Last year, an editor at a food magazine in New York emailed to ask me about great Houston sandwiches. I shot back a reply extolling various stellar examples of our po’boys, our tortas, our beloved banh mi. I even threw in my favorite examples of barbecue sandwiches, and, yes, Goode Company’s sliced brisket on jalapeño cheese bread was among them.
Imagine my dejection when the editor answered that no, that wasn’t what they had in mind for their national round-up. They were interested in restaurants principally devoted to the Great American Sandwich Arts — and seriously good at creating them — and I had to admit that wasn’t exactly Houston’s thing.
Sure, Revival Market was doing a small slate of interesting sandwiches out of their artisanal grocery store in the Heights. But their charcuterie program was still in its fledgling stages, and aside from a killer hot dog, they weren’t using their house-cured meats extensively yet. You pretty much had to buy the meats sliced, by the pound.
I wished I had been able to point toward a focused source of great Southern-style sandwiches, too, like the pimento cheese and egg salad sandwiches Elouise Jones has long turned out at the various iterations of Ouisie’s. But, again, those are bright sandwich lights blinking in a wider menu. I actually got a little depressed thinking about the peppery chicken-salad sandwiches on homemade wheat bread that the ladies at the Heritage Society used to pass out from the window in back of their Sam Houston Park tearoom.
But enough nostalgia. If I got that editor’s request today, I would unhesitatingly point her toward Local Foods, the very 21st-century sandwich shop run by the Benjy’s restaurant folks next to their Rice Village flagship. It’s terrific and remarkably consistent: Of the half-dozen sandwiches I’ve tried, there wasn’t one that I didn’t love. Not like — love.
The quality is all in the details here. The “Local Foods” designation isn’t just trendy farm-to-table window dressing. It’s real. Everything from the spectacularly textural Slow Dough breads to the farm eggs to the leafy greens involved is sourced in the Houston area, and sourced carefully. Even the wines (from the estimable McPherson Cellars in Lubbock), the beers (Karbach, Jester King, etc.) and the draft root beer (8th Wonder Brewery) are made in the area or at least in the state of Texas.
And the results of this smart approach to ingredients have the stamp of sandwich greatness: The whole, in each case, is greater than the sum of the parts. “It’s like there’s a whole wonderful meal between these two pieces of toast,” my friend Julie observed as she sat in the airy dining room on a sunny Saturday, regarding her Duck Confit sandwich lovingly.
Indeed. The soft, shreddy duck meat meshed with just enough melted brie and peppery arugula leaves to create an extravagantly lush effect — which was set off brilliantly by the nutty crunch of wheat toast and sharp sparks of tart-sweet cranberry preserves. It was the kind of thing that makes your eyeballs roll back in their sockets.
Julie was glad to see that sandwich again. It had been off the revolving menu of eight sandwiches (plus one daily special) for a while, and she’d missed it. She and her husband are regulars at Local Foods, and as we watched the Saturday crowd lining up until they spilled out the door, she told me that several of the faces were people she spotted every time she comes. Local Foods inspires that kind of loyalty, and I can see why. It’s not just the food that reels customers in, it’s the disarming retro-industrial look of the big room, with its beautiful natural light, and the clockwork efficiency of the semi-service, which exudes intelligence and care.
As busy as the dining room and adjacent deck can get, there’s a sense of calm in the soft green chairs, the clean open spaces, the amusing flock of bulbous pendant lanterns that cluster together in a corner, looking like salvage from midcentury elementary school corridors. Sapphire booths gleam with an iridescent sheen, and stark white tableware hovers overhead on shelves suspended from the ceiling.
Then there’s the focal point of the cold case, which extends enticingly at the head of the service line, fairly sparkling with an array of seasonal vegetable salads and sides. Again, that’s real-deal seasonal, not lip-service seasonal. Right now, in what passes for Houston’s midwinter, there might be julienned beets spiked with pistachio and chewy little wheatberry grains; or bright Tuscan kale salad hiding the surprise of sweet golden raisins, toasted pine nuts and salty exclamation points of parmesan.
