Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Hardy Soul

Before I begin, I must include a caveat about the word cold, true bitter, arctic cold that is. Yes, it is 28 degrees here in Fairfax, VA today, which is only three degrees cooler than the mean temperature for January 14. However, in my hometown of Waterloo, IA, my friends and family are currently enduring the spit-freezing temperature of 1 degree with a wind chill of -19. Oh, and they’re also pushing the most recent 10 inches of snow off their driveways. For the record, they have 18 more inches of snow on the ground than at this time last year. So now that I’ve put cold into context, let me proceed with my warm tale of beef, bread and cheese.

The tips of my ears were stinging from the cold, ten-minute march from my office building to the sandwich shop. I had been salivating in front of my monitor only a short while ago; staring at steaming subs piled high with meats and vegetables. Cold weather had finally found us in Virginia and a hot sandwich and a cup of soup from Potbelly Sandwich Works never sounded better.

On a warm day, this Potbelly location’s outdoor seating area overflows with hungry business and county government employees - and forget about eating indoors in air-conditioned comfort. So when I burst through the double doors and saw that the line was manageable for once and that there were actually a number of empty tables, I was more than just pleasantly surprised.

The restaurant can be quite intimidating. Today a musician was playing his acoustic guitar on a stool in the corner. His song was lost in the din of dull, lunchtime conversations, barked sandwich orders and the clanging kitchen. The line, although fast moving, snakes the length of the dining hall in one big U-shaped headache. I quickly found the big menu board on the wall and began scanning for that hot, juicy roast beef and provolone stack-of-sandwich-wonder that I’d seen online. I knew from past experiences that I had to have my order ready by the time I reached the bend in the U or face the wrath of the seasoned sandwich makers and the annoyed regulars in line behind me.

Now, my one complaint with Potbelly is that all of their food is hidden behind the counter. Unlike Subway, for example, where all of their toppings are displayed behind the sneeze shield, at Potbelly one is forced to trust that the veggies are fresh and crispy. If I see rusty lettuce, soggy tomatoes, or limp green peppers at Subway, I’m choosing some different toppings or requesting some fresh-cut ones.

As I approached the bend in the U, I noticed that the lady at the counter was soliciting orders from people three-deep in line. I began to panic. Do I want the mayo? Mayo on a hot sandwich sounds nasty. What about the hot peppers? Hmm, the soup of the day is chicken noodle. Chili could be good. Garden soup served everyday? Maybe, I should go for the Italian like the two guys in front of me did. All that spicy, salty meat, though….

“Sir, what would you like to order? Sir, it’s your turn. SIR! What is your order?!”

I had reached the bend in the U unprepared to order. A sandwich fiasco began to unfold. No, I’ve been here before. I can do this. I practically spat out the words, “Roast beef and provolone on wheat.” The woman couldn’t hear me over the noise, so I repeated my order and shuffled to my right, totally forgetting to order my cup of soup.

At the second station, the secret toppings station, the anxiety of my soup order caused me to sweat. The lady asked me which toppings I wanted and I asked for chicken noodle soup.
Pointing to where I’d just been, she asked, “Soup? You didn’t order soup down there?” Exasperated with my lack of knowledge for the Potbelly ordering protocol, she stepped back and yelled to find if chicken soup was available. The first answer was no, but then someone else assured her that they indeed were selling chicken noodle soup. Hooray, for small victories.

I took my sandwich, which I had ordered “to stay” and moved toward the cashier and the soup ladler. What’s this? The empty tables were filling up fast! I saw two ladies drape their overcoats across their chairs to mark their territory. Two harried parents sat their children down and ordered them to hold their spots. A loose conglomeration of diners suddenly merged into one mass and alighted on a large booth like pigeons on an electric wire. This was unreal! I was the last one standing in a game of musical chairs, with my sandwich in hand and nowhere to sit.

I’m not patient enough or pushy enough to hang around waiting for a table, so I looked past the guitarist in the corner and through the windows to the outdoor seating. Ah, why not? I decided to go for it. I’m an Iowan, right?

I chose a small round table against the wall, sheltered from the wind, and tore into my quickly cooling roast beef sandwich. The first bite revealed that I hadn’t asked for onions or pickles as planned. My backside began to go numb from sitting on the frozen steel patio chair. Hot steam from my soup condensed on the tip of my nose in large droplets. As the soup warmed me, I slowed down from “starving barbarian” to “thawing caveman” speed.
It then occurred to me, as if someone had slapped me out of a daydream, that far more people were entering the restaurant than exiting. Where were they all? I then realized that there must be a hidden, unmarked staircase to a second-floor dining area. Apparently, much like the toppings, it was also top-secret.

As I slurped the remaining spoonfuls of soup, a group of three women, huddled together for warmth, scurried past me. One woman slowed and said, with warm amusement in her voice, “You’re a hearty soul!” A hearty soul, I thought? Nah, just a hungry jackass.

It may not have been -19 degrees, but I’d still have preferred to enjoy that sub indoors.


  1. I, too, suffer from 'order anxiety' and especially appreciate the orderer's remorse that usually shows its ugly face after something irreversible like the first bite. Like the name of your blog, too. It reminds me of another of one of my favorite ironic concepts. 'Accidentally beautiful'- this includeds at least 45 minutes of showering, mirror-time, 2 discarded outfits on the floor after which you answer the do. Then you say, 'Oh, you caught me in this little ol' thing. I just woke up.' (insert convincing yawn)
    Well, maybe this is just a Southern stereotype I fancy since my migration.

  2. That's funny. We had a Potbelly Sandwich Works in Ann Arbor and I did the exact same thing. I took an order to go because I didn't realize there was an upstairs. I think the college customers were much more forgiving than the gov't employees about quick orders.

  3. It reminds me of Pat's Diner in Philly....where I watched my co-workers order their Philly cheese steaks....and the soup Nazi from Seinfeld. Thanks for turning a stressful situation into something we can appreciate and laugh about!!!

  4. I liked the way you wrapped it up. Truthfully, ordering in a salad or sandwich line is more stressful than jockeying for a seat on the NYC subway! btw, this is Molly (i used my aim)