Where the Cops Eat
450 Bergen St.
(Betw. Flatbush & 5th Aves.)
I've never been one to sniff out the lunchtime trails of cops, firemen or cabdrivers on the assumption that the members of those professions know all the best cheap places to eat. In fact, I operate on the opposite assumption: Sure, it's true that lawmen, axmen and Pakistani hacks have palates that incline toward the cheap; but, unfortunately, "cheap" in my book infrequently equates with "good." Yes, I cherish the three-dollar falafel as much as the next guy, but I'm under no illusions that a three-dollar falafel is going to transcend its humble station. Likewise, the chow favored by New York's Finest and New York's Bravest is often scant on flavor, long on gutbusting caloric heft. Case in point: the perfectly understandable enthusiasm that firemen seem to harbor for the Food Network's Emeril Lagasse, whose food is bulky, fatty, often repulsive, but rarely...small. Don't get me wrong here?five-alarm high-rise blazes in this cramped tinderbox metropolis demand bravery and calories...to burn. I'm not interested in dainty-dining firemen. By the same token, I'm wary of cops who look too buff, too vain, like L.A. cops. Chubby New York cops should stick to the donuts?it prevents then from developing that vaguely fascist, narcissistic West Coast demeanor, that BMOC Aryan vibe. A fleet-footed felon can outrun a New York cop, and maybe that's good. An unstated catch-and-release policy, sort of, that allows criminality some humanizing slack.
That's the way it's been ever since I moved back to Brooklyn, about three years ago. I live right down the street from a precinct house, on a thoroughfare that connects Flatbush Ave. to Boerum Hill. A few doors down from my shabby place resides City Sub, the default lunchtime choice of, it seems, every fireman and cop (certainly every cop) within a 5-mile radius. City Sub's whole concept is quaintly alluring. When was the last time you stumbled across an old-school sub shop? Not Subway, but a true-blue old-fashioned sub shop that makes only hero-sized sandwiches with all the fixings? The corner deli? No, that doesn't count, because delis fall into a different category and spring from a different ethos, an urban identity. Sub shops are, to my mind, more Middle American, more small-town. And that's what Brooklyn is: the small, neglected town, the bumpkin village in the shadow of Shangri La.
Apparently, when I first moved out, City Sub (and even that name means something, now doesn't it? City Sub, not Bergen Sub or Cop Sub or anything like that) was run entirely by its proprietor, a lanky Asian guy who had developed a rigorous, almost machine-like means of assembling his sandwiches. The first few times I stopped in, I stood there mesmerized as he took the orders down on a preprinted pad (all he needs to do is check off customer selections), then kicked into the sub-shop equivalent of a Benihana cook's mojo. Italian bread sliced and spread with a variety of classic condiments, hunks of Boar's Head deli meats and cheeses heaved onto the slicer, wax paper used to hold sliced meat and cheese to be heated in the microwave, so that they can be easily flipped on the waiting bread. The fixings?lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, olives, peppers, salt and pepper, oil and vinegar?applied a la carte once the basic sandwich is prepared. A selection of 24 different sandwiches, numbered, displayed on the wall, ranked by price from $4.99 to $5.99. Which doesn't mean that you're bound to those choices. I usually compose my own sandwich when I order, generally something a lot simpler than the wall combos.
Over the past few years, City Sub has done nothing but grow. The Asian master sandwichmaker has stepped into more of a managerial role, leaving the day-to-day labor to a pair of Hispanic guys who, clearly, have studied at the master's feet. Neither is quite as crisply efficient as his boss, but both are skilled and focused, and they look sharp in their City Sub whites and peaked paper City Sub hats. Even when the joint is packed, I've never waited more than 10 minutes.
There's nothing stupendous about City Sub's product. For the most part, the subs taste like just about nothing. The bread is soft and chewy, but crustless (there are, however, sesame seeds, which provide a slight improvement on the texture); the cold cuts industrial-grade and devoid of salami-ness or turkey-ness or corned beef-ness; the cheeses also industrial, and rubbery; the mustard bland; the fixings out of jars and cans. And I'm a raving sandwich snob?I like my sandwiches to be composed of prime meats, layered onto great bread and dressed with impeccable, curious condiments. But City Sub, despite its general mediocrity, has worked its charms on me, turning me away from the slickness of places like Cosi. I usually drop in at least one day a week, order roasted turkey with spicy mustard, pickles and something else, add a bag of Utz chips and a SoBe Elixir and amble back to my pad to eat lunch while watching ESPN. If I'm feeling like a show, I'll order by number. Number 2: Smoked Ham with American Cheese. Number 4: Pastrami with Melted Provolone. Number 15: Turkey Pastrami with Jack Cheese. Number 19: Ham with Genoa Salami and Provolone. Watch the guys kick it into autopilot, whip them subs right out. The door is almost always wide open to the endless stream of customers. There are a few tables up front. The neon "City Sub" sign cheerfully beckons. Half the patrons are armed, the other half thankful.
And that's maybe one of the hidden benefits of City Sub: it's a shop that has figured out how to make itself a neighborhood institution and keep the streets safe, at the same time.
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