In the grand war of restaurant styles, legions of drive-thrus with rock bottom prices — matching the quality of the food — stand on one side of the battlefield. On the other end stand the full service restaurants — with servers, hosts and bussers in tow — offering a higher quality experience. Peace, though, seems to be dawning on the horizon. A compromise has been made thanks to the insurgency of fast casual dining, and in our theater of operations, Penn Station East Coast Subs has risen on the eastern front.
Located just north of Frandor Shopping Center on eastbound Saginaw Street, Penn Station is not the first fast casual restaurant in town — Zoup beat them to the punch downtown — but it does live up to most of the best qualities of that dining style. Like most other fast casuals, patrons order at the counter at Penn Station. The menu is franchise-tested (locations span a dozen states), and it primarily consists of subs ranging from chicken cordon bleu to the adolescent-inspired pizza sub.
Arriving after the lunch rush, my companion and I were surprised at the steady stream that flowed from the order taker at one end of the long counter to the cashier at the other end. The friendly server took our orders of a Philadelphia cheesesteak with fries and a drink and a club sub. We tossed in a chocolate chunk cookie for good measure and paid less than $15.
As we strolled down the order counter, behind which cooks were fast at work assembling our sandwiches, we noticed a large bin of potatoes, with one brave spud sitting atop the hand-pressed slicer, silently waiting to be cut to pieces. Not all of the food is as fresh as the hand-cut fries — the pizza sauce straight from a can was proof enough of that — but this style of dining is a compromise. French fries that taste like actual potatoes is a pretty tasty bargaining chip.
Behind the cashier sat a lemonade dispenser with an unsqueezed lemon bobbing along the surface. The lemonade was perhaps the most surprising item in our order: it was tart without being sour, just sweet enough to be a treat, and perfectly satisfying on a late summer afternoon.
After taking a seat in the earth-toned dining area, we settled back and took in the atmosphere. The open-faced prep and cooking space with its faux awning seems designed in the spirit of a walk-up sandwich shop on a busy New York corner. Browns and oranges speckle the rest of the space along with posters that feature close-ups of perfectly made sandwiches and pithy plays on words.
When our order arrived, there was more than enough food to fill us up. My Philadelphia cheesesteak hit the spot; lightly peppered beef with provolone cheese and a smear of mayo made for a savory, creamy sandwich. My companion was satisfied with her club, with deli-thin meat that didn’t wow on its own, but was held together well with a bit of mustard, fresh lettuce and Roma tomatoes — even if those tomatoes were as thin as paper stock.
The bread is lauded throughout Penn Station’s advertising, and my finicky companion liked it well enough. But I found it a tad disappointing — no options beyond the white bun, which was chewy and occasionally crusty.
The lightly salted fries were cooked to an amber-brown. They were crisp at the edges and soft in the middle. We thought pizza sauce on the side might make for a better dip than ketchup, but the cans, which are proudly displayed alongside other wholesale-sized products, did something to the acidity of the tomatoes, leaving a shallow metallic flavor behind. It might be war out there, but canned tomatoes are never fair. Unlike the pizza sauce, our little cookie wasn’t collateral damage. Its soft, cakey texture matched the fresh butter-and-flour aroma.
This Penn Station’s kinks are still being worked out. The cashier forgot our lemonade and our cookie, and seemed rather disinterested to boot. To be fair, though, tips aren’t part of the deal in fast casual, and I don’t imagine those jobs pay much above McMinimum wage.
You might find better meat and bread elsewhere, but you’ll have to wait a bit longer and pay a bit more. You can find faster service, too, but dining out won’t be as pleasant. Penn Station falls somewhere in between. And while getting caught in the middle isn’t advisable on the battlefield, it’s not a bad niche to fill as a restaurant.