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Wednesday, September 8,2010

Jose's: Muy bueno

A deli brings the tastes of Cuba to Lansing

by Joe Torok

Lansing has a handful of fantastic, inconspicuous eateries, and Jose’s Cuban Sandwich & Deli is on that list.


Housed in a gas station at the corner of Kalamazoo Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, Jose’s has been serving up sandwiches since February.  Owner Jose Antonio Vivanco, who was born in Lima, Peru, has been in the restaurant business for 20 years.


“I’ve always had that little dream of owning a restaurant,” Vivanco says. “I just thought it would be when I was old and retired, but it happened now.”


Barely visible from the street, Jose’s is situated inside the Marathon station that opened, closed and re-opened again within the last couple years.


The location suits Vivanco well for now; his goal, based on experience in the restaurant business, is to grow slowly, to make sure each sandwich is made the way his customers want and expect, and to build his reputation primarily through word of mouth.


“We haven’t done very much advertising at all,” he says.


The deli’s cuisine may be inspired by an island 90 miles south of Florida, but Vivanco is hoping to spread a variety of Latin-American flavors throughout the area.  Most of his seasonings rely on garlic, cumin, pepper and chilies, among other typically South American ingredients, and he’s willing to try new ideas and combinations all the time.  Each week, Jose’s features a special sandwich, sometimes Latin-inspired, sometimes not.  Last week, the brie chicken ($5.25), combining the soft, flavorful cheese with onions, cilantro, guacamole and chicken, sold well.


“I want to do more Latin-inspired specials, but it depends on how well they do,” Vivanco says.


The medianoche — "the midnight" — ($4.95) is a prototypical Cuban sandwich.  Vivanco spreads a bit of mustard and mayo onto one side of a sandwich bun, followed by a layer of Swiss cheese and onion.  Roasted pork comes next, followed by a healthy slice of ham.  It’s the flat grill press — a plancha — though, at the end that flattens, gently toasts and warms the sandwich through that gives it a truly Cuban flair.  It’s a hearty sandwich with a tangy bite.


All of Jose’s sandwiches are pressed in a similar manner, from the turkey to the ham and egg.  The Caribbean chicken is another Latin-inspired creation Vivanco first introduced as one of his weekly specials. A delicious blend of chicken, onion, lettuce, tomato and Swiss cheese is taken one step further with creamy avocados turned into a guacamole spread. You might get a tad messy eating it, but only because it’s so hard to put down once it’s started.


Much of Jose’s business comes from deliveries as the location it’s in now cannot accommodate seating. It gets some walk-in traffic from the neighborhood, and passersby who want a bite to go, but, more often than not, Vivanco finds himself and his small staff heading toward Eats Lansing, where students and university employees crave his sandwiches for lunch and dinner.


One sandwich that sells particularly well around campus is the buffalo chicken wrap ($5.19).  It’s a Latin touch to the seasoning in the buffalo sauce, Vivanco says, that gives this particular wrap its character.


Like his sandwiches, his wraps are flattened and grilled, too.


Vivanco has even found ideas suspiciously similar to his own appear on other menus.  Dining out one evening not long ago, Vivanco noticed a menu item that appeared to be a slightly modified remake of his artichoke dip chicken sandwich with jalapenos.


“Not many people will do that kind of sandwich,” he says with a forgiving smile.


Daily combo specials ($6.25-$6.50) include any sandwich or wrap and some combination of rice and beans, salad, fresh-baked cookies, cheesecake, potato chips or soda. Pork or chicken platter specials ($6.95) suit a stronger appetite, and catering is available for larger groups as well.
Amid a culinary landscape that offers assembly line sandwiches every other mile from dreary franchise after franchise, Jose’s is a breath of fresh air, even inside a gas station.    


“People tell me they can taste that I put a little bit more love into my sandwiches,” Vivanco says.

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