What makes a good sandwich? Albert Ok, the chef behind OK’s Deli, agrees with the synthpop band Depeche Mode. You have to get the balance right. “I do like mayo, but not too much,” he said, before further clarifying his stance on the condiment. “I do prefer a touch more mayo than usual, but it [the sandwich] needs freshness.” When it comes to corned beef and pastrami, he likes thicker cuts of meat. Overall, there shouldn’t be too much cheese or lettuce.
Choosing the appropriate loaf of bread is another crucial part of the formula. Initially, OK’s Deli tried out rustic bread, but all of the ingredients would fall out. Artisanal crusts are too hard. When Ok started his deli during the pandemic, he started to bake the bread himself. “The first bread that we really developed was a steamed bun for the Sichuan hot chicken sandwich,” he said.
Ok also made a milk bread and a focaccia. But then he had to make a practical business decision. They had to outsource some of the bread they use. “It’s impossible for us to produce all the bread, in house, in such a small space,” he explained. “At the moment, the maximum we can produce are three different house-made breads.”
After putting his pop-up on hiatus last year, Ok opened his first storefront this summer on Telegraph Avenue. Before starting the business, the chef had cooked at Mägo on Piedmont Avenue and at Maum in Palo Alto. Instead of starting his own fine dining restaurant though, he opted to make sandwiches. “In general, restaurants are designed for a specific demographic,” he said. “I like sandwiches because they’re more universal, more democratic.”
Every culture on Planet Earth also has their own version of a sandwich. “There are endless areas of inspiration for sandwiches,” Ok said. “We’re using our diverse experiences to make something that’s considered to be very humble, I want to say better, but just drawing attention to something that’s often overlooked.”
OK’s Deli menu divides the sandwiches into two sections. The Signatures include a Sichuan hot chicken ($16), an okonomi pan ($16), an adaptation of the Japanese savory pancake served on a steamed bun and a corned beef brisket ($20). The Classics feature roast beef (half $14, full $28), turkey breast ($17) and a vegetarian option ($14) packed with beets, carrot, cucumber, avocado, tomato and a house-made hummus.
With over 13,000 followers on Instagram, the lines to grab a sandwich have been daunting. But Hoang Le, the general manager and the voice behind OK’s Deli’s social media presence, said that the wait time between orders is diminishing. “From week one, folks were waiting an hour and a half. Going into week three, for the most part, folks are only waiting half an hour.”
Ok said that the fried chicken sandwich sells out the fastest, within the first hour and a half. It makes for a lovely photograph. The top bun is covered in toasted sesame seeds and can barely contain the wedge of iceberg lettuce and the golden chicken.
Once that’s gone, the spam sandwich sells out next. “I’ve always loved spam. Asian Americans were raised eating spam and rice or eggs, or just musubi,” the chef said. His version of the meat though isn’t from a can. The ingredients are nearly identical, but the deli’s cooking process is akin to making sausage. “There’s more snap to it, and the fat content is lower. It’s not as unhealthy as spam, but it is made with ground pork,” the chef said.
During this soft opening phase, the biggest issue Ok is contending with is the small kitchen space. There’s only so much room for equipment, such as refrigeration. And there’s only 14 feet of hood space. The con is the amount of time it takes to fulfill an order. The pro is the kitchen can stay on top of quality control. “You don’t want to produce [sandwiches] just to make money,” Ok said. Right now, the focus is on making sure the staff is trained so that customers end up with well-made sandwiches.
But Ok is also thinking about his employees’ work-life balance. “I don’t want anyone to get burnt out,” he said. “It’s definitely not fun to make 200 fried chicken sandwiches a day. So I don’t really want to put that on anyone on our staff.”