Taylor Gourmet: The Slow Fade of a Once Great Sandwich Shop

Broad Street

My final Broad Street? A hoagie to end all hoagies.

On Wednesday night I decided that I had eaten my last sandwich from Taylor Gourmet. Admittedly, I came to this decision lightly, in the aftermath of a minor service gaffe at the Gallery Place location that warrants mention only because it clarified a fact I’d avoided admitting to myself for a long time: This is no longer a special place for sandwiches.

For those unfamiliar with the sandwich scene in Our Nation’s Capital, some context: Taylor Gourmet is a local chain of Philly-style hoagie shops that opened its first location on H Street NE in 2008, when that now bustling nightlife corridor was still the kind of place cab drivers refused to go. Like the handful of quirky and curious taverns that neighbored it, it took on an air of exclusivity. Anyone who experienced it firsthand came home and told tales of its awesomeness. The sandwiches are huge! It’s open late! It has really cool rustic/industrial decor!

But at some point between the opening of that first location and the ninth, something changed, and it’s hard to say exactly when or what. “Selling out” is a phrase that comes to mind, but we’re talking about a business here. Really it was something more than that. Much was made of the switch, in 2011, from Philly-baked Sarcone’s rolls to those of a local, ostensibly lower-quality baker. It could have been when Taylor stopped serving the Aramingo Avenue, history’s greatest breakfast sandwich. The owners opened and closed Taylor Charles Steak & Ice, a really decent cheesesteak shop, and replaced it earlier this year with Parts Parts and Service, a pretty lousy pizza joint. Or maybe it was President Obama’s visit late last year; it’s hard to maintain any semblance of mystique once the world’s most powerful suit has been there.

In a previous life, I had the opportunity to interview Bryant Keil, then and now the chairman and CEO of Potbelly. It was 2007, and Potbelly already had more than 100 locations, but was still years from becoming the ubiquitous presence that it is today. Keil told me, “Many businesses in our industry start out as something special, and then, over time, get really smart people who figure out cheaper, faster ways to do things and it all becomes the overprocessing of a culture.” Keil’s goal was to maintain a unique character at each Potbelly location, no matter how large the chain became. Has he achieved this goal? Probably not. Are Potbelly’s sandwiches still pretty good? I think so. Is Taylor Gourmet in danger of suffering the same fate on a local level? Maybe it already has.

Taylor has continued to rack up various best-of-D.C. honors, and for good reason. They have a huge menu with something for everyone. They deliver. They serve breakfast. They’ve gradually opened enough locations to effectively blanket the DMV region. I made this same argument is the argument to justify their choice as Best Sandwich in the 2012 Post Express poll. Even today, after six years of sandwiches, I’ve never been anything more or less than satisfied with my meals there, and that’s no small feat.

Ultimately, though, the most significant development since the advent of Taylor Gourmet is an explosion of high-quality, diverse sandwich options in Washington, D.C. The bar has been raised. Taylor is probably partly responsible for this, but competition is fierce, and it has plainly not kept up with the high standards it helped establish. Instead, it expanded its reach without evolving its offerings. It will remain popular as long as there are still folks finding Taylor for the first time, but for me, the time has come to experience life beyond hoagies.

Gulf Coasting: The Hawaiian Grouper at Hula Bay

The Hawaiian grouper sandwich at Hula Bay, Tampa.

The Hawaiian grouper sandwich at Hula Bay, Tampa.

Is it a good thing when a side order and dipping sauces overshadow the sandwich you’ve ordered at a restaurant you’re eating at for the first time? The glass-half-full answer is of course, that experiencing any sort of gustatory joy is a worthy achievement, even if it’s the consumption of a pile of petal-cut fries and some spicy sweet and sour sauce. Another point of view (roughly) parallels the old saw that one will often return to an eatery with poor service if the food is outstanding, but superb service will not attract return visits if the food is unremarkable. I can’t imagine saying to myself: “Gee, the fries at that place are really good — let’s go there!”

