Stein's Deli, Den of the Sandwich Monster

New Orleans, La. –
Imagine the dubious scrutiny a native New Orleanian might bring to an oyster po-boy encountered in Atlanta or a muffuletta in San Francisco. That's how the Philadelphian approaches the cheese steak or roast pork sandwich outside of their natural habitat, how the Chicagoan looks at an Italian beef abroad and how a Northeasterner with a hoagie jones regards anything dubbed a sub.

And yet they all line up eagerly when these specials are on the board at Stein's Deli & Market, a veritable Ark for delicious things not indigenous to New Orleans.

The highly-specific needs and particular expectations such people bring to sandwiches are not treated lightly here. That cheese steak (the Tuesday special) offers a scramble of thin, griddle-fizzled beef, and a choice of provolone or Cheese Wiz, which is not a joke but rather a matter of Balkanizing preference for some aficionados. The roast pork (a Thursday special) is an Italy-by-way-of-Philly feast packed tight on house-made ciabatta with a streak of provolone and the all-important bitter thrill of broccoli rabe.

Not surprisingly, proprietor Dan Stein was weaned on such sandwiches back home in Philadelphia. A one-time attorney, he also racked up time working at specialty cheese shops. He had planned to open his own in New Orleans, but when St. James Cheese Co. beat him to it he switched gears and in 2007 opened a hybrid Jewish/ Italian deli where the focus was supposed to be meats and specialty groceries.

The transformation into a lunch destination was partly directed by customers. A note in the comment box opined "your drink selection sucks," Stein remembers, and he agreed. So in came specialty soft drinks, sometimes by the case, sometimes by the pallet, and a collectors' zeal soon overtook the now-astounding beer selection (though permit issues mean you can't drink them in the store).

Credit also goes to Andre Moreau, the young man who is Stein's walking, perpetually chipper point-of-sale system. Behind the scenes, Moreau also has evidently mastered the art of procuring and distributing small batch specialty foods, which helps explain why so many chefs, restaurateurs and shakers in the craft cocktail scene dart in here for supplies. More than a sandwich shop, the place has become a culinary hub. It's normal to spot name chefs from other restaurants visiting here on their days off, either noshing or shopping. And it was no surprise when the ever-restless chef Peter Vazquez, now between kitchens and in culinary mercenary mode, picked Stein's as the venue for a new pop-up restaurant, where he cooks up intricate, international dinners on Sunday evenings in the same spot that usually turns out Ruebens and meatball subs.

Still, sandwiches lure most of the considerable traffic through the doors at Stein's. This is the "sandwich monster," the term Stein and his crew use for the lunch rush when just about everything at the store is happening for the sake of sandwiches.

This is a great place to come for a spread of lox or a few ounces of jamon serrano, but lunch is not the time to ask for it. Beware too that scant seating, crowded shelves, and poor kitchen ventilation mean Stein's isn't the most comfortable place to pay homage to a hoagie. But it is undeniably the place in New Orleans to get a hold of one.

Stein's Deli & Market
2207 Magazine St., New Orleans, 504-527-0771