Some people conflate simple with easy.
Often, the best dishes are simple recipes that highlight a few well-chosen, quality ingredients. The idea that simple equals easy sometimes leads to culinary hubris, though. Trust me, I’ve had plenty of bad to average sandwiches, pasta and pizza.
That’s why Union Loafers intrigued me when it opened last year. It specializes in naturally fermented bread and simple sandwiches, soups and salads.
The café and bakery sits at an intersection in Botanical Heights that is also home to La Patisserie Chouquette, Olio and Elaia—a veritable Murderer's Row of dining. It’s the brainchild of Ted Wilson, the head baker/bread nerd and Sean Netzer, who runs the front of the house. Brian Lagerstrom, the man behind the kitchen, rounds out the crew.
Looking at the menu, I wondered if the bread and sandwiches could live up to the reviews I was hearing. It turns out that they could, and I should still be begging the staff for forgiveness for my doubts.
When I went for lunch, I had a roast pork sandwich on ciabatta with country ham, gruyere, pickles, mustard and garlic mayonnaise. My girlfriend had the ham and cheddar on rye with pickles, mustard and butter. These seem like pretty standard café or bistro fare, but actually bite into one of these sandwiches and you know they’re something else, something better.
They’re better than your average quick-service sandwich because Loafers cares about the bread. It’s the foundation of a good sandwich, but most places can’t be bothered…cough, Subway, cough. In fact, most Americans have forgotten what bread is supposed to taste like. We’ve come to accept sugar loaded white bread with the consistency of an old sweatshirt as the norm. It doesn’t have to be like this!
Loafers’ bread has a properly crisp crust on the outside and is airy, borderline ethereal, on the inside. It’s an important and delicate interplay. Since the bread is naturally leavened and baked using old-world techniques, it has a pleasant tang that I couldn’t get enough of. Now, combine that with heaps of quality meat and house made pickles and condiments, and you have a damn fine sandwich. I might have put a little less mustard on mine, but that’s really the only criticism I have.
Loafers is primarily a café and bakery, but it officially won me over with pizza.
During the summer, the restaurant hosted pizza nights on Wednesday. I kept missing them and realized there was only one left. That sort of thing tends to happen when you refuse to use a planner. Anyway, I scrambled to make the last one, showing up at 6:30 (it began at 6) with my girlfriend.
The dining room was packed, and there was a line of hipsters and families alike out the door. We put our names on the list and prepared to wait an hour or longer for some sweet, sweet wood-fired pizza. We drank beers and waited outside, which was fine because it was a nice evening. Unfortunately, the kitchen ran out of dough (the pizza is that good) before we could get a seat.
Loafers didn’t really owe us anything. I was happy enough to say, “At least I tried” and go home with a beer buzz. The staff members would have none of it. They went out of their way for the people who waited but didn’t get any pizza. They started taking down names and numbers and said they would do something special for the people who missed out.
A few weeks later, I got a text asking what kind of pizza(s) I wanted and what time I could pick them up. Oh, also, they would be free of charge. There was more, too! When we picked up our classic margherita and pepperoni and chilis pies, we also got a free bottle of wine. Loafers absolutely didn’t have to do that, but it’s the kind of service that will earn many loyal customers.
Weeks after our initial attempt, we finally got to try our Loafers pizza. Much like the sandwich I had, it was delicious and free of superfluous ingredients or flourishes.
Even down to the décor—white subway tiles and table linens—Loafers is simple done right. So next time you’re stepping out for lunch, ask yourself if you want a real sandwich or a footlong of filler haphazardly thrown together by a surly “sandwich artist.”
There’s really only one choice.