A New Standard: Chops Deli

To anyone who keeps up, sorry for the hiatus.

chop1Among all the notable sites, people, industry, and culture for which New York City is known, I only think of one thing when the subject comes up: huge deli sandwiches.  Unfortunately, I cannot personally justify this correlation, for I have never been to The City. I know, it’s a shame.  I feel like it’s somewhere every American should go at least once in their life, for one reason or another.  For me, a trip to Gotham would be incomplete if I didn’t get one of the storied, super-stacked sandwiches that my yuppie friends tell me about.  Deli creations piled so high with thinly sliced meat of your choice that an unhinged serpent jaw couldn’t get a top-to-bottom bite.  Well, until that day comes, Chops Deli services Wilmington as a more than qualified substitute.

Conveniently positioned on Front Street among other downtown dives, Chops offers a casual atmosphere with indoor and outdoor seating, funky artwork, and a fail-safe menu.  The fare is printed on a large blackboard behind the glass-encased counter where all of the Boar’s Head meats and cheeses refrigerate.  Upon ordering, the ticket is tagged with your name and whizzed down a zip-line where the order is handmade with swift, yet meticulous craftsmanship.  Every sandwich comes with a pickle and your choice of Miss Vickie’s potato chips.  From the time your ticket is received, you’ve about five minutes to prepare your taste buds for a sandwich that has been described by an anonymous epicurean as: “…as good a sandwich as you can get.”  Others seem to think the same; if you Google Chops Deli and see various websites’ ratings (Yelp, Yahoo, etc.), it’s five stars across the board.  I’ve never seen a lunch spot with a perfect overall rating, especially from multiple sources.

During my most recent visit, I ordered a sandwich dubbed the “Tripoli.”  This hasru1 pastrami, rare roast beef, corned beef, provolone, muenster, baby Swiss, red onion, horseradish sauce, and deli mustard piled on rye.  Then, it goes to a panini press where the bread (which is baked and delivered daily from Sweet n Savory) is coated lightly with butter and gets golden brown and crispy.  The meat and cheese is thinly sliced, so the sandwich looks and is very dense but it is also extremely tender.  There is no one flavor that outweighs another, rather you take a bite and each ingredient introduces itself with every chew.  Some other notables I’ve had are the Monaco and the Hamburg.  The Monaco comes with lemon pepper chicken breast, mozzarella, arugula, tomato, basil, and pesto sauce between three cheese semolina.  The basil and and pesto really set this sandwich off, plus, the lemon pepper flavor on the chicken gives it a zesty kick.  I think the Hamburg is so great because of its simplicity.  Black forest ham combined with the mildness of muenster cheese and the crunch of lettuce, pickle and tomato on fresh sourdough makes this a touch choice to overlook.nu1

If a meaty sandwich is too heavy for your stomach, there are plenty of other delicious options.  Chops has daily homemade soups which vary from time to time but some of the mainstays include: creamy French onion with pot roast, New England clam chowder, loaded potato, tomato basil, broccoli and cheese, and beef stew.  They also have chicken, tuna, and egg salad, as well as spring and garden salads.  If you find that Chops can’t get creative enough for you, they do sell meat and cheese by the pound and bread by the loaf   so you can go home and build a creation of your own.

Chops has certainly set the bar high for delis in Wilmington.  After eating there for the first time, there really wasn’t any other place that my brain associated with getting a sandwich in Wilmington.  I don’t mean to take away from other establishments, I’m just sayin’…you gotta go.

Q&A with Mark Milner

If you’ve never heard of or seen it, chances are you’ll never stumble upon it.  This is typically a problem if you’re a restaurant, but not for Milner’s.  With a loyal following, attendance is never a worry…rather that they’ll run out of the daily special.  A small joint with a big reputation, Milner’s stands up to its hype in part because of co-owner and head chef, Mark Milner.  I had the opportunity to sit down with Mark and learn more about what drives and inspires this culinary maestro.

Most of the crew

PCF: Where did you grow up?

MM: I grew up in West-Central Illinois, 200 miles West of Chicago in a town called Alexis-Farm Country.

PCF: When did you take interest in being in the kitchen?

MM: I was always in the kitchen as a child.  Living on a farm with a huge garden, we canned a lot of our own foods.  The kids had the task of helping mom prep the vegetables for cooking.  The kitchen was the center of the home for my family and me.  I first worked as a bartender in a restaurant, but found I was more interested in what was going on in the back where the chefs were preparing dishes for the evening.

PCF: What did you want to be when you grew up?

MM: Well, I had two interests.  I wanted to be an engineer designing things.  I also always thought that I would own a hotel/restaurant – I thought this at an early age, like seven or so.

PCF: Did you always want to be your own boss?

MM: I always held to keys to the store at any job I had, or was the “person in charge.”  So, I suppose I was gearing up for being my own boss.

PCF: When/how did the idea of Milner’s come about?

MM: I had casually been looking at restaurant spaces for a few years while I was catering with a local company.  I met my current business partner, Tara Speth, at this catering company.  She and I catered a wedding for a friend of hers.  After the catering, which went very well, she surmised that we could do this for a living.  Originally, we were not going to have a sit-in restaurant and only cater.  However, the space where the restaurant is currently located required breakfast and lunch served as part of the lease agreement.  So, Milner’s was created out of that necessity in March of 2009.

PCF: How long did it take to turn your and Tara’s ideas into Milner’s?

MM: Well, once we knew we had to open the space as a restaurant, we had roughly three weeks to develop a menu and work out the logistics in the kitchen.  To think back on it now, it seems like a crazy endeavor to tell you the truth.  Basically, I took my favorite lunch and dining experiences and created the menu.

PCF: Is Milner’s what you envisioned it to be before it was a reality? 

MM: I had always pictured a quaint space with good food and a homey atmosphere.  Milner’s has turned out to be above and beyond that vision, due to our incredible staff and wonderful customers.  Interacting with staff and our regulars is our greatest joy and something I hadn’t thought about before the restaurant was open.  Tara Speth, who is the co-owner, has a gift for engaging the public and her staff members that really has been the secret to our success.

PCF: What inspires your menu?

MM: Our customers inspire our menu.  When we started serving breakfast and lunch, it was just Tara and I.  She served and I cooked.  Being new and wanting to please, if a customer had a special request for a breakfast or lunch item, we would make it.  The ones that we thought were interesting would make it on our special board and the best ones would eventually make the menu.  If you look at our menu, you will see names with some of the sandwiches.  Like the “Jay Wrap,” which was a special request by Jay Tatum, which became a hit and made it on our second menu.

Grilled Roast Beef Pesto

PCF: What is your favorite menu item?

MM: The Blackened Chicken Philly, hands down.

PCF: What do you do when you’re not working?

MM: I like working out, going to the beach, spending time with my son, and playing guitar. Also finding good places to eat.

PCF: What do you eat at home?

MM: I usually grill something in the evenings or make something simple.  We eat pizza often.  My favorite meal is a simple sandwich of turkey, lettuce, onion, sprouts, swiss, and mustard on two slices of sourdough bread.

PCF: What restaurant(s) in Wilmington do you recommend?

MM: Lunch: Wayfarer Delicatessen.  Dinner: Manna

PCF: Coffee or tea?

MM: I love them both.  We have the best coffee in town at the restaurant.  At home I get my tea from a guy who goes to Thailand and gets the handpicked real stuff.  It’s amazing.

PCF: Dogs or cats?

MM: Dogs!

PCF: Favorite book?

MM: The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

PCF: What are your goals for the future?

MM: Possibly opening more Milner’s here in town and perhaps retailing our black bean burger.

Black-bean burger

Milner’s is truly one-of-a-kind.  If you go once, I guarantee you will return, and when you do, you’ll be greeted on a first name basis.  Expect to see the same people behind the counter each time you go, who never fail to make you feel right at home.  It’s not hard to find, but it is slightly off the beaten track- this map will lead you to the palette-pleasing den that is Milner’s.

A Meal of Epic Proportions

One of the greatest challenges presented with dining out (besides affordability) is being able to opt for a menu item that is both nutritious and satisfying.  I realize that for most, including myself, eating out is somewhat of a special occasion- therefore, the average person might not care if they’re eating shrimp and grits or Sheppard’s Pie.  The average person is out to eat, so it’s an occasion to splurge.  Whether it is your intent to treat yourself or not, I’ve noticed that it is difficult to find an eatery that would even offer a menu that is on the leaner side.  “Lean” may not be the ideal term…let’s say “healthful.”  The most healthful item on most menus is usually some sort of spinach salad with walnuts, chic peas, and vinegar- good for the weight watcher?  Yes.  Exciting, tasty, desirable, savory, delectable, good for the kids?  No.  Don’t get me wrong, I like salads as much as the next person, but I want mine loaded: bleu cheese, calamata olives, green olives, any vegetable under the sun, heavy balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with some sort of meat- preferably chicken or steak.  After the cheese, olives, and dressing, I might as well have ordered a turkey cuban with a side of ranch.  Well, for all you health-nutty weight-watchers out there, meet Epic Food Co.

Located just off of Military Cutoff Road near the Mayfaire Town Center, Epic Food Co. is committed to offering customers “a fresh and flavorful lunch menu created to suit your day or dietary needs (many options gluten-free).”  Epic also offers a special Kid’s (Grommets) menu, and private dining area where “adults” aren’t allowed.  So, if you’re a parent struggling to convince your kid to get behind healthful foods, you can quietly chuckle to yourself when they sit down at Epic and eat every morsel that was on the plate.

