By Cameron Saunders
My friend Carl first told me about Dom’s Subs. Carl is a spaced-out food geek who lived in Carroll Gardens for years before moving to London to follow his dreams of becoming an international banker.
“Hey man!” he said one day in his high-pitched California voice. “I found a spot that does great subs!”
“Yeah. They deliver subs out of a shopfront in Hackney Road.”
This was during the depths of the first lockdown, when delivering out of a shopfront made a whole lot of sense.
“What’s so good about them?”
“Well, man,” he paused for emphasis. “They do chicken parms.”
If you are like me and from New York but live in London, you will always find yourself disappointed by the food over here. It has little to do with the American canard that the food in Britain is no good. It has much more to do with an intractably complex problem of global history: the endless migration of populations across oceans and continents. These are the people who bring their customs and cuisine, setting up in a new land to create a new culture; where the adopted country irrevocably shades that of the old, and vice versa.
For example, Britain does not have Italian Americans. There are plenty of Italian migrants who settled here and created their own thing, but it was never in the vast numbers that arrived in the United States after the Civil War in the 1860s, and who kept coming until migration was staunched by a racially inflected act of Congress in the 1920s. So many millions came from Southern Italy that their cuisine – both high and low – left an indelible mark on that of the Americans.
I mention ‘low’ because one thing the Americans can thank the Italians for is the hero sandwich. In the parts of the country where the migration was most pronounced – mostly around the Northeast – the sandwich borne of this impact is known under different names according to region: in New York it’s a hero; in Boston it’s a sub; in southern New England – Rhode Island and Connecticut – it’s a grinder; in Philadelphia, a hoagie; and the list goes on.
We’re talking long. Twelve inches long. And three inches thick, and tubular. One slice down the middle with a serrated blade, but not so far that the spine’s integrity gives way. This piece of bread has a lot of meat to hold, a few vegetables, and, almost invariably, cheese. Today ranging between $4 and $10, you can get this at every bodega in New York City, every deli in Providence, RI, and every shithole in Boston. Who opened the first Philly cheesesteak joints in the City of Brotherly Love? Italian immigrants.
Carl had my attention at ‘chicken parm.’ The dish – a high Italian-American classic – has been my favorite since early childhood. I mentioned that I’d never understood why it wasn’t better known over here.
“Man, I know! They’d be so popular! They’re so British. Breaded and fried and covered in tomato sauce and mozzarella. It’s perfect for these people.”
We’d met on a side street. He’d been there for some time and was stroking a cat. It settled on his lap.
“Whose cat is that?”
“I don’t know man. It was here when I arrived.”
“So they have chicken parm. Is it any good?”
He nodded, and the cat nodded too. She was in the throes of a good purr.
The dish was traditionally served on a plate with a side of pasta and greens but, just as often, it could be stuffed into a roll and presented as a sandwich, which is what Dom’s Subs did.
I wondered aloud: “I don’t even think they have chicken parms in Italy.”
Carl shook his head. The cat was asleep.
“In Italy they have eggplant parms because, you know, that’s just what they have. The first recipe is from Naples from, like, 1877, so it’s probably much older than that. But when Italians came to New York, meat was much cheaper. The recipe… it evolved. Now they bread the chicken, the veal, eggplant. Americans love breading.”
“So do the Brits.”
“Yeah, they do.” He was looking at his phone. He is always looking at his phone. Bankers get a lot of emails, he tells me.
“We should go get a sandwich,” I offer.
“I can’t man! I have a cat on me!”
He was exasperated, as usual.
The British sandwich tradition contrasts with that of the Italo-American and is unimpressive by comparison. While I will always admire any triangular cardboard box, the contents therein tend to be assembled far too far away from the place of consumption. When the sandwiches are top quality – as they might be at a local livestock fair or a village butcher – the standard of ingredients is laudable even as the righteousness of simplicity is overstated: a rasher of bacon, butter and bread, for instance.
It’s curious that the Americans do it so much better. After all, it was this island that invented the unit of consumption. As the legend goes, its name comes from the fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, who needed to feed himself with only one hand while indulging his gambling habit through the night.
The scholars effortlessly debunked this myth: the Earl himself was an industrious, indefatigable man who twice became First Lord of the Admiralty, twice Secretary of State, and once a Postmaster General. Rather than being an inveterate gambler, he was too busy reforming the British naval administration to sit down for a proper meal.
It may all be true – the word was first in a cookbook in 1773, 19 years before the Earl’s death, and it seems he did create a fashion for sandwiches – but it’s a bullshit myth. People have been eating meat between bread since at least the agricultural revolution. The Earl, though, should get credit for treating this as a prepared dish, and not some affair of an impoverished peasant, or merchant on the move, expediently throwing together leftovers.
The Earl’s preference? Sliced topside beef on bread.
The British sandwich tradition also begins with him. To this day, a sandwich bought in Britain is usually a simple affair: pre-designed, premade, presented to and accepted by a willing recipient. The imagination of construction lies in the maker, not the eater.
In America the culture is different. The customer is omnipotent. You walk into a sandwich shop and tell the person behind the glass counter what you want. In keeping with the American culture of abundance, the result is indulgent, sometimes one inch too high to comfortably fit into your common mouth.
But it has created a culture in the United States where sandwiches are construed with identity. A preferred order at the deli counter becomes a calling card, a totem even. It is a cultural fixture, one that the American misses when living abroad; especially in Britain where, despite there being so many sandwiches, they are typically prefab and miserly.
There is one man who is trying to change this. Or at least I thought he was. It turns out he just stumbled onto a good thing and was then whipped by the winds of a global pandemic. His name is Dom.
