The sandwich existed for hundreds of years before some profligate English aristocrat lent it his name — well before the invention of sliced bread, whatever the saying might imply. Here we are, citizens of the 21st century, and the basic concept is still going strong — at food trucks, cafeterias, and restaurants both high-end and low-.
But for a simple sandwich, the best place to go isn’t always a restaurant or deli counter, but rather the kind of old-fashioned butcher shop that is slowly making a comeback — where the meat comes from animals that were raised humanely and weren’t pumped full of chemicals.
As long as you don’t mind your sandwich served grab-and-go style and at room temperature, you won’t find many better options than at two sustainability-minded Berkeley butcher shops: Star Meats and The Local Butcher Shop.
Old-School and New-School
Star Grocery has occupied its spot on Claremont Avenue since 1922, always under the same family ownership. With cute handwritten signs and well-worn wooden shelves stacked high (and somewhat haphazardly) with eclectic foodstuffs, the place feels less like a modern supermarket than it does an old country store. Star Meats, the butcher shop in back, has been run independently since the Fifties, and for some families in the neighborhood, three generations of kids have come in to buy sandwiches. For a couple years in the mid-2000s, the shop was a branch of Alameda-based Baron’s Meat and Poultry, which is when it switched over to all hormone- and antibiotic-free meats and began developing the current sandwich menu: about a dozen options, most with goofy Italian-American-inspired names (the Raging Bull, the Soprano, etc.). Co-owners Sarah Ryan and Joe Cates, longtime employees of the shop, bought the business two years ago.
The sandwiches are all $8 or $9, and everything’s sliced and assembled to order, so if you come at the height of the lunch rush, especially on the weekend, expect to wait a good ten or fifteen minutes.
Meanwhile, The Local Butcher Shop, set in the tony Gourmet Ghetto, is among a vanguard of new shops working exclusively with whole animals — no prepackaged cuts. Monica and Aaron Rocchino opened the shop last year, and while the black-and-white design aesthetic and tie-and-apron employee dress code evoke an old-timey feel, everything here is shiny and new (and fairly fancy). All of the meat is pasture-raised; all of it comes from within a 150-mile radius of Berkeley.
Because the Rocchinos are turning over whole pigs and cows, the sandwich program has always been pivotal — a way to use cuts that aren’t as popular with home cooks. So they hired a full-time sandwich chef, Kel Troughton, who comes up with each week’s menu based on what’s in season at the farmers’ markets. Each day there’s one sandwich available ($9), pre-assembled in small batches throughout the course of the day. Each day it’s something different, so you could conceivably go an entire year without eating the same thing twice.
The Roast Beef
One of the best measures of a sandwich shop is its roast beef. Neither place disappointed. At Star Meats, my favorite sandwich was the Fat Albert: a generous portion of house-roasted Niman Ranch top round (quite rare and only lightly seasoned), cheddar, and arugula, served on a La Farine rustic baguette. These are workmanlike ingredients, as far as artisan sandwiches go, but the meat was perfectly clean-tasting and tender. A dollop of chipotle mayo added a bold, smoky kick.
The Local Butcher Shop typically features roast beef sandwiches, with different veggies and condiments, a couple times a week. One day’s offering was a roast beef sandwich topped with a tangy fennel-and-apple slaw, served on a plump Acme sweet deli roll. Here, too, the meat was allowed to shine on its own. The beef, from a leg roast, was a pinkish gray (less rare than expected) but didn’t suffer for it: This was savory, full-flavored meat — moist enough, and delicious enough, to eat by itself. And, gilding the lily, the taste of high-quality olive oil — from the house-made aioli — lingered, deliciously, in my mouth.
The Other Sandwiches
The roast beef is actually the only deli meat at Star Meats that’s cooked in-house — the rest of the cold cuts are well sourced, but more run-of-the-mill. That said, the Goodfella — with salami, hot coppa, fresh mozzarella, and sun-dried tomatoes — was as good a take on a classic Italian sub as I’ve had out West. I only wish I’d found out sooner about an off-menu sandwich called the Dirty Bird (turkey, pastrami, curry garlic aioli), which I overheard a couple of broish gentlemen order “extra dirty” — and which Ryan compared to tikka masala.
Star Meats does have a couple of non-meat sandwiches. At The Local Butcher Shop, vegetarians are out of luck.
Still, at the latter, I never had a bad sandwich. The Pork Milanese was a breaded and fried thing that maintained its crunch, even a half hour later. And a lush black-pepper pork — even more tender than the roast beef — was complemented by the restrained sweetness of late-season pluots and the bloomy funk of blue cheese.
Neither butcher shop has tables where you can sit, but both have benches outside in quiet nooks where you can enjoy your little picnic — “sandwich seats,” a fellow Star Meats sandwich eater dubbed them. I’m of the opinion that’s where these sandwiches taste best.