Software engineer and wholesale bakery owner Kevin Lee was barely a month into his takeover of College Sub Shop when the city of San Diego issued a mandate stating that restaurants must transition to takeout and delivery only, due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
Lee wasn’t fazed because the 30-year-old shop has just five tables inside, and it’s long tilted toward takeout and catering orders anyhow.
A day before the mandate was recently announced, Lee held a grand opening as a way of introducing himself to the neighborhood, which in normal times gives way to 33,000 students from nearby San Diego State University. He doled out close to 300 small sandwiches for the occasion while introducing a refreshed interior and the addition of Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches to the shop’s original menu.
If self-quarantine during these surreal times triggers demand for culinary comfort, the shop’s submarine sandwiches offer waves of bliss for about 20% cheaper compared to leading sub shops.
Consider the Italian-inspired ham, salami and pepperoni submarine in its full 12-inch glory. For only $8.95 you get a decent layer of each cold cut, plus your choice of cheese, veggies and condiments. Want your roll toasted? Just indicate it on the checklist of options stapled to your white-paper bag.
For no particular reason, I skipped the lettuce, tomatoes and onions I normally prefer on subs, and went only with the additions of oil, red wine vinegar and house mayo, which is kissed subtly by garlic and herbs. Combined with my choice of Provolone cheese (heated in conjunction with the toasted roll), I ended up with a sandwich reminiscent of the little mom-and-pop sub shops I grew up with back East. The meats were lean, non-watery and well-spiced. And the roll was both crusty and springy.
Lee sources the ingredients from the same vendors used when the shop opened in 1990. Although for the banh mi sandwiches, he uses French-style baguettes from his wholesale bakery called Jho Bread Basket Bakery, which is located seven blocks away.
Those rolls are fantastically chewy, but with enough give that allows your teeth to glide through to such fillings as Vietnamese-style pork, chicken or fish — or simply the base medley of vegetables that includes cucumbers, jalapeno peppers and pickled carrots and daikon radishes.
Choose the grilled pork as your protein and you get a scrumptious interplay between the sweet, charred glaze on the meat, the tangy veggies, fresh cilantro and herb butter. In addition, these banh mi sandwiches are a foot long — twice the size of their traditional counterparts everywhere else.
College Sub Shop’s original owner is a man name Cy, who was invited to the grand opening last week.
“He’s very old and couldn’t make it,” said Lee, a native of Vietnam, as he cheerfully greeted new and longtime customers with the support of a few family members who help run the shop. Lee also takes pleasure in handing out VIP discount cards to students residing at the surrounding HCA Plaza apartments.
“I like meeting the customers, and I love the challenge of working with food,” he added while reiterating that takeout and curbside deliveries of his food will be readily available as San Diegans weather through the coronavirus crisis.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at [email protected].