Because the fries at Hula Bay, located deep in South Tampa off Westshore Boulevard near MacDill Air Force Base, are really superb. As you can tell, the analogy with “service” is imperfect, but I hope you get my point. The place has much besides the fries to recommend it for a return visit (not the least of which is a great rum-runner, that staple of waterfront Florida dining and drinking). And the fried grouper nuggets are dipped in beer and crushed cornflakes before their swim in the oil. Outstanding, and accompanied by more of that delicious deep-red sweet and sour sauce. In hindsight, I probably should’ve used that sauce on my sandwich instead of the lime tartar sauce (house-made, according to our server, for what that’s worth; the cole slaw is also “made to order”).

This is not to imply the “Hawaiian-style” grouper sandwich at Hula Bay is subpar. One can order it one of three ways — fried, with the homemade tartar sauce; grilled in citrus butter; or blackened with melted bleu cheese. I opted for the first method. Simple, right? After all, a lot of seafood loses a degree of its distinctive taste when fried, but on a sandwich that can be overlooked. Also, with other means of cooking, such as blackening, I often want to toss away the bun as an unnecessary obstacle. The filet on this sandwich is impressive — hanging over the edge of the bun, and fried lightly, not to the point where the “fried” outweighs the fish. Aside from the tartar sauce it comes with the usual accompaniments of lettuce, tomato, and red onion slices. I dispensed with the tomato and added the remaining two fixings. One of the first things I noticed was the bun — thick, buttery, and filling, but not to a degree where it overpowers the sandwich filling (one thing that can absolutely spoil a sandwich for me). The tartar sauce was nice, not too salty, a fine complement to the fish. The rum runner was, as usual, a fine aperitif. My daughter was amazed by it; she has been less-than-thrilled at the rum runners offered at other Bay-area establishments.

If you don’t notice an effusion of enthusiasm here, that’s intentional. A nice grouper fillet can never be ruined. But I found myself thinking more and more about the fries. And the grouper nuggets*. And the dipping sauce. Wow… that sauce. It’s worth a trip to South Tampa, if only for the waterfront views, the appetizers, the drinks, and… the sauce.

Christopher Nank, Ph.D., is adjunct instructor of literature at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. He resides in Tampa.

The Uptowner Cafe Has Closed


The Uptowner Cafe, in its prime.

It’s with a heavy heart that I share the news that The Uptowner Cafe, the independently-owned sandwich shop I wrote about so lovingly last month, has closed.

The writing on the wall was there for anyone willing to see it. The scarcity of business was the biggest hint that all was not well. Located directly below my office, The Uptowner was the kind of eatery where nary a frill could be found. It was a simple place that sold well-crafted, simple sandwiches. It was a favorite of mine and my colleagues partly because it reliable and cheap, but most of all because it was fast — this because there was rarely a line to wait in. On any given weekday, you were as likely to run into one of the 48 employees of Threespot as you were any of the other 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia. Continue reading

Each Peach Market, in Mount Pleasant

The Dude, from Each Peach Market Salami, ham, hot capicola, mozzarella, arugula, tomato, and banana peppers

The Dude, from Each Peach Market
Salami, ham, hot capicola, mozzarella, arugula, tomato, and banana peppers

Among the retailers that define a mature urban enclave — a dry cleaner, a watering hole, a coffee shop, a drugstore — none is more crucial than the corner grocery. It’s a place to grab a bulb of garlic on the quick, a baguette at sunrise, or a bottle of wine (or pint of ice cream) after a long day. Convenience and quality come at a cost, of course, but no neighborhood is truly complete without one.

Residents of Mount Pleasant, in Northwest D.C., are lucky for a lot of reasons unrelated to their skyrocketing property values. The Raven is one of the District’s great dives, and the long-standing Heller’s is a D.C. legend for good reason. But while many hoods around the capital can boast a nice bar and good bakery, none other has a local grocery quite like Each Peach Market. Continue reading

On The Lobster Roll, The World’s Greatest Sandwich

Made from the best stuff on Earth.

Made from the best stuff on Earth, the lobster roll at Thurston’s Lobster Pound

The culinary principle that the best meals start with the best ingredients — garbage in, garbage out, you might call it — applies to a much greater extent to steak tartare or trout amandine than it does to a sandwich. Sandwiches, at least the good ones, are inherently greater than the sum of their parts. They rely on technique, proportion, construction, and contrasts of flavor, texture, and temperature. By and large, getting these things right matters far more than whether a cheesesteak is made with shaved truffles and sliced Kobe beef or grocery store sirloin. Continue reading