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The best thing since sliced bread

New shop meets needs of sandwich aficionados

CAMBRIDGE -- Chris Schlesinger and Jim Economides are sitting in their new place in Inman Square, watching customers saunter in. It's about 3 p.m. on a recent Tuesday, and All Star Sandwich Bar has been open for a little more than a day. The lunch crowd has departed, but a slow, steady stream of people comes through the door, glancing around at the little place's bright stainless steel, brick , and orange walls trimmed in aqua. Customers stand at the counter to order from a long list of sandwiches, discussing the merits of the tuna melt versus the Reuben.

``We've been busy at lunch," says Economides, his Red Sox cap tight against dark sideburns. ``And last night, too." He smiles and stops to confer with one of the cooks. ``We're pretty busy all day long."

``It's a double-edged sword a little bit," says Schlesinger, a veteran of the Boston restaurant scene who has owned East Coast Grill & Raw Bar down the street for more than 20 years.

Schlesinger pulls out a sheet of paper filled with to-do lists. Is he having fun? He shrugs as he fidgets, worrying aloud about silverware that isn't right; music that's too loud; typos that mar the menu. The owners have yet to figure out how long it takes to make a sandwich, and Schlesinger frets that customers have no designated spot to pick up carry-out orders. But his partner, who is 30, flashes a weary smile. ``I'm having fun," says Economides, who adds he hasn't slept much lately, a fact underscored by dark circles under his eyes.

``That's the reason for having a young partner," says Schlesinger, 50, pushing his glasses up on his forehead.

A sandwich shop made sense, he says, when they asked themselves what the neighborhood along Cambridge Street, a veritable restaurant row, might need after the owners of Cafe China, which had been in the corner spot at Prospect Street for almost three decades, decided to close.

It's obvious as the two talk, though, that the impetus was mostly personal: These guys like sandwiches.

The form -- meat, fish, cheese, and/or vegetables between two pieces of bread -- is an ancient means of conveying food into the mouth. Though the origin is older, the name is credited to the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who in the late 18th century is said to have asked for salt beef between toasted bread to sustain him through a night of gambling. ``That's the one we're sticking with," says Schlesinger, pointing to the definition artfully printed on the wall above the cash register.

The business has latched onto a sandwich revival. Chains such as Cosi and Au Bon Pain in recent years have started offering upscale versions of the deli and coffee shop staples; artisanal bread and quality ingredients appealed to lunchers who eschewed sit-down restaurants but wanted something more than fast food. Fancy burgers, such as Daniel Boulud's famous $29 version featuring foie gras at db Bistro Moderne in New York and mini burgers everywhere, fanned the flames. And Tom Colicchio of Craft branched out into sandwich land with 'wichcraft, a concept that's spreading in New York City and Las Vegas.

``We wanted to bring back old sandwiches," Schlesinger says. The classics -- from meatloaf hot and cold to bacon, lettuce, and tomato; peanut butter & jelly ; and the Cuban -- are on the menu. So are some regional favorites like ``The Big, Eazy, Greazy Muffaletta" with capicola, salami, provolone, and New Orleans-style olive salad, and the BBQ pork sandwich, Eastern North Carolina-style on an ``average" white bun. There are more refined classics such as a Monte Cristo with Black Forest ham, turkey, and Swiss on brioche. On the evening menu, there are burgers stuffed with meat ground on the premises, several grilled sandwiches such as one filled with Latin skirt steak, and chili cheese fries, gravy fries, and plain fries.

At least one sandwich took travel to authenticate. ``I actually went to Buffalo," says Economides, who was tasting beef on weck, house-roasted beef au jus, and Brede's horseradish on a Kimmelweck bun (seeded and similar to a Kaiser roll). ``All the bars there have to have them." Customers have already come in excited to see their hometown speciality.

``There are an amazing amount of people who are sandwich aficionados," says Schlesinger, then he greets a customer who orders a pastrami and carries it to a table. ``He's been here four times already." The man, known to the partners only as Jordan, has been working his way through the menu.

HEAVEN ON BREAD What's your favorite sandwich? Discuss with other readers at www.boston.com/ae/food.

Staff members, too, have passions; one gave the recipe for an Idaho version of a tuna melt. ``The tuna is put on the griddle first so it gets crispy," says Economides. One of the hot dogs is called a ``ripper" because the Clifton, N.J., special ty is deep-fried and the skin rips. The Clogger -- brisket, tongue, house pastrami, chopped chicken liver, Swiss, applewood smoked bacon, and Creole mustard -- came from a giant barbecue version that used to be served at the old Jake & Earl's next to East Coast Grill (see related story on E2).

``Have we sold any Cloggers?" Schlesinger asks. Economides nods in the affirmative.

``We're definitely selling a lot of pastrami and Reubens," says Economides. They plan to add other sandwiches at their whim or when customers request them; there's a book on the counter asking for suggestions. By making their own ingredients, from mustard to mayonnaise to pickled vegetables, the place can stand out, Schlesinger says.

Economides was a cook at the Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, at East Coast and the Blue Room in Cambridge, and more recently was executive chef of Boston University's dining services. He talks about the pastrami they're making in house, their attempts to source the best pickles, and his search for the right breads and buns. It helps having East Coast nearby. The brisket for a Texas Reuben comes from there, and he's using the East Coast recipe for Inner Beauty hot sauce for his grilled ``Atomic Meatloaf Meltdown" with Monterey Jack cheese and red onion chutney on sourdough. The staff of East Coast sometimes helps out, too, he says.

The partners surveyed shops all over the Boston area, checking out the system at Sam LaGrasso's near Downtown Crossing, which advertises itself as the world's No. 1 sandwich shop and is known for its handcut pastrami. That led them to develop an assembly-line method to speed the lunch crowds through.

As they talk, a Reuben is delivered. Corned beef peeks out from the toasted rye bread and Swiss cheese oozes from the edges. The meat, cheese, and sauerkraut taste delightful, but the partners and a guest sharing the sandwich agree it's a little light on Russian dressing. As they talk over the proportions, Ana Sortun, chef and owner of the nearby Oleana, walks in. She's there to pick up fare for her staff, and she compliments Schlesinger and Economides on the look of the place. ``Have an Oreo," Schlesinger says, pointing to a counter jar filled with cookies sold for 50 cents each. ``I've already had four today."

Schlesinger and Economides go back to business. They've decided to do table service at lunch to reduce the crowding at the takeout counter, which they hope will constitute up to 25 percent of their business. ``We're trying to turn the tables three times during lunch," Schlesinger says. A local letter carrier walks in, as Schlesinger talks about making All Star a neighborhood place for lunch and at night. Economides is working to find unusual, reasonable wines, which will be sold by the glass for $5 to $8; beers on tap and in cans are sold for as little as $2. Though they don't have a children's menu yet, the PB & J is a favorite of Economides's twin daughters, Taylor and Madison. The 4-year-olds did have customer suggestions, though. ``They said they'd like the crusts cut off," he says.

Meanwhile, Schlesinger is still fretting. It's ``great to be able to bring Jim's culinary sophistication" to this kind of food, he says, ``whether it's a hot dog or duck a l'orange." But until each sandwich gets made the same way in the same time and delivered quickly to each customer, he won't be satisfied. ``We've got to be consistent; it's crucial to any restaurant."

Economides nods his head in agreement, still looking a little dazed as the customer next to them finishes off his pastrami. ``You've been here four times?" Schlesinger asks him. ``I think five," Jordan, the customer, replies.

After only a day, he's already a regular.

All Star Sandwich Bar, 1245 Cambridge St., Cambridge. 617-868-3065, or visit www.allstarsandwichbar.com

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