WATERTOWN The pursuit of a properly constructed submarine sandwich is a noble one. Like pizza, a sub is greater than the sum of it parts. Each ingredient must be equally able to stand on its own and, at the same time, not overpower the rest.
I may have said cheese sliding off a still-too-hot pizza was the worst food tragedy, but the sadness that ensues after taking a bite of a sub, only for all the fillings to fall on the plate or waxed paper below, may top it. Often, a too-slippery slick of mayonnaise or an ill-placed tomato is to blame.
The pizza problem can be easily solved by letting the slice cool down, but in the case of a cold cut sub, there isnt a whole lot you can do about temperature. Youre not going to freeze your sub, and heating it up would make it worse, plus it would be weird. Nope, not much you can do.
So for this, it comes down to construction. Meat, cheese, vegetables, spreads, sauces and oils all enclosed by an oblong loaf. It seems simple, but there is a science involved.
So I was off to The Little Barn Bulk Foods, an unassuming white barn, in search of a sub up to snuff.
In a food culture today where people crave more choices and the ability to customize all parts of their order, the Little Barn certainly satisfies.
Theres roast beef, ham, turkey, salami, bologna and rest of the usual cast, all from John F. Martin & Sons in Lancaster County, Pa. This sounds standard until you consider that there are five varieties of ham, from spicy Italian cappicola (thats gabagool for you Sopranos fans out there) and sweet honey ham, to meaty off-the-bone ham and the classic pink boiled bricks.
There are four varieties of turkey and four kinds of beef, too. All said and done, theres more than 20 meats available for your picking. Cant choose just one? Thats OK, you can make a combination sub as well.
It wouldnt be a proper sub sandwich without cheese, and they certainly do not disappoint. In fact, there are 15 or so cheeses available. Sure theres American and Swiss and provolone, but theres Buffalo wing cheddar, dill havarti and for the lactose-intolerant folks who may have disagreed with the first sentence of this paragraph, theres even a lactose-free yogurt cheese.
Each sub is $6.99 for a whole (12 to 13 inches) and $4.99 for a half. Thats the price for every sub, whether it be bologna and American cheese or roast beef and salami paired with sliced Asiago cheese, like mine.
Im a big fan of stronger-flavored cheeses in a sub, so the Asiago, with its Parmesan-esque flavor, was a welcome choice. The Italian roast beef I chose was spiced with rosemary, garlic and other flavors, and the hard salami had enough cured meat funk to stand up with the rest of the components.
There are the usual additions like mayonnaise, mustard, shredded lettuce, sliced tomato, sub oil, dill and sweet pickles; banana peppers, pickled jalapenos and hot peppers, grated Parmesan and dried oregano.
At a place with 35 different meats and cheeses, its no surprise thats theres also a handful of mustard options. All are from Nunda Mustard, located in the town bearing its name around 20 miles south of Geneseo.
There are no yellow squeeze bottles here. Customers have a choice of cracked peppercorn, jalapeno, smoky maple, horseradish-caraway, garlic and the original tangy variety.
I went with the horseradish and caraway seed mustard, but I was tempted by the garlic and the cracked peppercorn and pretty much all the rest. Next time, I tell myself. Next time.
Unlike some chain sandwich shops, where theres only enough meat to cover the roll and the cheese is skimpily applied in as few triangles as possible, theres a good amount of fillings in the Little Barn sub. The roll, from Schenectadys Mastroianni Bros., is full but not bursting at the seams; youre not going to be Clara Peller, left wondering Wheres the beef?
In a (hyphenated) word, its well-balanced. The tomatoes were deep red and very tasty such a pleasant departure from the pale pink, mealy slices that usually top fast-food sandwiches, that I could have gone for a few slices more. Id also have liked another scoop of the hot pepper relish, but maybe thats just because I like spice. Next time Ill ask for extra.
For the quality of the products, $7 for a large sub is a great deal. All the cold cuts are sliced fresh, and cheeses include brands like BelGioioso and Yanceys Fancy. Unless your sub of choice is the $5 foot long of the month at Subway, itll be cheaper at Little Barn. And it will taste better no matter what.
All the meats and cheeses are sold by the pound as well, as are the salads. I paired my sub with a side of macaroni salad. At $2.99 pound, a third-pound side was more than enough and ran only a dollar. Nice. It could have used another pinch of salt, and chopped hard boiled egg or pickle would have pushed it over the edge, but there was some nice celery crunch and the noodles were perfectly cooked and paired with just the right amount of mayonnaise. A very solid salad.
The store is largely a bulk food store, selling spices, grains, nuts and candies well below supermarket retail. Local products like Croghan Bologna, cheese curds and River Rat cheeses are on sale, as is smoked slab bacon and other fresh meats from the butcher counter.
Located at the Peer Farm on Route 3 in Hounsfield, three miles west of the Salmon Run Mall, The Little Barn Bulk Foods is certainly worth the drive. Come in for the groceries and stay for the sub, or come for lunch and grab some groceries on your way out. Either way, its worth it. Its hard to miss. Just look for the red wagon across the street.
Rating: 3 1/2 spoons
the little barn bulk foods
17937 Route 3, Watertown NY
Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday
10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday