We walked into Merigan Sub Shop on a Thursday, otherwise known as “pig day.” In between building subs, Liza Shaw and her team were butchering a whole pig. All of its parts lend themselves to different sandwiches. The shoulder and loin are combined in the Arista, the back legs become the prosciutto for the Italian combo, the belly becomes the porchetta, and any other bits and pieces become meatballs. The liver becomes the liver terrine and even the skin is fried to make addicting pork cracklings.
Shaw, a former chef at A16, is meticulous in providing the best sandwich she can. Over an Arista (a juicy combination of braised and roasted pork mixed with provolone, rapini, and hots) we talked subs, baseball, and her plans for the future.
SF Weekly: So, what do you have planned for baseball season?
Shaw: We're ready to do some major business. We're gonna have something set up so you can call ahead. We want people to call ahead so they can just walk right in and pick up their subs. If you're walking by and you want to pick up a cold pre-packed sub, we're gonna have the Italian combo, the Turkey, the Roast Beef ready to go.
Do you think this is more of an East Coast sub shop?
I mean, everybody wants to qualify something. I think that when you talk about things like pizza or sandwiches or a lot of things people eat every day, people want to know what kind of pizza it is, or what kind of sandwich. Yes, I'm from the East Coast and I miss having East Coast styles of subs, which are everywhere. Boston, New York, Philly. And really nowhere here … So yes, that was the inspiration. Italy was definitely an inspiration. I don't want to say it's an authentic East Coast or Italian sub shop. I have a problem with the whole idea of authenticity. I think the only authentic place is where the thing was actually made. … Here, we have a Chicken Parm and an Italian Combo that you would find on the East Coast but we're using ingredients from here. We're using bread from here. It's a derivative of an East Coast-style sub shop but we're totally California.
Another thing that sets us apart from other sub shops and other restaurants in general is that it is very important for me to have a lot of options for vegetarians. I think in sandwich shops in general a lot of vegetarians are relegated to the toppings. They'll get the Turkey sandwich without the turkey, which is basically just lettuce, cheese, tomato, maybe some avocado. That's pretty boring. The Panelle, for example, is chickpea fritters, ricotta, olives, house-made tomato conserva, and arugula, and it's really satisfying. It's interesting and we've been told so many times by a lot of vegetarians who come in here and say “thank you so much for actually giving us options.”
There was some controversy about the pricing when you first opened. How have you addressed that?
The first three days we were open we started out having half subs and whole subs. We get 24-inch rolls so half were 6 and wholes were 12. We realized very quickly that it is just as much work to make a half sub as it is to make a whole sub, in between expediting and cutting the bread and firing and wrapping. It was a shit show the first few days. So out of that same 24-inch roll we were doing three pieces rather than 12 and 6. When an article came out complaining about the portions and the pricing, we had already eliminated the problem. We're very reactive and obviously we want to be efficient. We don't want anyone to wait too long or to feel ripped off.
I think once people get their sandwich, there's no question that it was worth it. And I get that this isn't for everybody. Some people are happy going to Subway, who want a bargain and a quick fill. But if you want food that's produced with a lot of love and well-sourced, and there's a little bit of technique behind it, it just so happens that it's a sandwich here. I think that people think that things like sandwiches and pizza and ramen and coffee should all be cheap because they're everyday items, but there are people like me and Richie Nakano from Hapa Ramen and the really good pizza places in town who have taken a pedestrian food and elevated it and put a little heart behind it. Everything here is as good as I think it can be and I'm not willing to sacrifice quality for price.
How long did it take to get this off the ground?
The idea has been in the works for 10, 12 years. Basically, when I moved out here in '99, at some point my friend Matt and I went and hosted a Super Bowl party and we wanted to get a six-foot sub. It's easy to do on the East Coast, to get a circle sub or some large-format sub. And there was not a single place in this whole city that did it. I think I was still in culinary school at the time and he was like, “Oh man, we should just open a sub shop” and I was like, “I'm going to work at restaurants, no way.” So when I left A16, he was like, “You know what you have to do now.” He was part of the inspiration and the beginning impetus for this whole thing. But from trying to find a broker, trying to find a space, trying to raise money, it's been a little over two years.
This isn't it. It's not the end-all be-all. We want to have several of these throughout the city and have a separate kitchen and our own butcher room and possibly bake our own bread, who knows? There's a lot of lofty ideas, we're just trying to get through this one at first.