Location: 4771 McKnight Road, Ross Township. 412-369-5380
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: Starters $2.50-8; sandwiches $5-8
Fare: Sandwiches and soups, classic and contemporary
Atmosphere: Upscale deli/café
Sandwich shop. Do any two words evoke such mixed responses in the heart, not to mention the palate, of the lunch consumer? The humble sandwich possesses the potential for gustatory delight, yet it is all too often the vehicle for noon-hour boredom. We've eaten enough sorry slices of factory meat and cheese on shrink-wrapped bread with wilted lettuce and a slice of Styrofoam tomato to make us wince at the very thought.
But when someone who cares about food prepares a sandwich, choosing the best ingredients and combining them with care, the result is no longer something to mindlessly munch while doing something else. There is an art to making a really good sandwich, and two people who have mastered it are the husband-and-wife team of Jason and Amy Stoeckle. Their Stoke's Grill, located on McKnight Road within striking distance of Downtown workers, has restored our faith in sandwich shops.
Stoke's menu is lengthy, spanning not only traditional sandwiches (which, true to the shop's name, are grilled) but burgers, quesadillas and wraps, as well as salads and homemade soups. The menu hits all the requisite standards, but instead of the sense of weary obligation that mars so many sandwich boards, we found a playful originality in the listing of such options as the Elmer (marinated vegetables with hummus wrapped in a garlic tortilla and grilled), the Ringamala (bacon-cheddar burger) and the Widow Maker (grilled Italian deli meats, turkey and eggs). Even when the sandwich is called plain-old BLT, there is an original touch in dressing it with red-pepper aioli.
A selection like this demands attention. We began by ordering "green fries," shoestrings tossed with pesto, artichoke hearts and bits of brie. (Red and yellow fries, more traditional combinations with chili and cheese, are also available.) It struck us as the sandwich shop's answer to that ubiquitous appetizer, spinach-artichoke dip, but Amy explained it as the result of bored sandwich chefs playing around in the kitchen, trying new combinations to see what might work. Green fries work. The herbal pesto just clung to the golden, crispy fries, while the artichoke hearts and chunks of brie rounded out the flavors with their tangy and creamy notes.
Next came The Randall, a quesadilla. Stuffed with pulled, slow-roasted beef, peppers, onions and mushrooms, it featured ingredients similar to a cheesesteak, but the ultra-tender beef gave an ultra-rich flavor, and the crisp tortilla was just enough bread to hold the bold fillings together.
Curious to see how a deli-style place like Stoke's would handle a burger, Jason tried the Shorthorn, topped with chili and cheddar. These toppings, more commonly used on hot dogs, held up well to a half-pound of Angus. The patty wasn't jaw-stretchingly thick, yet it maintained a bit of pinkness inside, and with it some juiciness. This may not have been a burger to make us forget our favorite burger joints, but it was far superior to the perfunctory patties on offer at most other sandwich shops.
Stoke's Hot Tuna was the answer to Angelique's craving for her favorite sandwich, the tuna melt. One answer, anyway. The tuna salad itself was almost dry, with large chunks held together by the barest amount of mayonnaise. While this condition is preferable to the opposite extreme of runniness, the sandwich could have used more moisture in the form of plenty of melted cheese. But the cheese was sparse, and the tomato - well, let's just say that we wouldn't miss colorless, flavorless winter tomatoes if they were left off sandwiches altogether this time of year. On the other hand, the bacon was chewy and substantial, and the toasted wheat bread was crusty and satisfying.
Most of Stoke's sandwiches are made on bread from that fine local bakery, Breadworks, but we also tried ham and Swiss on a pretzel. The pretzel was a little bit crisp and not too doughy, allowing the high-quality ham to shine. As with other sandwiches, it was served with Stoke's excellent home-cooked potato chips.
As we nibbled on delicious, home-baked chocolate chunk cookies for dessert, we thought about those Downtown workers driving out to pick up sandwiches from this contemporary deli, with its clever menu, excellent food and commitment to environmental friendliness (stoneware plates, metal utensils, and biodegradable cups) way beyond that of your standard sandwich shop. Shouldn't there be a Stoke's in the city, we wondered. The Stoeckles assured us they are trying to make it happen. We can hardly wait.