Culvers ButterBurger and Jersey Mikes Subs make their Valley debut
Feed me now. I'm hungry. I'm grumpy. I'm in a hurry.
I have plenty of easy excuses to fill up on fast food. But most of the time, novelty isn't one of them.
Just think of the comforting familiarity of hot, salty McDonald's French fries — they're available everywhere, and miraculously, they taste the same whether you're on your lunch break or on vacation on the other side of the world.
While chain restaurants have mastered "cheap" and "consistent," the thrill of the new isn't part of the business plan — unless you live in an area where they don't have a presence yet.
For McDonald's, that would probably be Antarctica. But for Jersey Mike's Subs, and Culver's, two fast-food joints with hundreds of franchises in other states, that would be Arizona. Both eateries made their debut in the Valley last month.
Jersey Mike's Subs A friend excitedly told me about this place before it even opened, and you'd have thought he'd won the lottery. This guy remembered Jersey Mike's Subs from back in the day, when the shop was still just a New Jersey phenomenon called Mike's Subs, but these days, it's got more than 400 locations, with more to open locally.
While I'd never encountered Jersey Mike's before, I'd certainly eaten my share of hoagies growing up back East, so I can understand my friend's nostalgia.
The shop plays up that feeling, with décor that hints at its humble beginnings in Point Pleasant, a small New Jersey beach town. The big wall mural alongside a row of tables looks like a souvenir postcard from 1956 (the year Mike's Subs was founded), and framed black-and-white photos look like arty snapshots from the shore. Softly worn wooden panels resemble planks from the boardwalk.
For me, a good East Coast-style sub is all about the bread — the roll should have a thin, crusty exterior and a moist, not-too-bready interior. And surprisingly, Jersey Mike's rolls, with a light dusting of cornmeal on the bottom, weren't bad. However, over the course of a few visits, I had better luck when I ordered a regular or giant sub. The mini-size roll, which is a fine portion for me, tended to be harder. In any case, I still preferred it to the stuff they serve at Subway.
Outgoing employees, who chatted with customers from behind a glass-fronted counter, recommended getting cold subs "Mike's Way" — that is, with shredded lettuce, tomato, onion, oregano, and a generous dousing of olive oil and red wine vinegar. In central PA, where I'm from, those are the default toppings for almost everything.
The cheese steak was one of my favorite items, sizzled up to order with grilled onions and sweet red peppers, and a gooey layer of melted American cheese (Cheez Whiz might be the norm in Philly, but elsewhere in the Northeast, American or provolone are standard.) I also liked the "Original Italian," with provolone, salami, ham, pepperoni, prosciuttini, and cappacuolo, and the "Famous Roast Beef and Provolone," with said meat cooked in-house. I would've liked more of it on my sub, but nevertheless, it had a very fresh flavor and was shaved paper-thin.
Oh, that's another thing I appreciated: They didn't slice the meat or cheese for my sandwiches until I placed my order. There's a big refrigerated deli case in the middle of the counter, and they put it to good use.
The albacore tuna sandwich was basic mayo-based tuna salad, nothing special. (La Grande Orange's version has ruined me!) I liked the chicken Parm and meatball subs, though — both were topped with provolone, Parmesan, and a light, sweet tomato sauce that had a familiar Italian deli flavor.
Salads and wraps played a minor role on the menu. But after sampling a buffalo chicken wrap — a spicy, sauce-laden sammy wrapped in a spongy, run-of-the-mill tortilla — I decided to stick with old-fashioned subs if I find myself at Jersey Mike's again.
And I will, if one ever lands in my neighborhood.
Culver's Culver's is another place that gets people excited to revisit a taste of home — specifically, Midwesterners. Considering all the transplants in the Valley, I'd say Wisconsin-based Culver's already has a built-in following here. But for folks like me who don't hail from that part of the country, it's a welcome alternative to the usual chains.
The signature item is the Culver's ButterBurger, available straight up or with various toppings, from cheese, bacon, and the works, to mushroom and Swiss. Its name comes from the signature bun, which is toasted, lightly buttered, and exceptionally soft.
Honestly, the bun made the dish for me. The beef burger patty was interesting — thin and salty, with uniquely crispy edges — and definitely better than McDonald's. It still had a fast-food flavor, but combined with the bun, plus fresh tomatoes, lettuce, onions, pickles, mayo, and American cheese, it was a step above the norm.
The Angus Philly steak sandwich was decent, thanks to a generous amount of caramelized grilled onions, and the grilled Reuben melt was actually very tasty, almost as good as what you'd get at a sit-down place. Meanwhile, the pork tenderloin sandwich was lackluster, basically a fried cutlet on a bun. To be fair, it was crisp and juicy, but it needed sauce or something to amp up the flavor.
Sides were the biggest reminder that, yes, Culver's is still a fast-food joint. Ordinary fries and plain coleslaw were nothing to write home about. Dairyland cheese curds sounded interesting, although the seasoned deep-fried coating overwhelmed the taste of the cheese. I ate them mindlessly, not voraciously. Light, crispy onion rings were a much better option.
Besides the savory stuff, Culver's prides itself on its sweets, from flavorful house root beer to freshly made frozen custard, which can be ordered by the scoop, as a sundae or shake, or as a Concrete Mixer, with dozens of fruit and candy add-ins.
By definition, frozen custard is still ice cream, although it has a minimum of 10 percent butterfat, with considerably less air incorporated into it. Culver's custard was dense and eggy, with a plush, creamy texture. The chocolate flavor reminded me of a richer take on a Wendy's Frosty.
The freshness of the food was the main thing that made Culver's stand out from the fast-food pack, but service and setting were an added bonus. After I ordered at the counter, I got a number and found a table. Instead of vinyl booths and tile floors, the dining room was carpeted, with muted blue fabric upholstery on wooden seats. It was just a touch homey-er than most places, and noticeably less noisy. All the better to overhear friendly, helpful servers delivering food and checking in with each table.
Nope, you don't get that at Mickey D's.
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