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How do Burlington's newest sammies stack up?

click to enlarge Chicago roast beef - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Chicago roast beef

The Seven Days offices started buzzing as soon as August First owners Jodi Whalen and Phil Merrick announced they planned to open a sandwich shop at 2 North Winooski Avenue in Burlington. We’re all fans of August First, just a short walk down South Champlain Street from our desks. But while the flagship café offers ladylike tofu salads and locavore soups, Stacks Sandwiches promised to serve up big, manly sandwiches on hearty bread influenced by Whalen’s Pennsylvania upbringing.

On April 4, Stacks opened its doors, and we eagerly perused the menu. Though there’s no cheesesteak, one of the most talked-about items is a Philly-style Italian pork sandwich with broccoli rabe and provolone.

When the time was ripe for an assessment of Stacks, Corin Hirsch and I decided not to keep the bounty inside the food department, but to share reviewing duties with some of Seven Days’ other avowed sandwich lovers. They included cofounder and editor Pamela Polston, associate arts editor Megan James and circulation manager Steve Hadeka.

We weren’t just trying to allay our guilt, or to collect multiple opinions: We wanted to give Stacks a trial run the way most patrons will use it, as a source of take-out lunches and dinners for busy workers. With its minimal seating — made from the reclaimed wood of an Addison County barn — Stacks is primarily designed for folks on the go. The large sandwiches are perfect for sharing — and discussing. It seemed only natural that we sample them in our natural habitat, taking into account the rigors of each sandwich’s journey from Stacks to our office in Corin’s car.

The soft, sesame-seed-encrusted rolls actually begin their travels at August First, then are brought uptown via bread-hauling bikes. On their journey back to the South End with fillings, some survived better than others. Each of our critics came away from the tasting with favorites — and suggestions for Stacks on achieving total sandwich bliss.

—Alice Levitt

Porchetta ($6.99 regular/$9.59 large)

Menu description: “Italian style slow roasted local pork with garlic and fresh herbs. On a fresh roll with sharp provolone cheese and broccoli rabe.”

Corin: As an everything-bagel-kind-of-girl, I love the heavily seeded buns that Stacks uses for its subs. They feel like old-fashioned grinders, with an ideal balance of puff, pull and crust. That said, I’d still like the option to have my bread toasted; it would’ve helped with this sandwich, which was soggy and falling apart by the time we got it back to the office.

Worried that we wouldn’t have enough for our survey, we ordered large subs. “Do you think someone actually could eat this entire thing?” wondered Megan. Maybe — if you hadn’t eaten in days, or had spent all morning pushing a boulder up a hill. These foot-long giants could easily feed two, maybe three.

The sautéed broccoli rabe was the unexpected star of this sub — it was bitter and intensely vegetal, in all the right ways. (I could live on broccoli rabe.) The flavor of the meat paled by comparison; it was slightly dried out, like gyro pork that’s been on the spit too long. My tongue kept wishing for more flavor.

Megan: When we unrolled the paper around it, the sandwich looked kind of gross: A mess of sloppy, green broccoli rabe matted down on bread.

But I liked my first bite. The broccoli rabe was nicely spicy, though it could have used a splash of vinegar or lemon. And it was in such big chunks, it kind of slipped and flopped out of the sandwich each time I took a bite. The bread was pretty soggy, but otherwise yummy — I loved the sesame seeds!

The meat was a little much for me. I don’t think I could eat more than a couple bites of this sandwich; the flavors all started to meld, and it was just too heavy. I would have preferred to get rid of the bread, squeeze some lemon on top, and eat this with a knife and fork for dinner.

Alice: When I think porchetta, I think fatty chunks of crumblingly tender meat, complete with crispy skin and hot, melting fat. Basically, a big, sexy grease bomb flavored with fennel and preferably smoked. If it’s rolled-up slices from a whole pig, all the better.

This porchetta was a far more civilized sandwich, made of thin slivers of deli-sliced meat. Points deducted for lack of carnality. While the pork was juicy, perhaps to a fault, it could have used bigger, more herbaceous flavor. Same for the slightly soggy broccoli rabe on top. Though I appreciated the shake of red pepper, the rabe needed more acid to break up the pork’s fatty flavor.

A note: This is a sandwich best eaten immediately. The soft bread soaks up the plentiful juices of its filling like a sponge, leaving the bun falling apart after just a few minutes. That sogginess may have supplied the carnality I was craving, but not an easy eat.

Steve: Having experienced the real McCoy of porchetta sandwiches at Brooklyn Flea last winter, I was expecting a bit rougher chop on the pork, with some skin thrown in. This pork product was a little more uniform, having been spared the cleaver for a more even slice. No matter; the meat was nicely seasoned and played well with the provolone and bread.

Pamela: The bread was soft and a little soggy, but I didn’t mind that with this sandwich. The meat was well cooked and flavored. Though the broccoli rabe was a nice idea, it was almost flavorless; I might have preferred something a little crunchy for contrast — even lettuce. The cheese was melty and perfect.

