Though supposedly invented by a British earl, the sandwich seems as all-American as, er ... frankfurters or pizza. Yep, if there is one thing we Yanks are good at, it's taking a good idea and running with it. If there's another thing, it's packing all manner of meats, cheeses, vegetables and condiments between two slices of bread — or rolls, or buns, or pretzels — to create a hand-held meal.
There is no shortage of sandwich-makers in the Pittsburgh region, including Parker's. Run by Luke Parker with his mother, Roseann, Parker's offers nothing but sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. It's located just off Potomac Avenue in the space once occupied by Dormont Dogs, which we mention not just because Pittsburghers do that, but because that erstwhile business was a pioneer to which Parker's pays tribute. Dormont Dogs was the first establishment, locally, to blur the line between humble street food and an upscale meal by offering hot dogs with artisanal ingredients and gourmet toppings. Now that practice is so prevalent that it's hard to remember when it was new and exciting. Parker's pays homage with a daily dog from its predecessor's menu of elaborate concoctions named after local streets. The day we visited, it was the Wisconsin Dog, with four kinds of cheese: so good.
This kind of local awareness is central to the appeal of Parker's. All sandwiches are made from locally sourced ingredients, and Parker is committed to getting them just right, such that his meats come from three different butchers, and his breads from four different bakeries. And while such princely treatment usually translates into kingly prices, at Parker's, all this comes crazy cheap, with nothing on the menu over seven bucks and many items under six.
The menu is sensibly divided into breakfast sandwiches and thence by main ingredient: ham & bacon, turkey, chicken, meatball and veggie. Options range from the timeless BLT to such experiments as the "Magic Beans," comprised of chicken, bacon, cream cheese, sprouts and sriracha on a pretzel bun. And if nothing on the menu quite suits your fancy, you can build your own custom sandwich; examples are displayed on a board on one wall. Feeling lucky? Opt for the Dirty Harry: Parker picks the bun, meat, cheese and condiment, and you enjoy it!
We were drawn to the Barkley's Golf Swing largely by the promise of Alabama white-lightning sauce, which we thought might be a version of the state's oddly delicious mayonnaise-based barbecue sauce. Parker's was pink with hot sauce and less peppery than the real deal, but it was plenty zesty for provolone, thick cut pickles and even thicker cut — no, carved — chicken. Aside from its locally sourced ethos, Parker's other signature move is a special steam press that freshens rolls while melting cheese and rendering meats juicier. Toasted sandwiches are great, of course, but steaming works better than you'd ever expect, and in this case, it resulted in juicy white meat and a sandwich that really held together.
Angelique went with the Hambino, an everything bagel stuffed with ham, bacon, cream cheese, cheddar, sprouts, tomato and brown mustard. While this could have been a jaw-buster, each ingredient was applied judiciously, and the bagel — again steamed, not toasted — was soft enough to yield to each bite.
Parker's pretzel buns come from the South Side's Pretzel Shop, another local pioneer, serving sandwiches on pretzel buns long before anyone else caught on. Actually a halved pretzel, this bun was much more than a brown, salt-studded crust. Its depth of flavor worked perfectly with the timeless combination of ham and Swiss. The ham was closer to deli meat than was the chicken, but it was also meaty and on the thick side.
Parker's vibe is cozy and friendly, helped by a traditional lunch-counter setup where everything is made in front of you while you sit, and the proprietor's personal service was above and beyond. When our son asked for "The King" — peanut butter, bacon and banana on a bagel — Parker ran all over Dormont to procure a banana rather than disappoint him with "We're out." The sandwich was worth the effort, its potential mess somehow neatly contained and tantalizingly balanced between sweet, salty and savory. Elvis knew what was what, and so does Luke Parker. Crown him the Sandwich King.