Sammich is not the experience of a deli in Chicago. But it's what you think it should be, if you've never been.
Few spots in Portland are as dominated by the personalities of their owners as this East Burnside sandwich spot (2137 E Burnside St., 503-477-4393, sammichrestaurants.com), plastered with Cubbies and 'Hawks wall art and fronted by a smoker full of beef and bacon. Even after only a couple months, Melissa McMillan knows half her customers either by order or name, and if it's the latter, she'll bellow it out from the kitchen in her thick Northside accent. A kid comes in wearing a soccer uniform, she'll hop around the counter to ask how the game was.
"I used to coach Little League," she tells one dad while talking to a kid straight off the playing field. "So this is my dream." She's currently looking for a team to coach.
McMillan, always donning a backward Cubs cap or one from her family's ranch in Texas, is best known in Portland for her Montreal-style smoked, brined pastrami at Mississippi Avenue cart Pastrami Zombie. But here at Sammich—a shop she founded in Ashland—it's all about the house giardiniera. That spicy, pickled mix of chilies, pepper, celery and carrots is the flavor of Chicago, available everywhere from hot dog shops to Potbelly to Subway franchises. McMillan's housemade mix is the light, bright, quick-pickled and thin-sliced North Chicago variety. If native Southsiders complain they want the thick-sliced vewrsion, she's considered keeping some of the oily Cisco stuff in jars just for them.
That giardiniera adds crunch, spice, and acid to everything from her "Cubbie Cubano," to the burger, albacore sandwich and Italian beef. Chicago's most obscure and particular delicacy, those Italian beef sandwiches are available otherwise at nearby Michael's, at Bridge City Pizza in Woodstock and almost nowhere else in Portland.
McMillan's Italian beef ($12) is now my favorite version in town. Her jus—pronounced "juice," in open defiance of the French—is deep, rich, ad fresh daily and well-seasoned, a balance difficult to achieve and especially to maintain. The beef, roasted and sliced in-house, is tender and just a bit on the fatty side. And the hoagie buns have the right amount of rubber in them to stand up to the jus without dissolving into fluff: McMillan worked with a baker at Philippe's Bread and Lardo to get just the right texture, rolling through countless attempts to get just the right elasticity.
Those hoagie buns also come into play on the Timbo ($12), an iceberg- and vinaigrette-topped take on the cheesesteak modeled after those at Chicago's Hoagie Hut. That sandwich also gets its own helping of jus. The mix of jus and thin-sliced beef forms a swirl of protein and fat, with a druglike hit of processed cheese. It's near impossible to eat it without needing to launder your shirt. The Cubano ($12) rounds out my three-sammich trio of favorites at the shop, with the giardianera amping the flavor output of a bacon-heavy version of the Miami classic heavily spiked with yellow mustard.
Prices are higher by volume than at some shops, a product of the enormous amount of work involved in producing McMillan's house-brined, -roasted and -smoked meats. In Chicago, an entire citywide ecosystem is built around Italian beef, and at her current volume, McMillan says the margins on her laborious pastrami are razor-thin.
And not every sandwich was a hit. The albacore ($12), unfortunately, got lost in mayo on a fluffed Grand Central bun. And the house-smoked turkey meat has been dry on two different dishes and occasions, something McMillan says she's since remedied by brining the turkey in her giardianera juice. I'll also admit I'd never quite bonded with the namesake at Pastrami Zombie, McMillan's northside cart, because that 5 ounces of pastrami gets lost in a big mess of slaw and bread.
The solution at Sammich is to get the pastrami in french-fry form. Conceived by the shop's kitchen manager, those Zombie Fries are an instant classic, a booming answer to a thousand soggy, ill-conceived dirty fries. They're also simple—just french fries topped with giardinera, bell peppers, a tangy-spicy Zombie sauce, and squares of McMillan's pastrami that have been crisped in a pan and finished in the oven. The light caramelization brings out extra savory notes in the meat, not to mention a satisfying crispness.
"I could eat these forever," said a recent dining companion, waving a forkful of fries in the air. They've got perhaps less to do with Chicago than anything else at Sammich, but they are a perfect junk food—as beefy, fatty and full of starch as the Windy City itself.
Sammich, 2137 E Burnside St., 503-477-4393, sammichrestaurants.com.
11 am-8 pm daily.