Chicago Roast Beef ($6.99 regular/$9.59 large)

Menu description: “Chicago style slow roasted all natural beef seasoned with garlic and herbs, dipped in hot jus. On a seeded August First Roll with sharp provolone and mayonnaise. Topped with hot pepper giardiniera or sweet roasted peppers” (we tested one of each).

Alice: This meat was moist in a manageable way, with a hot, garlicky jus that didn’t soak all the way through the roll. Giardiniera, a mélange of pickled, chopped hot peppers, carrots and onions, added a fantastic shot of spice and vinegar. Sharp provolone and mayo contributed another level of taste and texture — creaminess — making this one of the most complex sandwiches of the bunch.

However, with roasted peppers in place of giardiniera, the combo erred toward the slightly bland. The green peppers were cooked only al dente and lacked flavor. That option took on the nutty tastes of the heavily sesame-seeded bun. Fine, but a little boring.

Corin: Wow! I was instantly in love with both of these subs, bowled over by the depth of the meat’s flavor — it tasted half roasted, half braised, and was succulent, peppery and pulsating with garlic. And that shaved, warm flesh melted the fatty smear of mayo on both sandwiches — yum. On the sandwich with sweet roasted peppers, the peppers kind of fell all over the place; they might work better in thin, snakelike slices. Still, they coexisted gracefully with the meat, lending the sandwich a springy crunch, and I didn’t mind picking up stray pieces and munching on them.

The version with giardiniera was a crowd favorite. I loved it, too — but, oddly, not as much as its clunkier twin. The zesty relish of pickled onions and carrots tarted up the beef like a saucy little cousin, but I wished there were more of it.

Steve: This brings me to one recurring flaw that I found myself noticing during the tasting: those damn roasted green peppers!

Just like iceberg lettuce and American cheese, green peppers have their place in this world among their sexier relatives. However, these peppers were roasted only long enough to dull their color to army green; they had no char or seasoning to speak of. Only when they joined the chorus of flavors in the giardiniera did they begin to add their own notes.

The ultra-tender roast beef in both sandwiches made for a manageable eating experience, which I appreciate. If you pick up a sandwich and half of it goes squirting onto the plate while you negotiate a particular layer, you might as well order a salad.

Megan: This one looked so much more appealing, the meat dotted with bright carrot and crunchy-looking green-pepper cubes. I fell in love with it at first bite. The veggies were perfectly pickled, slightly spicy and still crunchy. They were a perfect foil to the flavorful roast beef, which was, thankfully, much leaner than the porchetta. I could eat much more of this sandwich. Actually, I spent the rest of the tasting picking bits of pickled veggies off the leftover pieces and popping them into my mouth.

By comparison, the roast-beef sandwich with roasted green peppers was unremarkable. Why would I eat that one when the other — with its perfect, bright explosions of vinegary veggies — still beckoned?

Pamela: There was a lot of beef in this sandwich — it was a mouthful, and quite chewable. The pickled, spiced vegetables provided a bit of crunch and heat, a really flavorful contrast. I didn’t like how soggy the bread was on this one, though.

The cooked green bell peppers in the second version did nothing. For me, that one was a distant and not-so-lovable cousin of the roast beef with giardiniera. Plus, the peppers came in large slices, too big for the sandwich. When you bit into them, the remainder tended to fall out. Again, a very generous portion of well-cooked beef, though.

Cuban Pork ($6.99 regular/$9.59 large)

Menu description: “Local pork shoulder rubbed with cumin seeds and garlic, stuffed with ham and pickles, slow roasted and topped with mustard and Swiss cheese.”

Alice: Cumin wafted out of the paper wrapper as soon as I unrolled this sammie. However, the earthy spice was just part of what made this pork-shoulder concoction irresistible. Stuffed with lightly spiced ham and tangy house pickles, the slices of meat were complex enough. The addition of creamy, nutty Swiss cheese and bracing yellow mustard made this a winner I’ll order all for myself soon.

Corin: A cross section of this warm sandwich looked like sand art — layers of shredded, rose-pink ham, Swiss cheese and pickles pressed tightly together. When I bit into it, the flavors came in waves, too — cumin-spiked meat and barnyardy cheese dominated, shot through with notes of mustard and pickle. This one’s definitely a keeper, though it could use more crunch — maybe more pickles?

Megan: There was a lot going on in this one. We all oohed and ahhed over the cross section: a colorful striation of ham, pork, pickles, mustard and cheese. I tasted a nice burst of cumin on my first bite, and was pleased that this sandwich had just the right amount of meat. I don’t like when my sandwiches are giant meat wads — and the Cubano has a tendency to be the worst offender.

Pamela: Yum! This sandwich is zesty! With the spices, and the complex mixture of flavors provided by ham, pork shoulder, cheese, pickle and mustard, not to mention the sesame-seed bun, this one is a winner — and my favorite so far.