When Head Chef, James Bain opened Epic on March 12, he had a very clear vision for his restaurant: create nutritious and tasty food that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of people who have a wide variety of palettes.  Having extensive experience in the food industry, Bain didn’t come up short on his goal.  After eating at Epic, it is my opinion that most anyone can visit and find something on the menu that they will enjoy and want to return for.

On my last visit, I created my own salad which was totally loaded with all the goodies I could have asked for.  This green creation consisted of a bed of spinach topped with bean sprouts, carrot strings, cilantro, basil, grape tomato, broccoli stems, celery shop, cucumbers, gingery veggies, red cabbage floss, charred scallions, organic chicken, white balsamic vinaigrette, and scallion ginger sauce.  These particular toppings comprise only about half of what is available.  Needless to say, this was one of the more loaded and tasty salads I’ve ever had.  From the garden-fresh veggies to the house-made dressing to the organic chicken, every flavor was very bold yet not too overwhelming.  The chicken was especially savory.  The organic farm-raised flavor was very evident in every bite as it was extremely tender and earthy tasting.

One of the things that Epic prides themselves on is using fresh, natural, local ingredients in their dishes.  Well, it is abundantly obvious that they go through the extra steps to insure this quality, and in my opinion, it is well worth the visit.  Another special touch that you can find inside is the infused water bar.  Offered here are three different vats of water, each with their own unique taste.  There is a cucumber water, orange water, and lemon water.  These refreshing beverages are naturally infused with organic fruits and vegetables.  These low-calorie waters are a great alternative to juice, sports drinks, and soda.  

I’ll never blame someone for wanting to go out and get a philly cheesesteak with double cheese and french fries, but the next time you find yourself trying to go a bit leaner on the lunch front, give Epic Food Co. a chance and I can almost guarantee that it will not disappoint.  There are even whole wheat chocolate chip cookies to cure that sweet tooth which are absolutely incredible (and unique).  Hey you never know, Epic might just put you on a health kick and you can loose those pounds you resolutely declare you’ll loose every January 1…

Old Faithful

For the past 26 years, I’ve had the unique opportunity to live in four different cities/towns, each for a solid chunk of time (at least 8 months).  It is important to know that each of these locations have very different demographics: social, economic, political, etc.  I will also note that two out of the four cities are located outside the Old North State.  With that being said, I’ll just go ahead and cut to the chase.

No matter how different Greensboro may seem from Lynchburg, VA or Lynchburg from Jackson, WY, there is one similarity that exists between each place: there’s an eatery in every town that will never let you down.  It’s the restaurant that will always be lingering in the back of your mind when trying to figure out where to go.  It’s the restaurant that you will opt for more often than not because it has never failed to satisfy your hunger.  I believe that the worst thing a pub can do is serve your food one way, and when you return, it comes out different from the first time.  That’s what your old standby joints will never do.  In Greensboro, you’ve got Brown Gardiner.  Lynchburg has The Cavalier.  The Bird never fails in Jackson Hole.  Here in Wilmington (though I think there is more than one), Sweet N Savory is king.

SnS is located beside Lumina Commons on Eastwood Road, a few hundred yards before the ICW drawbridge.  This quaint cafe and bakery is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and is worthy of three separate posts here on PCFodder.  Let’s focus on supper.  SnS is like a three-headed monster.  It’s just as much a cafe as it is a bakery as it is a bar.  This crowd cranks out so many pastries, cookies, cakes, muffins, breads, quiches, cheesecakes and toothsome tarts, that you would actually develop a weight problem before you could try everything (so take ‘er easy, ok?).  If you’re looking to drink your dinner, SnS has an ample bar with beer by glass and on tap, an eclectic wine list, and full liquor bar.

I went there several nights ago and ate dinner with a friend who eats there almost as much as he brushes his teeth (he has good hygiene).  You literally cannot go wrong with your order, so sometimes it is a bit difficult to make a decision.  I finally decided on one of the four “Smokehouse Selections.”  It came with a 1/4 rack of dry rub ribs,  slow-braised beef brisket, bacon-spiked mac n cheese and bleu cheese slaw.  I also got a side cup of beef and bean chili.  Oh, I failed to mention that SnS makes 5 different soups in house, every day.  There are also nightly specials, which never change in addition to what I will call “house specials,” usually involving a fresh catch or red meat.  Once again, I was completely satisfied.  The ribs pretty much fell off the bone while maintaining their smoky flavor.  The brisket was moist and tender, and was a pleasant compliment to the slaw.  And the bacon mac and cheese, well… it has bacon in it.  Need I say more?  This particular dish happened to be on sale that night, but I would say for the quality of food and service you receive, dishes at SnS are modestly priced.

