ve found three of those sandwich shops lately that qualify as legitimate holes in the wall. Little or no frills around the edges, simply furnished, clean and efficient, a friendly face to take your order at a counter. No Chihuly hangs in the lobby, no bubbly people wearing name tags and flair. Click “more” to read about them.
YOUR TURN: Tell us where to go to get the best sandwiches. Just click and comment below.
Shorty’s Grub House
Where: 34417 Pacific Highway S., Federal Way
Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays, 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.
Steve Sheeley owned Steve’s Grill catering company for seven years before opening Shorty’s Grub House in Federal Way. It’s part diner, part barbecue joint, part sandwich emporium. The emphasis is smoke and flavor – Sheeley does both well.
The restaurant is small and cute and short on space. With a tiny kitchen on display from much of the dining room, diners will find Sheeley slicing meat by hand, grilling hash or stirring some sauce.
The name Shorty’s is a nod to his father, a brick layer whose co-workers called him Shorty.
Four sandwiches to try:
BBQ Beef Brisket sandwich ($8.95): Juicy, tender chewy brisket with just a hint of smoke – how come my brisket never turns out this way? – stacked between buttered Texas Toast.
Meatloaf ($7.95): House-smoked homemade meatloaf came crispy around the grilled edges and studded with garlic and onions. Topped with a splash of house-made Grubbin’ Sauce (barbecue with a sweet twist), the slab of meatloaf was stuffed into a chewy ciabatta-style roll along with sweet caramelized onions.
Salmon pesto ($9.95): Also on the same chewy ciabatta roll, a lightly smoked salmon filet with fresh green leaf lettuce, sliced tomatoes and a garlicky basil pesto that oozed olive oil down my arm – and I didn’t mind a bit.
Pulled pork ($8.95): Tender, smoked and chewy with a light tuggy pull, the pulled pork was slathered with barbecue sauce and sandwiched on a delicious, chewy, brown molasses roll.
Sides: Sandwiches come with a side. Sweet potato hash crunched around the edges and was dusted with cinnamon (like a barbecue version of Thanksgiving yams). Green beans were peppered with chewy twice-smoked bacon. Creamy potato salad was dressed with a peppery mustard mayo dressing. French fries are skins on, hand cut, crispy good.
MSM Deli (Magical Sandwich Makers)
Where: 2220 Sixth Ave., Tacoma
Hours: 9 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays and 8 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays
Could I really write an ode to sandwiches without including MSM Deli? It’s a little place that looks like a sketchy convenience store but is a deli complete with a bottle shop featuring 200 different beers, including an interesting and broad selection of microbrews.
I almost hesitate to write about the Magical Sandwich Makers because the line already winds out the door.
There’s an unwritten code to eating at MSM – you call your order ahead, then bypass the line at the front register, go around to the right and stand in that line (it’s unmarked as the pick-up register, but regulars know the local customs).
Second-generation owner Jamal Muthala took over from his father Mike. The deli has achieved cult status in Tacoma. It’s not uncommon to find moms and kids sandwiched next to UPS students next to hipsters on their way to a Sixth Avenue destination. Everyone eats at MSM Deli.
BLT ($4.95): Nice, thick sourdough bread, although nothing overly special (as is the case with most of the bread at MSM, but it always tastes fresh). Layers of chewy bacon butted against thick sliced tomatoes, which were glued to the toasted bread with a healthy smear of mayo. Purists will give thumbs down to shredded lettuce over leaf. The sandwich is big, and this is why people love MSM: value.
Build your own veggie ($4.95): Please the veg-head in your clan with a do-it-yourself veggie. We ordered provolone on a French roll. If you took a geological core sample of this sandwich, it’d have the deepest crust of cheese I’ve seen all year. Four layers of cheese with tomatoes, shredded lettuce, sprouts, mayo and mustard made for a happy veggy dining companion. They also offer falafel.
Philly Steak ($6.50): This is not a traditional Philly, but I don’t care (I wrote that roundup report last year, remember?). A toasted French roll was layered with melted provolone over delicious, fatty, tender piles of chopped steak mixed with scant onions and green peppers. Tomatoes and a heavy smear of mayo stuck it all together. So good, I even forgave them for over toasting the bread.
Meconi’s Italian Subs
Where: 5225-A Lacey Blvd., Lacey. Locations also in Olympia and Tumwater.
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays
This three-store chain was founded in 1986 by Wayne and Nancy Meconi, who started Meconi’s Italian Subs in Lacey after struggling to find a sub shop here that mimicked the East Coast deli subs they enjoyed while living in Williamsport, Pa.
The Lacey store might be funky with low-slung hard booths and jarring green carpet, but these people know how to make sandwiches – really big ones. The bread is spongy soft and made in an in-house bakery. Meats and cheeses are generous. The line is long. You’ve been warned.
Philly cheesesteak ($5.49 for half): Wow, this is a half sandwich? A squishy fresh roll, at least 8 inches long, held steaming hot chopped steak, sautéed mushrooms, pepper and onions. Mozzarella cheese glued it all together.
Meatball ($4.69 half): Thick, tender, fluffy meatballs heavily spiked with garlic, dosed with tangy marinara, and covered with a thick crust of melted mozzarella – all on toasted bread.
Combo ($4.29 half): Sliced chicken, turkey, ham and provolone topped with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, sliced onions and hit with a shaker of dried Italian herbs (as are all the cold subs).
Capicola ($4.69 half): Capicola embodied everything I love about the cured meat that’s made out of pork shoulder – chewy, thick, rich, salty and meaty. On a sandwich, it’s bliss in a roll.