Steve: Having a hard time finding words for this one. I mean, it was gorgeous: pickles, mustard, two kinds of meat on awesome bread. I have an easier time talking smack when things go bad.

Italian Sandwich ($6.29 regular/$8.99 large)

Menu description: “Genoa Salami, Soprasetta [sic], Ham, Sharp Provolone, Lettuce, Tomato, Onion, Oil & Vinegar.”

Alice: My search is over! While I’ve had some great Italian subs in Vermont — outside Burlington — this is finally the ticket to meaty work-lunch nirvana. Some tasters complained about the size. The meat-stuffed roll may be big, but I’ve got a big mouth and an appetite for salami, sopressata and ham, all rolled together and doused with oil and dark, aged vinegar. Yeah, there was provolone, too. Lettuce and tomato were all well and good, but I was in it for the ball of tangy, greasy meat.

Megan: This one tasted like New Jersey. As a native of the Garden State, I mean that as a big compliment. I loved biting into the crisp, shredded lettuce, doused in oil and vinegar and dotted with salt and cracked pepper, then finding the dense layers of meats and provolone packed into the definitely unsoggy bread. After all those meaty, greasy, hot sandwiches, this cold one was crisp and refreshing.

Steve: I grew up eating the famous (at least regionally) Gill’s Delicatessen grinders in Rutland. For my family, the Italian was the staple. But, like sands through the hourglass ... No, like oil through the cruet ... Aw, screw it. People grow. People change. Society moves inevitably forward, and it brings its sandwiches along for the ride. Stacks’ version stays true to the classic recipe, but improves on Gill’s in every category.

Corin: A few weeks ago, I ordered the salami hoagie from Stacks, and it arrived with two lonely slices of salami inside. This sub was just the opposite: stuffed to the gills with sopressata, salami, provolone, lettuce and peppers. It was lip-smackingly tasty — and, after three hot sandwiches, a cooling oasis. But having grown up on Long Island with drippier versions of Italian subs, I craved more oil, pepper and vinegar, and maybe a banana pepper or two. I’ll order this again, with extra dressing.

Pamela: I spoke too soon! Though harder to eat than the Cubano, because it was stuffed with greens, the Italian rivaled it in flavor and complexity. The Italian, however, was also cold and refreshing. The chopped lettuce was nice and vinegary, offsetting three different thinly sliced meats, tomato and cheese. This could be habit forming.

Indian ChickPea (vegetarian; $6.29 regular/$8.99 large)

Menu description: “Indian Spiced Chick Pea Spread, Roasted Peppers, Pickled Cucumbers, Tomato, and Cilantro Chutney.”

Corin: This sub was beautiful to look at, a miniature landscape of deep greens, beiges and reds. The warming Indian spices and smear of cilantro were also a tapestry on the tongue; texturally, though, I wasn’t into it. The sub is busy with competing flavors but seemed like a mush. If I were a vegetarian, I’d probably be all over it; as a carnivore, its assertive vegetable-bean-herbiness turned me off.

Alice: I rely on Ahli Baba’s Kabob Shop for its falafel filled with whole chickpeas. In the same vein, I applaud the whole legumes in this sandwich. I had trouble detecting the Indian spices indicated by the name, but other subcontinental flavors made up for it. In particular, I was a fan of the bright, refreshing cilantro chutney. The pickled cucumbers were a little distracting for me, just a hair too sweet for a savory dish. However, this meat lover may be willing to order it again.

Megan: I loved the whole spices dotting the hummus in this one — were they mustard seeds? Everything tasted fragrant. Eating this sandwich was a sloppy affair — the hummus squirting out all over my fingers, peppers launching themselves out of the bread — but once I got the hang of it, taking slow, strategic bites, I really enjoyed it.

At first, I thought it needed a little more flavor, but then I bit into some thinly sliced, very sweet cucumbers, which had been pickled to perfection. Exactly what I was looking for. If I were to order this sandwich myself, I’d hold the tomatoes and green peppers and double up on the pickled cucumbers.

Pamela: Sorry, but I despise both cucumbers and cilantro — even their smells — so couldn’t go near this one. Without those ingredients, I probably would like this vegetarian, healthy hummus offering.

Steve: This sandwich was the sleeper hit of the bunch. So many sandwich shops, especially in Burlington, put forth such half-hearted, obligatory vegetarian sandwiches. (Can you say portobello anything?) So my expectations were low. But the first bite brought an unexpected wave of sweetness via the cucumbers, which I guessed had been swimming in some rice-wine vinegar with a good amount of sugar. The chickpea mixture, cilantro chutney and sesame seeds kept it real on the savory side to bring together a satisfying and hearty bite.

Stacks Sandwiches, 2 North Winooski Avenue, Burlington, 540-0070. stackssandwiches.com

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