I consider myself a creature of habit. Fearing the regret of trying something new and ending up dissatisfied, I rarely stray from the path when I’m eating out. I know what I like. The path is safe. Sometimes the path leads me to Noodle Bar on Carmine Street, where I order the vegetable pad thai lunch special. On Mondays, the path is eggplant schnitzel from the Schnitzel ‘N’ Things truck at Hudson and King. At Pret A Manger I get Moroccan lentil soup. At PS Burgers, it’s the black bean veggie burger. At Better Being Underground, the subterranean lunch joint on Leroy Street, it’s the sandwich known as The Squashbuckler.
I still remember my first visit. Looking for what I initially thought was a burrito joint called “Better Bean,” I did a double take upon seeing the faux subway sign (MTA, not sad sandwich chain) that read “Better Being Underground.” An arrow pointed down a set of stairs that I imagined lead to a dungeon. Luckily dungeons don’t scare me. I strode down the steps and through a rickety screen door into what has since become one of my favorite midday grub spots in all of New York.
Getting this sandwich can be a real experience. It’s not uncommon for me to ride in there with dreams of squash and walk right back out with a bitter frown. The menu changes daily, sandwiches sell out quickly, and I forget to bring cash often. Some days I arrive early enough to avoid the crowd and, as familiar strangers do, exchange a “What’s up?” head nod with a guy behind the counter.
Today, however, I’m anxious. I’ve been greeted by a bottleneck of ravenous customers. (The extremely tight quarters of the shop can hold no more than 12 to 15 people, standing room only.) One of the three employees regularly calls out to the crowd and asks if anyone’s ready to order. There is no formal line, and the traffic jam of customers is soon out the door and up the stairs. We’re told to take a one of a handful of menus and pass the rest to the person behind us. Orders are to be called out as they’re chosen, which is easy for me. I order the same damn sandwich every time.
One guy calls out for a St. Luke. “Sorry, sold out!” Another asks for a Waseggy. Same response. I’m not fancying my chances as I call out, “I want a Squashbuckler!” from the back of the pack. “One left, congrats,” he hollers back. I mentally gave him a high five and try to hide my glee. I’m sure there are some snoozers and losers behind me that wanted one, too.
Most of the sandwiches here are pre-made and kept wrapped until ordered, then grill-pressed just prior to serving. As I wait for the day’s last Squashbuckler, something strange happens. It’s only 1:30 p.m. and Better Being Underground are sold out of every sandwich except the one with fried green tomatoes. I wait and watch as people turn away, scrambling for a Plan B. I’ve been there, and want to offer my condolences.
Instead, I grab my sandwich and quickly rush across Leroy Street to a park shaded by apartment buildings and tall oak trees and proceed to sit myself on the curb of an unused bocce court. Before long I’m hunched over like a gargoyle, eagerly devouring the Squashbuckler, trying to remind myself that good food should be enjoyed, not swallowed whole. I can hear my father yelling at me: “Chew your food!” LEAVE ME ALONE, DAD. He’s right, though. I try to eat slower and take note. Squash, manchego, red onion, kale, chipotle mayo. I recognized how the light dusting of pepper and layer of chipotle mayo hung on with each bite, igniting and warming the back of my throat before being neutralized by the vinegar from the pickled red onions. The dark orange squash is buttery and ripe, and little effort is needed to pull apart each bite, forcefully accompanied by long leafy heaps of dark green steamed kale and stretchy ropes of creamy manchego sheep’s milk cheese.
Before I know it, all that’s left is the greasy foil wrapper and the free plum that came with my sandwich. My belly is full but I’m craving another bite, as I do every time I’ve eaten the Squashbuckler. $10.99 might seem a bit steep for a sandwich to-go, but I don’t mind paying for good food. I’ve certainly paid more and been less satisfied at other places many times before. The secret underground club vibe and race to eat are part of the Better Being charm. Their motto is “Good Mood Food,” and I’d have to agree. Unless they’re sold out of my sandwich.