Whether you’re going for a casual bite with a group of friends and family, or you’re out with your better half, Sweet n Savory can handle it.  I am excited to note that SnS has recently acquired the building, which locals knew for years as Kefi.  This structure will soon become a fixture of Sweet n Savory and will be called “The Pub at Sweet n Savory.”  The Pub will serve lunch and dinner and is rumored to have more beers on tap than any other whistle wetter in Wilmington.  I’m looking forward to the grand opening, as I’m sure it’ll be a hit.  Thanks for reading and look out for more.

Relishing the Trip

Have you ever found yourself making a day trip somewhere several counties over (usually to an undesirable, middle-of-nowhere locale) and been totally disenchanted with the drive before you even take the first sip of morning mud?  Of course you have.  In fact, many people do that every day because they have jobs that require such painstakingly mundane duties as showing a client in Bladenboro their product which they know Joe McFrugalman isn’t going to buy.  But sometimes, there is a glimmer of light- a sudden realization, followed by overwhelming delight, because you just remembered that over there in Junktown, USA, there’s that Mom and Pop diner that has the best meatloaf sandwich you’ve ever had.  It’s moments like these that make some days a little easier.  This happened to me today…sorta.

I headed to Wallace, NC today to watch a good friend play in a golf tournament (so I wasn’t traveling because I had to, nor was I dreading the commute), and since I was leaving around noon, lunch was on my mind.  It was a no-brainer.

Paul’s Place has been a staple in Rocky Point, NC for nearly 9 decades.  Established in 1928, PP has been serving “famous” hot dogs and hard-scoop ice cream the olde fashioned way, and I don’t believe they intend on changing a thing.  The menu is simple, so you can’t order wrong: hotdogs with your choice of condiment: mustard, slaw, onion, chili, mayo, cheese, and Paul’s relish.  They also serve ham and cheese sandwiches, grilled cheese sandwiches, fries or onion rings on the side, and fountain soda.  Expect to receive your food in no more than 40 seconds from the time you verbalize it to the older woman behind the counter.  If you’re wondering why she looks like she’s been working there her whole life, it’s because she has.  If you’re wondering why all the customers among you look like regulars, it’s because they eat there every day.  Don’t worry, they don’t judge first-timers.

It’s my belief that it is hard to screw up a hotdog but it’s even harder to make it perfect.  I won’t claim that Paul’s Place has the perfect hotdog, but it is damn good and worth every extra minute in the car.  The dogs are boiled.  The buns are steamed.  The slaw, chili, and relish, is house-made.  The people are friendly.  This joint is old-school, and in the realm of food, that means it’s realllly good.

If you haven’t been to Paul’s Place, I highly recommend making the effort.  It’s extremely simple to visit from Wilmington, as well as if you’re on the way into ILM on I-40.  Click on the blue hyperlink in the paragraph above for a map.  Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more.

Copper Penny. Wilmington, NC

behold.

This evening I ventured to Chestnut St. in downtown Wilmington where there are some high-quality sandwiches and beers to be had at the Copper Penny.  This is place sets the bar high for atmosphere, food, and spirits.  It feels like a dive but holds its head like a sports bar.  A great place to munch on all the classic sandwiches while pulling for the home team.  The menu is geared to toward something in the middle of a bun but there are also plenty of appetizers and salads for the rest of you.  I opted for the Southwest Chicken Sandwich: a blackened breast topped with pepper jack, bacon, jalapenos, chipotle mayo, fried onion, and guacamole.  For a side I swapped fries for the house-made chili.  Perfect amount of heat to the sandwich and chili.  Slightly crispy bun, crispy pickle, and a healthy-sized piece of chicken.  Whoever said you can’t eat chili in mid-July needs to have their head examined.  The sameye was delicious.  No complaints.  Home Run.  If you haven’t been to this joint, mark your calendar- you won’t regret it.

Stay Tuned.

Greetings

Over the years, after countless plates, bowls, platters, and ramekins of edibles, I have found that my most favourite meals have been the ones shared with good friends and family.  Whether cooking at the house, splurging for supper downtown, or grabbing a sandwich at the local kitchen, quality food is only as good as who’s across from you while chili and mustard drip from your chin.  With that being said, I have discovered one constant in food: personal opinion is everything.  To each is own.  I like Ruebens, you like Cubans…You get the picture (I actually like both).  So, my purpose here is to simply give my opinion (as unbiased as I can) on eateries in the greater Wilmington area where I like to nosh with friends.  I’ll try to provide factual info on the featured food as well as a picture so you can eat vicariously through me.  Hopefully these postings will help enrich/improve/enhance/amplify your next dining experience; if not, you probably need to expand your palette.  Thanks for reading and enjoy.