Imagine the scrutiny to which a native New Orleanian might subject an oyster po-boy encountered in Atlanta or a muffuletta in Denver. That's how the Philadelphian approaches the cheese steak outside of its natural habitat, how the Chicagoan looks at an Italian beef elsewhere and how a Northeasterner hungry for a hoagie regards anything dubbed a sub.
And yet natives of these cities line up eagerly when these specials are on the board at Stein's Deli & Market, a veritable import annex for delicious things not indigenous to New Orleans.
The specific needs and particular expectations people bring to sandwiches are not treated lightly here. That cheese steak (the Tuesday special) offers a scramble of thin, griddle-fizzled beef, and a choice of provolone or Cheez Wiz, which is not a joke but a matter of preference for some aficionados. A roast pork sandwich (a Thursday special) is an Italy-by-way-of-Philly feast packed tight on house-made ciabatta with a slice of provolone and the all-important bitter thrill of broccoli rabe.
Not surprisingly, proprietor Dan Stein was weaned on such sandwiches in his native Philadelphia. A one-time attorney, he also racked up time working at specialty cheese shops. He had planned to open his own in New Orleans, but when St. James Cheese Co. beat him to it, he switched gears and in 2007 opened a hybrid Jewish/Italian deli where the focus was supposed to be meats and specialty groceries.
The transformation into a lunch destination was partly guided by customers. A note in the comment box opined "your drink selection sucks," Stein remembers, and he agreed. So in came specialty soft drinks, sometimes by the case, sometimes by the pallet, and a collectors' zeal soon overtook the now-impressive beer selection (though permit issues mean you can't drink them in the store).
Credit also goes to Andre Moreau, the young man who is Stein's perpetually chipper point-of-sale representative. Behind the scenes, Moreau also has evidently mastered the art of procuring and distributing small-batch specialty foods, which helps explain why so many chefs, restaurateurs and shakers in the craft cocktail scene dart in here for supplies. More than a sandwich shop, the place has become a culinary hub. It was no surprise, for instance, when the ever-restless chef Pete Vazquez, now between kitchens and in culinary mercenary mode, picked Stein's for his new Sunday evening pop-up.
Sandwiches lure most of the traffic through the doors at Stein's — "sandwich monster" is the term Stein and his crew use for the lunch rush when just about everything at the store is happening for the sake of sandwiches.
This is a great place to come for a spread of lox or a few ounces of jamon serrano, but lunch is not the time to ask for it. Beware that scant seating, crowded shelves, and poor kitchen ventilation mean Stein's isn't the most comfortable place to pay homage to a hoagie. But it is undeniably the place in New Orleans to get hold of one.