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Grinders, no gab 

Disinterested service threatens to sabotage largely solid subs at North End sandwich spot

Biting into South Jersey Subs' zesty ground Italian sausage sub elicits nothing but joy — the pork is slightly salty and juicy, the baguette fresh and crunchy. Unlike at most assembly-line sub shops, here fresh ground Italian sausage meets a real grill to sizzle with peppers and onions, while the cook cuts huge baguettes down to size and digs out the center to make room for the heaping mound of meat and cheese.

South Jersey clearly doesn't skimp; it even uses local, premium Ranch Foods Direct deli meats and cheeses. Open since April, just south of the Academy Boulevard and Woodmen Road intersection, the operation dispatches subs in 8- or 12-inch sizes that range from $5.74 to $8.49. Many menu items are made fresh daily, which proves both good (for freshness) and bad (because many tend to run out — I had to make alternate selections on both visits).

The range of hot subs is wide, from a breakfast offering of peppers and egg to varying cheese steaks and burger subs. My tender, hot roast beef and provolone on toasted bread was tasty, with added mushrooms and onions.

But my meatball sub arrived a tad under-seasoned, with the meat pink throughout. Though they didn't taste undercooked, the two-inch meatballs raised my alarm. I also took issue with the pizza steak sub, which arrived dry and sporting a bland, watered-down version of a generic tomato sauce.

Off the heat, options of turkey, ham and cheese, and tuna all tempt, but it's the Italian deli items that lure and shine. The thick-sliced Genoa salami, capicola (pork shoulder and neck) and provolone sub, dressed with the veggies of your choice, displays the passion of New Jersey native, owner and self-professed sandwich lover John Kondratow.

That's something I'm hoping can ultimately trickle down to his staff. I won't say the operation lacks customer service, but maybe customer interest. On both visits, I was looked at blankly when I walked in the door. No smile, not even a "hello." When I complimented the ceramic tile counter top and multicolored glass tiling on the back wall, I got an apathetic shrug.

Even if customers dining at the counter have a large flat-screen to watch, the standoffishness needs to change. Look, at South Jersey there are things to talk about, like the homemade, three-layer turtle cheesecake ($2.95), a thick wedge of rich cheesecake and chocolate on a graham cracker crust, drizzled with more chocolate, nuts and caramel. Delicious!

Also noteworthy: East Coast staples like Boylan's Birch Beer ($2.25), a sweet cousin of root beer, and a variety of Tastykake products ($1.50), basically Twinkie-caliber sweets, guilty-pleasure childhood throwbacks.

South Jersey will have to endure an extensive construction project nearby and longer-term issues, like the fact that to get to the restrooms, you have to walk out of and around the building to a back door. (Not pretty.) But two of the most important pieces — quality ingredients and deftly prepared subs — are already there. Give shots of espresso or Red Bull to the staff, and this shop could be one to reckon with right away.

scene@csindy.com

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