Decked out in an old-fashioned filling station shirt emblazoned with his name, Austin Counts runs the 4th Avenue Deli with a wide grin and rockabilly energy. After a funky hot-dog concept called Buddha's Dog House shut down in 2013, Counts saw the unused space as an opportunity to finally be an independent business owner.
"At the time I was the manager for the B Line," Counts says as he prepares a hearty creation for a customer called the NYC Mensch, featuring three-fourths of a pound of hot pastrami and house-made coleslaw. "I was on my way to the Co-op when I spotted a 'for sale' sign on the door. So I called the number and asked if it was actually available. They said it was, and in 2013, I officially hung up my journalism hat and went into business for myself."
Before Counts became one of the best things (food-wise) on Fourth Avenue, he received a degree in journalism from the University of Arizona. With that degree he went to work for The Nogales International, a newspaper that covers Santa Cruz County. But the journalism biz can be a cruel mistress, so Counts started working in various restaurants and eventually opened the 4th Avenue Deli, a labor of love that has consumed much of his time.
"Right now, it's all about my family and this deli," he says. "I really don't have much time anymore for music."
Counts moved from Alabama to Tucson, by way of South Carolina and Texas, in 1986 when he was 13. It was around then that he discovered not just an appreciation for roots, country and blues music, but a talent as well. His forte might be the heavy twang guitar, although, Counts claims it all started with the trumpet.
"As a kid, I was heavily influenced by Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk," Counts says. "So, I played jazz trumpet for quite some time before discovering the bass guitar, which shifted me into a love for funk. Especially George Clinton-style funk."
Counts had a phase where he played rap rock but eventually became interested in the blues and roots rock he heard while he worked at Nimbus Brewery. That kickstarted his career as a local performing and recording artist.
"I was making pretty good money, back then anyway, playing music a couple nights a week, but I stopped for a few years when I was in school and working as a journalist," Counts says as he takes the orders of customers who stream in. "You can blame it all on a man named Tom Walbank for getting me playing again. Only if I bring home some money from it, the wife allows it."
Music might be a passionate side project for Counts these days, but it was a love for all things sandwiches that brought him to owning a premier deli on Fourth Avenue.
"My first culinary experience was when I was a kid and I used a whole loaf of bread trying to make this triple decker Dagwood-lookin' sandwich," Counts says. "Although it was a trip to New York when I was in school where I discovered the deli. So that's what I'm trying to bring to Tucson; those bodega style Italian delis from Manhattan and Staten Island. Right now, I have a line of sandwiches I like to call The Commission, in honor of the five big mob families of New York. I just thought to myself 'What would those guys like to eat?' If they ever made it to Tucson, I think they would be happy."
Outside of serving classic creations with names such as the Paul Reubens (yes, it's a Reuben sandwich), the Stallone (a musclehead hoagie with ham and salami) or the Johnny Utah (the point break of meatball subs), Counts keeps a bit of tradition alive by serving hot dogs as well. If the East Coast family is happy, so is the Tucson family. And that, as they say, is music to our ears. And mouths. ■