“Too few people understand a good sandwich.” — James Beard, nationally recognized champion of cuisine, cook, cookbook author and teacher.
It is obvious when walking into the Key West Sandwich Company that this place is run by the kind of people who know good food but don’t take it too seriously. It’s 11 a.m. and co-owners Keith St. Peter, Andrew Berman and Joshua Eli Pancamo-Mitchell (Eli for short) are about to welcome in today’s customers like kids on the first day of school. To say they are a little giddy would be an understatement, and I wonder if they’ve already had a few shots of the potent cortaditos that they make on their brand-new espresso machine. I order myself a perfectly steamed café con leche before taking a seat in the cozy yet modern dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows and a clear view of one of the busiest intersections on the island.
Inside the inviting and sunlit eatery, the boyish excitement fills the air as we discuss the new venture. The four of us have been through this before. I recently interviewed Keith and Andrew for House of Wu and Eli for Sinz Burritos, both connected by the same building as Key West Sandwich Company. It’s safe to say that these guys are not newcomers to the game. In fact, they even hint that their easy-going demeanor is the result of years of experience, that they’ve been through this before and have learned how to play the game. Although they are clearly taking over the block, it is not their first time around the block.
“We want to call it the fun food plaza,” Andrew laughs and points to the sign at the parking lot entry. They currently outnumber the other resident businesses, the Conch tour train and an ice cream shop.
Indeed, the atmosphere brewing in this burgeoning culinary corner is all about having fun without compromising on flavor, making the Key West Sandwich Company a perfect addition to their empire. Here they serve up five signature sandwiches along with a build-your-own menu that includes a choice of breads, spreads, meats, cheeses, veggies and a few extra add-ons like oven-roasted tomatoes and roasted mushrooms which allow you to craft your own delectable masterpiece just the way you like it.
From the menu, the sheer size of the cheesy beef has made it an instant Instagram hit. House-made pickles are wedged under a monstrous pile of thinly sliced beef that gets drenched in a creamy blanket of cheese sauce before being held together by two slices of densely fluffed Kaiser bun.
“I was at Arby’s one day and thought, ‘Why don’t we make an adult version of this?’” Keith admits.
The Rueben has all the usual toppings of corned beef, Swiss cheese and thousand island dressing, but instead of sauerkraut, the guys have swapped the Bavarian cabbage for its Korean cousin kimchi, a somewhat ode to House of Wu and Kojin Noodle House, which is also part of their extended family of restaurants.
“In this town you have to have a Cuban,” Keith continues, “I think we have the best Cuban on the island — and you can quote me on that.”
“It is an amazing Cuban,” Andrew adds. “We do it Tampa-style with all the normal ingredients of a Cuban, but we also add in salami, because way back in the day Tampa was home to both Cuban and Italian workers, and this was what they ate.”
In addition, there’s also the classic Italian sub “done right” and a vegetarian friendly sandwich that “actually has some weight to it.”
“It’s the sandwich that surprised me the most,” Keith says. “It’s like vegetarians have never been given a proper vegetable sandwich before.”
The veggie-all-the-way is stuffed with hummus, tapenade, Vermont cheddar, pickles, cucumber, roasted portobello and red peppers, lettuce, banana peppers, tomato, spinach, sprouts and avocado on soft baked multi-grain.
“Essentially, I think we’ve all been missing the Waterfront Market,” Eli explains. For those who have not been here long enough to remember the warehouse-like grocery store that used to be in the building that now houses the Waterfront Brewery, the legend of the market still lives on in the memories of many locals despite being closed for a decade. Like the Key West Sandwich Company, it too offered a build-your-own sandwich option with a variety of unique toppings.
“If my wife Kenna and I ever had a disagreement, I knew that I could go and get her a baguette with all the things she loved, bring it to her at work and everything would be forgotten,” Eli remembers.
The great American sandwich has seen a revival recently with places like Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans receiving last year’s title for Restaurant of the Year, a reminder that the best kind of meal is the kind that stirs our nostalgia and brings us back to our childhood. Key West Sandwich Company is our local answer to the pursuit of a timeless dish that is good at any time of the day no matter what the occasion.
“We aren’t reinventing the wheel,” Eli tells me. “We’re just doing it right.”
Key West Sandwich Company is open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and offers online ordering at www.kwsandwichco.com along with delivery. ¦
Key West Sandwich Company 500 Truman Ave.