Subliminal Sandwiches

Tasty sandwiches and soups have nourished the college crowd at Bison Witches for a decade

Tucked inside a Fourth Avenue storefront is Bison Witches Bar and Deli, a place that's been serving sandwiches, soups and booze to college students and other fine souls for the last decade, a 10-year period in which many a Tucsonan has queried: "What were they smoking when the came up with that name?!?"

Yes, at first glance, it's an odd moniker, combining words denoting a bovine and a female sorcerer. And Tucsonans are not alone in wondering about that funny name; there are now four Bison Witches haunts, with Lincoln, Neb., Norman, Okla., and, as of late last year, Tempe, joining Tucson as college towns featuring these establishments.

Oh, and by the way, the name--if you didn't know it already--is a takeoff of "buy sandwiches." Har!

But enough about the name and the history of Bison Witches. The question at hand today: How exactly are the sandwiches and other goodies we're supposed to be buying there? The answer: Pretty darned good, thank you very much.

Garrett and I visited Bison Witches on a recent Thursday evening. It just so happens that Lute and his boys had this night off--a rarity for a basketball-season Thursday evening--meaning we actually had a chance in hell of getting a table. It was still pretty packed, and we missed the sign-up sheet that people are supposed to use when it gets busy. We headed for a booth that was marked for someone else before being politely shooed away by the woman who would become our server. After a brief wait, we had our own booth.

Booths line both sides of the restaurant, with the bar in the middle. The décor screams "college hangout," with the requisite TVs tuned to sports (what else?), signed jerseys hanging above the bar, red (go Wildcats!) walls and music flyers covering much of the windows facing Fourth. On this evening, '80s music dominated the playlist, with such classics as "I Know What Boys Like" and "Whip It!" blaring overhead. All in all, it produced a fun and youthful vibe. One not-so-minor complaint: The place could have been cleaner. We sat in a booth at the front of the restaurant, and the signs and wires in the windows above my head were covered with massive dust-bunnies.

The menu is simple, featuring cold salads, bread-bowl soups, two-dozen sandwiches and a handful of appetizers. The prices are low, which is nice. We selected the chicken cheese nachos ($5.50) to split, and we each ordered the half sandwich and soup special ($6). I chose the Wisconsin cheese soup and the Tucson sandwich (smoked turkey, bacon, tomatoes, lettuce, cheddar cheese and parmesan peppercorn dressing) on wheat; Garrett got the chili with the Wildcat sandwich (roast beef, smoked turkey, melted/smoked gouda cheese, shredded lettuce and a "honey based spicy Russian mustard), also on wheat. (White and dark rye bread are other options.) The sandwiches all come with a bag of Arizona-based Poore Brothers potato chips.

The alcohol menu is pretty decent, featuring a large variety of imported beers, microbrews and ciders, along with the usual domestic beers and some wine. I was not feeling adventurous, so I stuck to a bottle of Corona ($3).

The menu warns: "We are a small place with a small kitchen and efficient staff, but delays can occur during peak business hours." In our case, the warning was unnecessary; the nachos were delivered right away. Boy, were they a wonder to behold. The chips came on a large red tray and were slathered with diced chicken, shredded cheddar cheese, tomatoes and chili con queso, with sour cream and salsa on the side. They were tasty, and so abundant that they went unfinished.

We hadn't been enjoying the nachos for more than a few minutes when our server delivered the soups and sandwiches. It's unanimous: They were all splendid. Garrett's chili--described on the menu as "a thick beef base chili with onions, green peppers, tomatoes, jalapenos spices and just enough heat"--was quite thick and meaty, even a little smoky, Garrett reported. It was fun to dip the bread bowl in the chili as it diminished. The same could be said for my Wisconsin cheese soup. It was creamy and delightful. For cheddar-cheese fans, it would be heaven.

The sandwiches, while not perfect, were delicious, too. Garrett thought the crust on the fresh, thick, bouncy bread was a bit too thick, but otherwise, we both thought the bread was amazing. The gouda and the smoky flavor of the turkey carried his sandwich, which was quickly eaten. My sandwich, however, was seemingly made in a hurry, with all of the ingredients crammed toward its middle, leaving a dearth toward the edges, and I could barely taste the parmesan peppercorn dressing. But the ingredients' freshness and the taste of the wonderful bread redeemed it, making me a happy man.

One aspect of Bison Witches that left me less than happy needs to be noted: Other than the trays and glasses, all of the service elements are disposable. Plastic forks and paper were used exclusively, and as far as our environment goes, this sucks. I understand small spaces make it hard to have large dishwashers, but it's something worth considering nonetheless.

This environmental faux pas and the dust-bunnies aside, Bison Witches is a winner. It's no wonder it has been around for a decade, and it's no wonder it has expanded to other college towns. It's a winning formula--even if the name is a bit funny.

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