I’d be hard pressed to name a current favorite. It’s probably the roasted turnip salad that appeared a few weeks back, in honor of our root-vegetable season here on the Gulf Coast. Turnips, being naturally (and, I think, pleasantly) bitter, don’t get nearly enough love in our food culture. Here, cut into dense, smooth-textured cubes with roasty surfaces, they do — accessorized with slivers of almond and more of the chewy little wheatberries they love here, in a dressing that strikes just the right agrodolce tone, sweet balanced perfectly against sour with little herbal pings of thyme chiming in.
That judicious use of sweet flavors is one of the many things I admire about Local Foods. Sweet notes may show up in a colorful cabbage slaw’s lemongrass vinaigrette, tempered by sesame; or in the form of julienned green apple snaking through bouncy barley grains and slabs of roasted Brussels sprouts. But they never dominate, which is something of a miracle.
You can choose two of these vegetable salads with each sandwich, which makes the sandwiches’ $9.50 to $13 price tags far easier to bear. And you get what you pay for. Witness a gorgeous pink slide of house-smoked salmon, arugula leaves and sweet-savory onion jam on a serious poppy-seed bagel, as lavish and satisfying and cliché-defying as can be. Or the Truffled Egg Salad made with eggs from the sainted Mr. Hatterman’s farm, which confounded my fears of truffle-oil abuse by tasting subtle and rich and ever so gently earthy on its chewy pretzel bun. The secret that made the whole sandwich spring to life? Crumbly explosions of salty parmesan cheese tucked on top, an unexpected idea that really worked.
That’s how the sandwiches tend to go here: The layers of ingredients are brought to life by well-considered condiments. A weekend Cuban sandwich special of pulled pork, cabbage and bacon gets a red-peppered mustard that makes the whole thing ance. A regal “Banh Mi”-style sandwich (respectful quotation marks theirs) on a crunchy-soft Slow Dough baguette may come with a pile of soft, wildly upmarket shredded pork touched with sesame, but it clicks by virtue of its clean cucumber and carrot relish, its snippets of pickled red onion, and its boatload of pickled jalapeño wheels, sliced beautifully thin.
Even a warhorse like tuna salad shines here, kicked up by capers and dill, enriched with gently hard-boiled egg slices, and crowned with crisp fried onion strings. Its crusty ciabatta roll platform gives the tuna salad an unaccustomed gravitas. Only slices of pallid winter tomato strike a false note.
The use of pale “place-holder” tomato slices, with virtually no flavor to bring to the party, is my sole complaint after four happy visits to Local Foods. How a restaurant so dedicated to good ingredients can send out such abominations is beyond me. I wish they’d take a page from Justin Turner of Bernie’s Burger Bus and oven-dry some decent tomato specimens for use when the pickings get slim out of season. Either that, or find some ingenious substitute.
Otherwise, I’m on board with the Local Foods program. I admire the sense of place they foster with their ethnic touches and Gulf Coast motifs (Gulf Shrimp and Blue Crab with green goddess, anyone?) I’m devoted to their Winter Vegetable Bisque, one of two current seasonal soups, with its suave, smooth texture and its stealth not of heat behind its pureed root vegetables.
I’m hooked on their glasses of McPherson Rosé of Grenache as a versatile pairing with many of the sandwiches and salads. I’m won over by the artless, homey desserts: squares of chocolate sheet cake with a slightly gritty chocolate frosting; or dreamy carrot cupcakes with a snappy cream cheese icing.
I was charmed, on a particularly busy Saturday, to see a staffer circulating down the line and patrolling the dining room tables with a tray of little chocolate cake squares, each speared with a knotted bamboo skewer. One by one, you could see the looks of delight spread over the faces of the recipients: doctors and lawyers and hipster chiefs, little children and chic yoga moms, bleary-eyed college students and elderly burghers alike.
It was a telling moment that helps to explain why Local Foods has been such a smash hit in its comfortable neighborhood — and why it seems destined to become a Houston classic, as well as a paragon of the sandwich arts.
Local Foods ★ ★ ★
2424 Dunstan. 713-521-7800
Hours: Daily 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Credit cards: all major
Prices: sandwiches (with two sides) $9.50-$13; entree salads $10-$12; sides $4; desserts $2.50-$3
Reservations: first come, first served
Noise level: moderate
★ a good restaurant that we recommend.
★ ★ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
★ ★ ★ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
★ ★ ★ ★ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.