From Vietnamese banh mi to Italian panini to Mexican torta, sandwiches are everywhere. Just bread, a few fillings and condiments leaves you with a simple yet endlessly versatile creation.
Still, most shops fall short in delivering consistently solid and flavorful sandwiches. And while North Carolina is known for many things, the state is not renowned for its sandwiches - but maybe it could be. While Durham eateries such as King’s Sandwich Shop, Eastcut Sandwich Bar and Toast are all good options, none quite stack up to Ideal’s Sandwich and Grocery.
Ideal’s was founded at the start of 2020 with a simple goal: to deliver high quality Northeastern-style sandwiches to Durham residents. The shop is located in a boutique brick building in the heart of the city at 2108 Angier Avenue. There are two picnic tables situated out front where customers can be seen conversing or silently savoring each bite of their meal. When you walk inside, you are immediately greeted by an umami aroma, the sight of bakers churning away at fresh bread and a long line of loyal customers, often extending out the door. The main menu contains just 11 sandwiches, each served on a sesame hoagie roll or round rosemary focaccia.
Despite the menu’s seeming simplicity, upon closer look, it features a wide variety of sandwiches, from the New York staple chopped cheese to Italian chicken cutlets and a unique take on the classic turkey sandwich. Each sandwich is an experience in itself — composed of ingredients uniquely crafted and combined to create a flavor and texture explosion. The masterminds behind these delicious sandwiches are Ideal’s co-owners Paul and Ian.
12 years ago, Paul and Ian met at the Culinary Institute of America. Of course, it’s no surprise that two chefs shared a love of food, but it was a particular spot - Rossi Rosticceria Deli in Poughkeepsie, NY - that won over their hearts and appetites. Almost seven years after meeting, they both ended up in North Carolina and, longing for the North Eastern deli taste they so missed, opened up their own sandwich shop together. Today, the two credit much of their food inspiration to Rossi, including Ideal’s Philly Roast Pork, Uncle Primo’s Chicken Cutlet and fresh focaccia bread.
Paul and Ian describe the sandwich as the “perfect vessel.” Above all, they recognize the importance of the bread as the foundation of each bite. And in their eyes, as well as mine, they have succeeded. For Paul and Ian, the fillings provide an opportunity to show off their culinary creativity and advanced cooking techniques. Every ingredient is prepared fresh at Ideal's, each perfectly incorporated into the eclectic menu.
Every week, there is also a new special, a unique sandwich creation that is the culmination of days of experimentation. One week featured the Paulie’s Walnuts: Roast beef, artichoke red pepper walnut pesto, fresh mozzarella, fried eggplant, finished with balsamic glaze. Just a few weeks before, Ideal’s served chicken shawarma, with house made hummus and za’atar, cucumber and tomato herb salad, yoghurt mint sauce and pickled red onions studded in fresh pita.
Paul says that “the reason it's hard to find a great sandwich is because everybody underthinks sandwiches.” As opposed to “everybody,” Paul and Ian demonstrate that sandwiches do not have to be cold cuts on white.
Along with serving high-quality sandwiches, the owners highlight their dedication to creating a warm and lively atmosphere for their customers. For Ian, “working in fine dining restaurants and plating food always seemed very separated from the guests. And we just love yelling at people and people yelling at us and being in front of the people that we're serving.”
The one thing Paul and Ian regret is the store’s limited availability. Ideal’s Sandwich and Grocery is only open Thursday to Monday from 12 to 3 p.m. This is largely due to restraints in oven size and thus limited supply of bread. Typically, their top sandwiches will sell out even earlier than 3 p.m., particularly Uncle Primo’s Chicken Cutlet, which is normally gone by 1:30 p.m.
While this low supply and the (to some extent) ensuing heightened demand may work in their financial favor, Paul and Ian reject the notion that they intended this or preferred their sandwiches to be seen as a limited but highly-sought after option. For Paul and Ian, they’d “rather have no line [of customers] than ever turn away someone who drove all the while to come eat our food.” The pair hinted that they may have something in the works to alleviate this supply issue. But in the meantime, Ideal’s sandwiches are more than worth the wait.
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