Food & Drink

Tough Love

The Hurried Brilliance of a Bakeman's Lunch

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Adam L. Weintraub
MASTER & COMMANDER Bakeman’s boss Jason Wang.

There are two big reasons to love the downtown cafeteria Bakeman's. First, the turkey sandwiches ($3.50), which are made not from the waterlogged white shavings served at most delis, but from real turkeys roasted in batches of seven or eight every night. These are true day-after-Thanksgiving sandwiches, made with chunks of meat—white, dark, or mixed, take your pick. The bread is homemade and squishy, and a bit of binding mayonnaise is essential, as is a dollop of tart cranberry sauce (15 cents extra). These sandwiches are plain enough that you could easily eat them every day, but if you don't happen to work in a nearby courthouse, they're also good enough to prompt the occasional invented downtown errand.

The other thing to love about Bakeman's is the line, which can be long, but is always a marvel to watch, because it is masterfully run by Jason Wang, whose parents bought the restaurant 35 years ago. In another life, Wang might have been an air-traffic controller or auctioneer—something high stress and involving too many bits of fast-flying information for ordinary minds to track. Instead he works the cash register in the restaurant, adding up bills, taking dessert orders, and genially harassing the 400–500 customers who come for lunch every weekday. Wang admits there have been the obligatory comparisons to Seinfeld's Soup Nazi, but when he hassles you about taking too long to finish your order, he's not really that abrasive.

But he really is in a hurry. Without quantity, how else could Wang make a living serving sandwiches that cost less than most Starbucks drinks? After all, his rent has gone up 60–70 percent in the last five years, while customers are trailing off a bit. "The more time people stand in line, the more business I lose," he tells me during a rapid-fire interview one morning before the rush. With spiky hair and a gold chain glinting from under his T-shirt, Wang is restless even when seated. He looks over my shoulder to the sandwich preparation line behind me. "Too thick, too thick!" he calls out to a prep cook who's cutting a yard-long tube of liverwurst.

The key to running Bakeman's line, says Wang, is anticipation. By the time you make it to the cash register, where Wang asks you, "What else you like today?" he has a bag open for your to-go food. As you figure out which drink you want, he is calculating your tab; a split second later, he's pushing a dessert on you. Wang's not above guessing what soda a customer wants and shoving it into her bag before hearing the order, or grabbing a $10 bill off a customer's tray to cash out while the dawdling customer picks out his soda. And if you hesitate even slightly at the end of the line, he will comment. "What are you waiting for, Christmas?"

If you're planning your first visit—and if you've never been to Bakeman's, you most definitely should—here's how to avoid a ribbing at the register. Look at the ancient menu board just inside the door. Below it are soup specials—look at those too. Decide what you want. You can have a good meatloaf or liverwurst sandwich or one of six homemade soups, but like I said, the real action is the turkey sandwich. Instead of waiting for the sandwich-maker to ask you about white or dark meat, bread, toppings, etc., order everything at once, for example: "White on dark, with mayo and cranberry." Continue through the line with the same resolve. Don't worry too much about picking the wrong thing—you can always come back another day. I do recommend including apple pie ($2), because it is doubly satisfying, primarily as a homey dessert, but also for the raucous "apple pie!" that echoes down the line when you order it.

Wang knows not all his customers like his move-it-along style—"I can be a little hard-nosed sometimes," he says—but he figures if he upsets only 1 in 10 people, he's not doing too badly. I'm pretty sure the ratio is better than that. Who doesn't like a little bossiness in the name of a good lunch? It is not such a bad life policy actually, this being decisive about your desires; too often, it's the dithering that makes you miserable. As if to prove my point, Wang points to the first four guys in line for lunch who have all been eating at Bakeman's for more than 20 years. recommended

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