Happy is the city that boasts not only classy high-end restaurants and a variety of ethnic eateries, but also places that devote their full attention to simple dishes they execute with passion. Sandwiches can be dull, or they can inspire loyalty and craving. Besides the ubiquitous dueling chain outlets, there are a number of gems that gleam in their San Francisco neighborhoods, attracting pilgrims from afar as well as locals to sample their distinctive offerings. There's more than one way to fill a couple of slices of bread: Each of these spots displays its owners' sensibilities with every bite you take of their sandwiches.
It's almost like home at the accurately named Petite Deli, a one-person eatery operating out of an immaculate storefront with a cheerful yellow facade on the outskirts of North Beach. There are only two tables inside, and a couple more on the sidewalk. Behind the refrigerated case bearing a modest assortment of meats, cheeses, and homemade salads stands the incredibly pleasant Mrs. Young, ready to make you a fresh sandwich from the simple list on the wallboard. The soft yet crusty ciabatta rolls, good-quality ingredients, judicious proportions, and subtle seasonings transform familiar choices (chicken salad, egg salad, mortadella) into favorites that regulars will extol as you wait in line. The eponymous Young's chicken sandwich features hand-cut slices of delicate fowl that taste roasted but are actually boiled in a sturdy vegetable-scented broth, and crisp whole lettuce leaves with a tinge of dressing. Another favorite is the tricolor-layered mozzarella, basil, and tomato sandwich: simple, but impeccably fresh and balanced. Available sides include homemade soup (chicken noodle and a soup du jour), pasta salad with sun-dried tomatoes, potato salad, and bagged chips just like the ones your mom tucked into your lunchbox. The simplicity of the offerings belies their modest perfection. A lunch assembled here is just as nice as Mrs. Young, but it's not only her demeanor that brings you back. Her sandwiches exhibit that "touch of the chef" that changes any recipe, no matter how basic, into a personal dish whose taste you want to experience again.
Across town is an eccentric spot that's also as lively and cheerful as its owner, the boyish, soul-patched Ike. His name is emblazoned in cartoony green-and-white block letters across the bright-blue-painted Castro area storefront: This is Ike's Place, where huge meat-filled (and meatless), soft, messy sandwiches are named after his friends. These inexpensive gut-bombs have proven so popular that Ike recently announced that on weekends sandwiches would be available by appointment only, after a bout of very long lines. (Although for a populace equipped with cellphones, making a call before you head over shouldn't be too onerous.)
The premises, a bit more spacious than Petite Deli's, also boast only a couple of indoor and outdoor tables. But the sandwich board here is much more encyclopedic, not to mention literary. Several minutes must be spent reading the extensive, jokey lists. There's a lengthy one of named, multi-ingredient offerings, Good-Looking Sandwiches, all served hot; a shorter one, Unoriginal Sandwiches, for those in search of a simple cold roast beef, pastrami, ham, BLT, tuna, or all-beef sausage; and an impressive array of vegan and vegetarian sandwiches, called Veg Out. All are available on long, soft sourdough; French; Dutch crunch; or wheat rolls, and are automatically enhanced, unless you say differently, with lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, peppers, and pickles (with mustard, pesto, and jalapeños available on request), and Ike's "dirty" sauce. Asking just what that is might elicit something along the lines of "I could tell you, but I'd have to kill you," with further intelligence allowing as that it's kind of like aioli. For a fee, add-ons include bacon, avocado, and grilled mushrooms.
Working alongside Ike is his mom. They turn out massive layered sandwiches, dripping with juices, that could easily serve two. For the hungry, however, there are burgers that start at a half-pound and go up to two pounds — yes, two pounds of meat. And yet the fries here are baked, and any nonvegan sandwich can be prepared for vegans for an extra 99 cents.
The overwhelmed newbie might be told that Ike's most popular sandwich is the #9 [Name of Girl I'm Dating], which contains shredded chicken breast, honey mustard, avocado, and pepperjack cheese. The #23, Montana to Rice — with meatballs, marinara, and pepperjack — is also popular, though the densely packed meatballs wouldn't pass muster at an Italian deli. More successful is the special Paul Reubens, with corned beef, sesame poppyseed slaw, creamy French dressing, and melted Swiss on a Dutch crunch roll. Each sandwich feels like it weighs a couple of pounds.
Miles away, both in distance and philosophy, are the paninis turned out in the chic, retro Avedano's Holly Park Market, a recent resurrection of a longtime Bernal Heights landmark. Restaurateur Tia Harrison, co-owner of Pacific Heights' Sociale, and friends Melanie Eisemann and Angela Wilson took over the old Cicero's Meats (in a building that has been in the food business for more than a century) and turned it into a combination butcher shop, green market, specialty-foods purveyor, and, yes, griller of paninis to order. The long butcher's case is full of grass-fed beef and lamb, free-range fowl, and sustainably caught fish and shellfish. Shelves contain an enticing, carefully curated array of olive oil, vinegars, jams, imported candies and cookies, spices, and such delicacies as tiny cans of Italian tuna in oil. Imported butter and organic milk and cream are also on offer alongside a line of fresh organic baby-food purées.
There's no table seating, but a rotating menu of a half-dozen panini might include housemade olive-oil-poached tuna with tapenade and pea shoots; roast beef with horseradish aioli and caramelized onions; or grilled chicken with pasilla peppers and jack cheese. The panini press turns out a slightly thin, dense, ridged sandwich that, again, might suffice for two light eaters, as did a recent masterpiece of excellent salty prosciutto, arugula, and provolone. Sides (available all day) include a layered spinach and potato gratin, or roasted Brussels spouts. If you arrive after 4 p.m., you can also pick up one of the monthly-changing daily hot specials (though Monday's lasagna bolognese and Friday's fried organic chicken are so popular that they seem to be on permanent duty). The specials come with a salad of fresh mixed greens. Rotisserie chickens are available every day.
The contents of the drinks fridges at these three places epitomize their owners' diverse philosophies: the recognizably homey Frappuccinos, Snapples, Cokes, and juices at Petite Deli; the hip Izze and Jones specialty sodas alongside organic energy drinks at Ike's; and the esoteric offerings of regional root beer, cream soda, and pricey imported Italian sodas in seductive shapely bottles at Avedano's. But all three offer quality sandwiches at popular prices to their eager clienteles.