When I first met Dom – that’s Dominic Sherington, who, with partners Greg Boyce and Matt Scott, owns the place – he was finishing a shift at their location outside of a tattoo parlour in Peckham. Both operations, the tattoos and the sandwiches, were under a grimy railway arch just by the station. Greasy black latex gloves covered his hands as he finished eating a Cubano, the daily special they had been slinging for the last three hours. A pile of chopped pork continued to sizzle on the skillet. I could see a sliced pickle slipping out of the bottom of his sandwich.
“Hey!” He knew I was coming. “I was wondering if you were going to make it down.”
He had on tie-dyed crocs and tie-dyed socks, but the rest of him looked normal, if not a bit scruffy. His pants were covered in flour. I would later learn he had awoken at five to bake 500 of the semolina rolls they make in-house, the better to replicate the bread vessel of an American sub.
From his accent I could tell that he was Scottish. In fact, the whole operation is Scottish – Dom from Edinburgh, Greg from Glasgow, and Matt from Fife.
I got right down to business.
“I can’t believe you make chicken parms. You’re the only ones in London!”
“It’s something that should be popular over here, that will be at some point soon, I assume.”
I admired his optimism. I soon took him aside and began interrogating him.
I had presumed I had come across some Scottish acolyte of American sandwich culture. The truth was more profane, though just as American in its way.
Five years before his partner Greg had had a revelation: “Why doesn’t someone do a Subway© but the stuff’s good?”
By Subway, Greg meant the fast food chain.
This was uncanny. Subway – which, with its franchise model, has more locations than any other food establishment on the planet (41,600) – does indeed follow the American model of build-your-own. The problem, as Greg noted, is that the ingredients are of a deplorable quality.
This was the germ of an idea.
Dom’s Subs initially grew from the shadows of disparate cafés and restaurants where the now proprietors had worked for years. The intimate world of the restaurant industry enabled the whole operation. At the café in Shoreditch where Greg made coffee, they would offer sandwiches on the side. When they wanted to grow the operation but had no capital, a friend running a nearby restaurant kitchen leant them the use of his huge mixer and oven to make rolls. When the sandwiches started coming regularly, they got their industry buddies to promote them over Instagram.
They were about to open their own storefront when the pandemic struck.
Dining in was out of the question. But they had a space in a basement with the right equipment, as well as a team assembled. They switched to delivery mode, to storefront takeout. Dom’s Subs took off and now, two years later, they have a place in Bevis Marks – in the heart of the City – which is, by happenstance, a former Subway© location (it came with the trademark glass-sided proofing oven intact). This is their central kitchen. The goods get delivered from here to another location on Hackney Road and, on the weekends, to this pop-up at the tattoo parlour in Peckham Rye. They’re now looking for a bigger central kitchen location under a more vacant railway arch. From here they can really expand.
Dom marvels at how fast it’s all happened.
“Greg got a tattoo of our logo on his arm.” It’s a hero sandwich with cartoon arms and legs manically running down a street, underneath reading, in big, bold letters: ‘Dom’s Subs.’
“You mean one of your best friends, your business partner, has your name tattooed on his arm?”
“Well… He left that part of it out.”
“How’d you learn about Italian-American food? You ever go to America?”
“Nope. Just watching videos online – mad research – following New York sandwich shops on Instagram.” He’s intending on visiting in the next year. “My wife really wants to go to New York, but in my mind I want to go to Philly.”
I bring up the spiel about sandwich traditions: the premade British designs vs. the build-your-own, autonomous American approach.
Do you think you’ll ever go down the American way?
“I want to be able to do it in theory, but in practice it’s quite annoying. It’s much slower. “
They tried it but it was a failure. Inefficient. The British didn’t know what to do when confronted with the plethora of choice. It took four times as long to turn over a sandwich; the economics suffered.
Dom went on: “They’d say, ‘Can I build my own?’” They’d ask and they’d look at their options. “‘Can I have….mmm….What’s that? What’s that? What’s that?’
“I want to be able to do it, but people really don’t know what they want. People have been spoon fed in Britain.”
It’s an interesting experience, eating a chicken parm sandwich made by someone who's never been to America, who has no idea about the tradition.
Their parm is actually an intermittent weekend special at Dom’s Subs. Follow their Instagram – @impeccablesandwiches – and you’ll know when it’s available.
They do have a regular menu of no more than ten sandwiches. Each is a well-considered construction, each on that semolina roll. There are things like the Philly classic, pork and broccoli rabe. But this is followed by the Thai derived Grapow: ground chicken, kewpie mayonnaise, pickled cucumbers and carrots, lettuce, Thai basil, coriander, red chilies, crisped shallots, topped with ‘fragrant toasted rice powder.’ There is an equally elaborate cold cut construction, and a turkey club too. Then moving on there’s a vegetarian number with tenderstem broccoli, garlic confit, smoked paprika, roasted aubergine, marinated artichoke, provolone, romesco sauce and chopped smoked almonds.
But that Sunday afternoon I was in the heart of the City for one reason only: a Scotsman’s chicken parm.
Dom missed the target by just under a foot, which is not bad considering the circumstances. It needed much more sauce, more cheese, and for the cutlet to not be sliced into strips. The paisan typically smashes two sauce-baked, cheese-smothered cutlets into a single twelve-incher. Dom could learn from that example. I don’t know how economics work, but abundance is king.
But if you are like me and love the hero, you’ll put up with these details.
The sandwich hit the spot. That’s what you get in London, a town where beggars can’t be choosers.