By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Thankfully I live about nine miles away from Cheers Deli & Liquor, a place where I never expected to end my decades-long search for the best Reuben sandwich and spicy Italian hoagie in San Diego. If residing any closer, I’d outgrow every garment in my closet within a month.
My commute to the 30-year-old liquor store, however, was nothing compared to a customer’s whom I chatted with moments before he toted out a sizable takeout order.
“I drive in from Jamul all the time for these sandwiches,” he said as an influx of locals approached the clean, brightly lit deli counter to place their orders. Though a couple of hours had passed since the lunch rush, business remained brisk.
It isn’t a cliché when store owner Manny Keriakos says he strives for quality in the myriad sandwiches and salads his store cranks out.
The breads and rolls (from La Jolla Baking Company) are ultra fresh and toast up superbly when ordering a hot sandwich. The cold cuts, sourced from various reputable companies, are lean and sliced ribbon-thin — a feat many San Diego deli workers can’t seem to master. And the veggie garnishments such as tomatoes, red onions and avocados are of ideal ripeness.
Add extra bonus points for the deli’s use of shredded iceberg lettuce, a preference of mine from growing up back East, where it’s used prolifically on sandwiches so that oil-vinegar dressings can seep down through to the other ingredients. It also makes for crispier bites compared to those leafy sheets of softer lettuces, which cause everything inside a sandwich to slip and slide.
Keriakos is a highly likable guy who everyone seems to know. He never imagined three decades ago of opening a store, especially one that people refer to as a hidden gem.
At the time, he had just earned a degree in chemical engineering. It was at the end of the Cold War and jobs in his field were scarce.
“It was tough,” he recalls. “So I opened the store and got into the groove of making money.”
Soon after, he added the deli, offering only ham, turkey, and roast beef sandwiches. When those took off, he expanded the menu, began catering, and then by the late ’90s, he opened Golden Bagel Cafe in Fletcher Hills, which still flourishes.
The store offers indoor-outdoor seating, with about 10 tables in total. A few of them are placed within the dimly lit “Chateau cellar,” a cozy offshoot section housing more than 200 different wines.
I sat in view of the deli and its friendly, industrious employees. One of them, Frankie Antonelli from New Jersey, picked up on my general Northeast roots (Buffalo, New York to be exact) when I gushed over the well-endowed Reuben he made for me on toasted marble rye. He agreed good versions of the sandwich are hard to find in deli-deprived San Diego.
The corned beef inside was lean, fluffy and exquisitely spiced. The layer of finely shredded sauerkraut practically dissolved into the melted Swiss cheese. And the judicious smear of Thousand Island dressing imparted that coveted tinge of sweetness. Mustard is an option — or possibly a default condiment here. But it’s a Reuben killer, in my opinion. Try it without, and you’ll love it.
Intent on taking home copious leftovers, I beefed up my order with a spicy Italian hoagie constructed with a French roll, in addition to a “meatloaf supreme” sandwich on sourdough bread. Both were exceptional, particularly the Italian sandwich, which Frankie strongly recommended I order hot instead of cold.
I’m glad I did. It’s constructed with pepperoni and capocollo, two piquant meats that taste orgasmic when shaved into airy pilings like this and then heated beneath a blanket of buttery mozzarella cheese. And yes, the lettuce, tomatoes and dressing were applied to the sandwich after it exited the toaster oven — a logical step that remarkably evades workers at certain submarine chains.
It was the best Italian hoagie I’ve eaten in San Diego, and possibly better than any I’ve ever encountered in the zillions of sub shops throughout my hometown too.
I haven’t had a meatloaf sandwich since the days my mother made them from leftover dinners. And they surely didn’t taste as good as this, given the melted cheddar, raw red onions and thin bacon strips perched atop the sliced beef loaf. The construct is normally tucked into an onion or French roll. But sourdough bread called, and I had no regrets.
All sandwiches include a side of macaroni, Italian pasta, potato, or ambrosia fruit salad. I tried the latter three and wouldn’t have guessed they are outsourced.
Tuna, crab, egg and chicken salads, however, are made onsite. From that lineup, I ordered the chicken salad scooped onto a bed of romaine and iceberg lettuces. The arrangement also featured thickly sliced cucumbers, juicy tomatoes, and zippy balsamic dressing on the side. It made for a full, enjoyable lunch the next day.
Keriakos runs the store with his 88-year-old father and nine employees. Many of them devote their energies into fulfilling orders from a vast sandwich menu boasting eight categories, two of which include “combination” proteins and “vegetarian.”
Among the longest running sandwiches is the “chainsaw,” created by an employee some 20 years ago. It’s made with roast beef, melted Provolone, bacon and whipped cream cheese on a French roll. Newest to the lineup is the chicken Caesar sandwich with garlic-basil pesto, conceived by Keriakos, and the honey bacon club with smoked turkey created by another employee.
Unlike liquor stores with small delis tucked away in the back, this preys on your appetite with appealing visuals and aromas the moment you walk through the doors. Before you know it, you’re leaving with more than a lottery ticket and a bottle of gin in your hand.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.