There’s an old riddle about one town with two barbers, one with great hair and one with shaggy hair. The barber with great hair works in a spotless shop, clean as a whistle. The other barber works in a messy shop, hair on the floor, chairs worn out. Who’s the better barber?
It’s the shaggy-haired barber. The barber with great hair sees him, and the shop is messy because the whole town visits him.
I’m reminded of that riddle when I grab lunch at Ham’s Sandwich Shop, this little food spot in a Minnetonka strip mall. The restaurant is clean, of course, but undeniably well broken-in. The walls are scuffed up a little, and so are the metal chairs in the dining room. The booths’ backrest cushions are dotted with stains. The ceiling tiles are white and gray, arranged in no particular order.
At lunchtime, it can feel like Minnetonka’s whole population is coming. They come in four at a time wearing ties, two at a time holding hands, or one at a time with five rows of scribble on a bright sticky note. Either the dining room fills up or a line stretches from the counter back to the door. Sometimes, it’s both.
If you’re wondering which sandwich I first fell in love with, the answer lies in our old apartment in Plymouth. That’s where I had my first Fiery Train Wreck. It’s on the menu as Train Wreck: ham, turkey, salami, mozzarella, cheddar, garlic mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, and taco meat. Adding hot Italian peppers at no charge makes it a Fiery Train Wreck. It’s a tidy collision between a good taco and a good home-made sandwich.
I barely looked at my first one before gnashing it out of existence. I didn’t even sit down.
When the in-laws would visit, Ham’s Sandwich Shop was the meal. There would be two Fiery Train Wrecks, one regular Train Wreck, a Ham Stacker, and something else.
The Ham Stacker is, and I quote, “a double serving of ham” with melted American cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, lettuce, and tomato. It comes standard on marble rye bread, but my wife gets hers on a hoagie.
Last time I brought one home to surprise my wife, she had already made something to eat. This was a month ago, roughly. I remember the way she looked at that meal when I told her what was in that brown bag I was holding. She looked … apologetic.
“Do you want to eat this?” she asked me, presenting that meal she’d just made like an insect she’d found on a sidewalk outside.
I ate it, but not before she finished that sandwich.
True story: I chose Villanova to win the NCAA Tournament because it sounds like “I wanna live!” when you say it backwards. I won lunch for that, but the real winner was probably the co-worker who had to pay. I brought him to Ham’s and he ordered a Texas beef brisket sandwich.
We’re a few weeks on, and he hasn’t stopped talking about it. “The brisket is so tender, you can pull it apart with a fork!” he keeps saying, in the kind of entranced voice usually reserved for demonic encounters.
It’s a sandwich you only try lifting if you want to go back to work wearing barbecue sauce. They pretty well mean it when they say “piled high.” The BBQ pulled pork sandwich is the very same. In both cases, you have your choice of mild or spicy barbecue sauce. He went mild for his brisket; I went spicy for my pulled pork.
Switching gears, Ham’s offers a sandwich named Unforgettable. It’s cool, crunchy, colorful, and refreshing. I know that’s a weird word for a sandwich, but trust me. Turkey breast, bacon, avocado, spinach, and cream cheese. It comes on multigrain, the good multigrain; and it comes wrapped in four feet of plastic wrap. You’ll probably laugh when you first pick it up.
The bread for Ham’s sandwiches from The New French Bakery. The French hoagie is simple, and always softer than it looks like it should be. It’s smooth to the touch and bites apart with no resistance at all. It’s reminiscent of the buns Victory 44 would serve Perfect Burgers on before they closed up shop last year.
Now that I’m done sobbing about that, again, I need to warn you about the mess you’re going to make of yourself eating a Hot Italian Grinder. It features an Italian roll bravely trying to contain a jumble of ham, Italian salami, pepperoni, and – I kid you not – meatballs. There’s mozzarella cheese, garlic spread, and vinaigrette.
Imagine a big, floppy slice of pizza. Think Cossetta in St. Paul, or Joey Nova’s near Lake Minnetonka. Imagine having two slices, and deciding one at a time wasn’t a satisfactory pace of consumption. You take one slice and plop it upside-down on top of the other, and eat it like a pizza sandwich. A orange, liquidy shine covers your hands. Is your face fit for public view? Who knows.
You take a bite and feel liquid leak out. You take another bite and a chunk of topping free-falls toward Earth. There’s that one “bigger than I expected” bite that leaves a piece of cheese dangling from your bottom lip or – even better – your chin. You press on. The world is a mute blur. It’s just you and the pizza.
And that’s what the Hot Italian Grinder is like.
The Hot Italian Grinder is a warm sandwich, but it’s not spicy. The spicy sandwich, even more so than the Fiery Train Wreck, is called Fire in the Belly. Corned beef, pastrami, spicy mustard, and pepperjack cheese. It won’t burn off your taste buds, if that’s what you’re going for, but you’ll nod respectfully at it.
There is one sandwich I wouldn’t recommend, and it’s the Cubano. It’s not a bad sandwich, but it’s the least fun of the bunch. It’s the only Ham’s sandwich I’ve shrugged my shoulders at.
More information on Ham’s Sandwich Shop can be found on their website. You’ll smile when you see the front page – it looks like a time-traveler from of the Angelfire Era. Their Facebook page hasn’t been updated since October. They’ve no Instagram page to speak of. Twitter? Please. They’ve got all the characters they need in the dining room.