During a recent trip to Washington, D.C. I was sent on a mission of the self-proposed, self-beneficial kind, to revisit one of my favorite fast-food chains in the country: Potbelly Sandwich Works. By subjecting myself to a variety of their sandwiches, I was to determine once and for all whether Potbelly’s was actually good. Having returned from my journey, I’d like to report back with a stellar "yes" to my query and frankly, I’m much relieved.
This is a sore point with me—that sometimes I will harbor the childhood notion that something is delicious only to discover years later that I was mistaken, due mostly to an inexperienced palate. I’m sure that I’m not alone in this sentiment. Have you ever encountered fast food items that so captured your heart in your younger years that you would still gravitate towards them today, even with the knowledge deep-down that they just aren't that good? For me, this is true of, say, the french fries at Burger King, the honey biscuits from Popeye’s Chicken, and Doritos Cool Ranch chips. (Although, to my memory, the biscuits at Popeye's are pretty tasty for what they are. There is this glaze that the Popeye's people drizzle all over their biscuits and when the biscuits are warmed, the outer crust becomes crisp, but the inside is still tender and tastes like butter, though I'm sure it's really just butter flavoring.)
Happily, I was to re-discover in D.C. that Potbelly sandwiches aren't just seemingly good; they really are very tasty sandwiches for an extremely reasonable price. Over the years the Potbelly dominion has expanded to encompass two hundred locations, much of it in the Midwest and Texas. Originally the outgrowth of an antique store in Chicago, the Potbelly locations maintain a kitschy feel that is nevertheless welcoming.
The distinctive feature of a Potbelly sandwich is a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with an interior that is toasted along with the bread and then topped with your choice of accoutrements. The layer of bread, though thin, remains pleasantly chewy and well toasted on the outside and holds up to the warm filling inside. The ratio of bread-to-interior items is carefully executed; instead of an overwhelming amount of filling piled in, there’s a select number of fresh-tasting items. The Italian sandwich, for instance, includes well-measured slices of good-quality salami and mortadella, both of which are appropriately meaty and fatty.
Like the Italian, the best sandwiches at Potbelly are the ones that exercise restraint. Bordering on seriously delicious, their meatball sandwich is one of my favorites—a few juicy meatballs, surprising porky, are dressed in a tomato sauce that is more sweet than acidic. With melted cheese and Italian seasonings added in, the meatball sub is hearty yet soothing, a rare combination for fast food these days.
For tuna salad lovers, the Potbelly tuna sandwich is a stellar rendition with a creamy filling that doesn't ooze annoyingly out of the sandwich just when you've reached the midway point. The tuna itself is broken up slightly more than I would prefer, but still, the sandwich follows the Potbelly line of balancing carbs and protein.
The weaker sandwich offerings are the ones that have too much going on at the same time. The Wreck, an Italian sub meets roast beef sandwich meets turkey and ham, is just too heavy on the filling, though it may appeal to the indecisive eater.
All sandwiches are set at the low price of $4.50, and in all my years of Potbelly consumption I've never been able to finish one by myself. I must be in the minority here, because in recent years they’ve begun to offer "Bigs," which are advertised as "30% more of what you love" for $5.50. Still, I consider this a boon. If I were to go with a friend, the both of us could get reasonably full on just one sandwich and still have enough room for dessert, which if you were I, would be a honey biscuit from a nearby Popeye’s.