The dude at the Cheba Hut cash register doesn't know me, but he grins and greets me like a friend who just showed up at his house party.
"What's up, mama?"
Uh, isn't it obvious, buddy? I have the munchies, big-time.
I'm staring at the menu, dazed and confused (low blood sugar, I swear!), trying to decide whether I want a nug or a pinner. I know my limits — most of the time — and a blunt's just too much for me. Should I check out the Pakalolo or sample the Chronic? A Majic Mushroom sounds good, too.
I settle on the Kind, pay up, and remind myself that in spite of the flying pigs hanging above the counter, the mellow beach mural, the countless stickers and skateboards and banners emblazoned with pot leaves and "420," and the big poster of Jerry Garcia beaming upon us like some kind of jolly deity, I'm at a sub shop in Tempe, not an Amsterdam hash cafe.
A couple minutes later, my open-face sandwich — smothered in bubbly melted cheese — slowly coasts out of the oven on a conveyor belt, into the hands of a bearded, knit-cap-wearing guy who's dancing around and singing along to Curtis Mayfield on the thumping stereo system.
The song? "Pusher Man." I'm not making this up. Two more employees — one wearing a doo-rag, and another sporting an Afro and a tie-dyed Bob Marley T — silently groove along with him, half-smiling. It feels like I'm an unwitting extra in a Cheech and Chong movie.
"That sure looks good," says the singing guy, who's hungrily eyeing my lunch.
"Don't they feed you around here?" I ask.
"Well, I can never make it in early enough to eat before work," he replies, "because I'm too busy doing other activities to get through my day."
Did he just wink at me? I'm not sure. All these guys are flirts today, it seems, but I'm not fooled. Clearly, they're madly in love with Mary Jane.
Which is exactly why I'd buy stock in Cheba Hut right now if it were publicly traded. What better place for Arizonans to celebrate the passing of the Medical Marijuana Initiative — a.k.a. Prop 203 — than at a cannabis-themed restaurant?
Besides Tempe, there are locations in Mesa, Glendale, Flagstaff, and Tucson, plus franchises in five other states. Yeah, I could see Cheba Hut taking off nationally, but right now the restaurant is poised for high times in Arizona. Who knows? If these folks are smart, they'll start opening new shops near the dispensaries, so people can kick it over a sandwich after smoking up.
I've always been a fan of the food here. Since I was practically weaned on hoagies in Pennsylvania, I was happy to stumble upon Cheba Hut's "toasted" subs as soon as I moved to Tempe. Back East, we called these babies "cosmos" or "grinders." Give me one heaped with lettuce, tomato, diced red onion, pepperoncinis, olive oil, vinegar, Parmesan, and a sliver of pickle, and I'll snarf that thing whether I'm stoned or not.
The Kind is a sandwich I've ordered many times, heaped with thinly sliced turkey breast, strips of bacon, mushrooms, and melted Swiss. When it comes time to choose the extra toppings, I go for the lip-smacking honey mustard for a little kick. It smells as good as it looks, so it's no wonder the dude behind the counter was envious — especially if he really did have the munchies.
When I'm in a nostalgic mood, I'll go for La Canna, an old-school Italian sub that's quite a sight for bloodshot eyes. It's layered with prosciutto, smoked ham, Genoa salami, provolone, and black olives, and is one of the closest approximations of the hoagies of my childhood that I've found out West. Just the soft, simple white roll, warm and lightly crispy, is what does it for me.
Another favorite is the Endo, basically a pastrami Reuben sub oozing sauerkraut, Swiss, Thousand Island dressing, and mustard. It's one of the messiest things on the menu, and I'm hooked on it.
I suppose there's no way to satisfy the munchies in a healthful way — c'mon, isn't that why junk food was invented? — but I can feel slightly more justified with one of the vegetarian options here, like the Humboldt (packed with sprouts, gobs of guac, cheese, and a pile of vegetables) or a more interesting variation called the Griefo, which also contains pepper jack and mildly herbaceous hemp cream cheese (sorry, it won't give you a buzz).
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Most of the time, however, I'm ready to really get my grub on, calories be damned. The Bomb is all about moist, beefy meatballs smothered in not-too-sweet "homegrown" marinara, mushrooms, green peppers, and provolone. It's a good thing that customizing the sandwiches is welcome — "feel free to cross breed," reads the punny menu — so I can get mine without the peppers and with extra cheese instead.
Meanwhile, the Jamaican Red is addictingly spicy on its own, thanks to mounds of moist shredded chicken doused in sauce that reminds me of Buffalo wings. For added zing, I like it with a squirt of spicy ranch dressing. A single bite of this is enough to make my tongue and lips tingly, but of course I can't stop until my little plastic basket is completely empty, save a few crumbs.
Since Cheba Hut aims to satisfy one's herbally enhanced cravings, there are plenty of sweets here, too. Nothing fancy, mind you, just a big basket of goodies you'd probably make for yourself at home if you could only put down the bong and get off the couch: dense, chocolaty hemp brownies, fat blocks of Rice Krispie treats, and chocolate chip cookies that they'll toast for you.
You heard it here first: When Prop 203 kicks in, expect Cheba Hut to really catch some buzz.