Reliably, one thing that never goes out of style is the submarine sandwich. Some call it a hoagie (or hoagy), others a hero. Bomber, grinder, poor boy, Italian sandwich, Cuban sandwich, torpedo, wedge, zep—regardless of what you call them, people have been eating them for a long time, at least back to the 1900s. Sub Shack, an East Sacramento establishment dedicated to the art of the sub, has never gone out of style, either.
Ralph Neel wasn’t born with a submarine sandwich in his mouth. He grew up in Redding and traveled east to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he worked as a merchant marine during his 20s. From there, Neel became a hippie of sorts, doing what hippies like to do: get high, get the munchies and eat subs. For a while, he worked as the night manager in a small restaurant. He married the day manager, came back to his native California and started a business both he and his wife could relate to.
Neel turned to what he ate at least three times a week—usually a Philly steak sub from a Fort Lauderdale place called Dan’s. Dan’s menu provided the inspiration, and his father-in-law provided the money so that Neel and his then-wife could start Sub Shack—almost 28 years ago to the day. The location they chose had gone through a few iterations. It had been an Italian place run by a Filipina, and it also had been a garden café. For a long time, it had been home to Doc’s, a ghost of Sacramento past that had graced Folsom Boulevard since the 1930s. The photos still hang proudly on the walls of Neel’s restaurant.
For the first seven years, Sub Shack was open until 8 p.m., attracting Sacramento Municipal Utility District line crews in the evening. They’d sit and drink pitcher after pitcher, go to the bathroom and drink some more, until Neel had to chase them away. Though the beers invited rambunctious drinkers, the sandwiches didn’t attract much of a dinner crowd. Then, the recession in the early 1980s hit, and Neel scaled back. Since then, Sub Shack has been a lunch place only, six days a week.
Amid the bustle of Folsom Boulevard, with new retailers such as Longs Drugs and the much-anticipated Trader Joe’s, Sub Shack looks nostalgic. The overgrowth that provides patio shading partly obscures the restaurant. Both the patio and the interior of the restaurant have a casual beach quality—as if one could wear sandals, do a crossword puzzle and think about nothing beyond watching a sunset in the evening. The menu conveys the same simple indulgences: steak and onion, barbecued beef and meatball subs. There are two sizes (6-inch and 8-inch) and four kinds of cheese (mozzarella, provolone, Swiss and cheddar). Meat options abound: ham, mortadella, Italian salami, pastrami, roast beef, barbecued beef, hamburgers and hotdogs. Neel also bakes two 35-pound turkeys a week and has a grilled-chicken-breast sandwich on the menu.
Vegetarian options were added a few years ago because more people were going meatless. But Neel says he wouldn’t eat there if he were a vegetarian. It’s more for if you wanted to bring a vegetarian friend.
Steak-and-onion, pastrami, fresh turkey and chicken are supposed to be the best subs, but those who order the tuna or the “monster” won’t be disappointed. The tuna is tangy, made with a bit of relish. The tuna itself is moist but not wet or overcome by mayonnaise. The accompanying shredded lettuce, shredded onion and “seasoning”—the mix of herbs and spices sprinkled on most of the subs—further brighten the tang and coolness of the sandwich. The monster, a mix of ham, mortadella, Italian salami, pastrami, roast beef and Swiss cheese that comes served with the lettuce-tomato-onion-seasoning combo, delivers a surprisingly unified taste. The assembly of cold cuts leaves nothing to be desired.
If there is anything lamentable about Sub Shack, it is the limited hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Saturday. But Neel is not going to increase them. In fact, he’s looking to sell the restaurant. Twenty-eight years of turning french-fry baskets, assembling sandwiches and flipping burgers, six days a week, has left Neel feeling the stress of repetitive-motion disorder. Ironically, the Shack that feels so carefree for everyone else isn’t for the man who runs it. Neel won’t retire, but he’d like to take a much-needed vacation, perhaps to Africa. Whatever the fate of the Sub Shack, we can only hope that something of it survives the brave new world of Folsom Boulevard. Just one more sandwich, Mr. Neel. Just one more sandwich.