Saltie and Cheeky may sound like the headliners of some downtown burlesque show, or maybe Snow White’s eighth and ninth dwarves. In fact, they’re two new sandwich shops, a category that’s experiencing almost unchecked growth in these recessionary times. These two, though, stand out from the pack, mostly because they deliver something distinctive and delicious, in modest surroundings that are still imbued with their owners’ personality and passion.
First, Saltie. The space is white with blue trim, sleekly nautical, and lined with a handful of pointy stools uncomfortable enough to discourage undue lingering. But luxury isn’t the point. The joint effort of three seasoned alums of Diner and Marlow & Sons, the ultracasual spot was designed to be an escape of sorts from the daily restaurant grind. But its owners couldn’t forsake their refined tastes and creative impulses. So they bake all their own bread, source top-notch ingredients seasonally and locally, and construct signature combinations you won’t find anywhere else. Attempts at culinary categorization are futile, but if we had to give it a shot, we’d sum it up like this: Mediterranean-inflected, a little Indian, pickled, herby, a bit messy, with heavy veggie tendencies and a few blatant Britishisms, including Eccles cake and a first-rate pork pie.
There are currently six sandwiches on offer, but as winter turns to spring, expect to see some changes. One half of the Undergound Gourmet is still despondent over the recent disappearance of the “Rabbit,” a curry-mayo-infused Welsh rarebit that came on robust rye with housemade Branston-style pickle. But the other half finds solace in the Clean Slate, a sort of psychedelic riot of textures, colors, and flavors spread out over a chewy, blistered naan. Roll it up to get everything in one savory bite: dill yogurt, red-cabbage sauerkraut, lentil hummus, nutty quinoa, sesame seeds, and beets, plus the signature Saltie garnish of parsley, dill, scallion, and julienned radish. (Kudos to Saltie for championing parsley, an undersung herb if ever there was one.)
In a sandwich-crazed city where ciabatta rules, it’s refreshing to see that the remaining Saltie combos are all built on sturdy, sea-salt-speckled focaccia, a bit of an eighties relic that the shop has reclaimed with a vengeance. Here, it’s pleasingly dense and oily with a firm crumb that provides the requisite support for soft, creamy ricotta and fluffy scrambled eggs (Ships Biscuit), sardine with pickled egg and salsa verde (Captain’s Daughter), potato tortilla with pimentón aïoli (Spanish Armada), and the Little Chef, a comparatively tidy assemblage of mortadella, Pecorino, and chopped green olives. Special mention must be made of the Scuttlebutt, an unwieldy salad sandwich combining hard-boiled egg, pickles, feta, olives, capers, radish, and squash on an aïoli-slathered slab of focaccia, as boldly flavored and overstuffed as any pastrami on rye. Don’t attempt without backup utensils.
These are the kind of trademark sandwiches that develop cult followings, but there’s more to Saltie than that. There are superb soups, like a prune-enhanced cock-a-leekie, and one recent special cranberry bean accessorized with dollops of salsa roja and crème fraîche. There’s the aforementioned pork pie, accoutred with hot English mustard, cornichons, and tangy pickled cipollini. There’s always an unstintingly seasonal daily salad. And there’s a pastry case full of deliberately undersweetened loaf cakes, fruit galettes, quirky shortbread, and an adorable chocolate-pistachio cookie called a nudge. The ice creams, it goes without saying, are made in house, and served straight up, in a sandwich, or drenched with coffee and garnished with two wedges of house focaccia. This last is Saltie’s aptly salty take on an affogato, and is as unique as its setting.
Speaking of inspired sandwiches, Cheeky, a New Orleans–flavored snack shop on the lower end of the Lower East Side, just east of Chinatown, has a few. What it doesn’t have are regular hours or a phone. The seating, such as it is, consists of one bench and a dozen or so painter’s stools of varying height and stability arranged along a narrow feeding ledge. Among the other things that distinguish Cheeky from the presidential suite at the Four Seasons are three space heaters and the lack of a full-fledged door—in its place, behind brightly painted shutters and a cheerful picket fence, there is a thick plastic curtain that wouldn’t appear out of place at a car wash. The look, in sum, is simultaneously rough and quaint, in a struggling-artist sort of way. Cheeky has its charms, and like we said, its sandwiches. Chief among these is an excellent oyster po’ boy. It comes fully “dressed,” in po’boy-speak, with lettuce, tomato, mayo, plus hot sauce and pickles, all of which add vim and vigor to the proceedings. The oysters are fresh and crisply fried, but what makes this sandwich so distinctive is the bread that Cheeky’s chef-owner Din Yates has shipped up north from the John Gendusa Bakery in New Orleans. It’s a remarkably crackly crusted loaf with a light and airy crumb; the closest equivalent hereabouts might be a good rice-flour bánh mì roll. Almost as delicious is a braised beef short-rib sandwich with a creamy horseradish sauce on griddled challah, and the fried chicken with red-cabbage slaw on a buttermilk biscuit. To round out the Big Easy theme, there are Zapp’s potato chips and Big Shot soda, chicory coffee, even what Yates refers to as an anti-muffuletta: Swiss Emmentaler cheese and a zingy olive-and-pickled-vegetable salad on soft, olive-studded bread. That’s right: no meat. That last might not go over in New Orleans, but for the Lower East Side, it has potential.