This is the perfect time of year to check out the eateries that border the University of Arizona. During summer session, they're not overrun by UA students and staff, so you can get an idea of what the restaurants can do when they're not under the pressure they suffer at other times, particularly at the beginning of the fall semester.
Last week, I sampled two of the sandwich shops along University Boulevard within a block of the UA Main Gate. They're both chain operations, which meant I was expecting corporatized food that expresses values like easy preparation and high return on investment over flavor. One of the places turned out to meet those low expectations, although it did get points for its friendly, efficient staff. The other establishment, employing a more imaginative concept and perhaps superior ingredients, was much better than I'd anticipated.
Its name is Which Wich? Superior Sandwiches, a franchise outfit with locations in about 16 states. The question mark in the name is a clue to the gimmick here: It's all about choices.
There are 10 broad categories of sandwiches: turkey, ham and pork, beef, chicken, seafood, vegetarian, Italian, comforts, classics and breakfast (served all day). Within each category are five basic refinements; "comforts," for example, breaks down to meatloaf, egg salad, chicken salad, Spam (!) and triple cheese. Once you've narrowed down your possibilities, you customize the spreads, fillers and seasonings you want—there's usually a choice of toasted breads (only white or whole wheat, unfortunately), cheeses, mustards, mayos, oils and dressings, veggies and so forth. Almost every sandwich costs $5.25, no matter how much lettuce and peppers and condiments you request; the price goes up only for special items like avocado, extra cheese or extra meat.
Instead of standing at the cash register—pressured to finalize your decision while holding up the line and hoping against hope that the clerk will take down your preferences correctly—you mark your choices on an order slip that doubles as the bag that will eventually hold your sandwich. There are separate slips for warm cookies (chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin) and shakes (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, pineapple, Oreo). You have to ask for fountain drinks the old-fashioned way.
A few special sandwiches cost $6.25, including the joint's signature offering, the aptly named Wicked. Its basis: turkey, ham, roast beef, pepperoni, bacon and three cheeses. My cheese choices were provolone, pepper jack and mozzarella; I also requested Dijon mustard, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomatoes and garlic, on whole wheat. In the interest of a thorough investigation, I also ordered a chocolate-chip cookie and a small strawberry shake, which I got as a combo for an extra $3.50.
The sandwich was terrific, with very flavorful ingredients (exactly the combination I ordered) on good toasted bread. The shake was very fruity and so thick that it was difficult to suck through the straw. The cookie was warm, soft and delectable.
My wife ordered a small banana shake ($2.75) with malt and extra banana (an additional 50 cents each), and was pleased with the result. Her sandwich, she said, would have been rather tasteless had she not spruced it up with the right extras. From the vegetarian section, she ordered the black-bean patty, which contained corn and whole beans, but, as often happens with vegetarian patties, it didn't deliver a great deal of flavor. Luckily, she chose the other ingredients wisely: provolone, marinara, caramelized onions, cucumber (sliced rather than shredded), bell peppers, mushrooms, oregano, parmesan and crushed red peppers on whole wheat. The result was a good, crunchy, quasi-Italian sandwich for which no animal gave its life.
The one drawback to Which Wich is the level of ambient noise from the music system and the big-screen TV tuned to a sports channel. Add the usual customer chatter, and it can be difficult to hear unamplified staff members call your name when your order is ready. Pay attention; the sandwiches are worth it.
In comparison, Silver Mine Subs is not bad, but it's ordinary. It's on Tyndall Avenue, just one door south of University, and its gimmick is an Old West mining motif worked into the décor and menu. (Many subs are named after old mining towns.) The menu is more limited here: 10 cold subs, eight hot subs, two veggie-only options, soups, chili, salad, a few sides (potato salad, pickle and chips), a cookie, a brownie and the usual array of soft drinks.
When I visited with my colleague Bill, the staff was pleasant and well-drilled. The sandwiches were inoffensive things to put in your stomach—not bad, but not distinctive.
My Frontier ($5.79) contained grilled chicken nuggets (not much flavor there), pretty good barbecue sauce, a barely perceptible slice of provolone, shredded lettuce and very little bacon. If it weren't for the sauce, it wouldn't have made much of an impression. On the side, I ordered a little pre-packaged potato salad (99 cents), which was dominated by eggy mayo.
Bill's Steam Engine ($5.79) was a meatball sub with a few slices of green bell pepper, marinara and, again, not much provolone. Some onions and mushrooms were lurking in there, too. Bill is a sandwich aficionado—he's systematically working his way through the menu at Beyond Bread—so I took it as praise when he said that if he found himself at Silver Mine in the future, he wouldn't hesitate to order the Steam Engine again. Still, he thought it inferior to the meatball sandwich at Hogie House.
So, Silver Mine Subs is perfectly decent if you like the fare at, say, Subway. If you want something more personalized and tasty, go to Which Wich. And don't forget another very good option in the same neighborhood, over on Park Avenue: Paradise Bakery and Café.