Pioneer Square is that bum-infested part of town you walk through on the way to a Sounders or Mariners game, or—if you're 21 and of a certain demographic—that place where Tucker got really lit on Jäger bombs that one time and tried to punch the lady cop, who was admittedly a bitch and totally had it coming. The loss of Elliott Bay Book Company, Megan Mary Olander Flowers, and Synapse206 along three blocks of First Avenue in a two-month period hasn't helped with appearances. But, on the plus side, Pioneer Square is undeniably Seattle's Sandwich District.
Maybe it's because there are so many beautiful places within walking distance to stroll with a sandwich—you can tuck a white wax-paper package under your arm like a paperback novel and visit the Waterfall Garden, Occidental Park, or, after a brief and urine-scented moment in the darkness under the viaduct, the waterfront. There are so many urban vistas in and around Pioneer Square that are optimally equipped for staring, and chewing, and contemplation; of course the best sandwiches (the perfect food for sidewalk rumination) would make their homes here.
The twinned poles of sandwich greatness in Pioneer Square are Salumi (309 Third Ave S, 621-8772) and Tat's Delicatessen (115 Occidental Ave S, 264-TATS). They represent the Apollonian and Dionysian ends of the sandwich-making scale. (Bakeman's, the cafeteria-style deli at 122 Cherry Street, is popular, but the sandwiches are so unimaginative that it doesn't earn a place in the pantheon—when it comes to sandwiches, there's classic, and then there's classical.) Salumi is all Apollonian: The meats, cured on-site, are as good as they get in Seattle (and, arguably, the world), and they're paired with just the right amount of cheese and bread—it's as though scientists in the back are performing complex equations on blackboards for the formulation of each sandwich. The Salumi salami ($9) is the ideal cold-cut sandwich, made of several types of cured meats and a creamy pesto spread. Everything is balanced just so, designed to showcase the meat without giving any of the other elements short shrift. Salumi's hot sandwiches are the same marvels of balance, with one glaring problem: Occasionally, they're just not actually hot fresh off the line. I wanted a winter-sausage sandwich ($9.50) to have the same sizzle as a street vendor's hot dog, but instead it was tepid. The sausage was delicious—fatty and spicy and tender—but by the time you've walked it up to Hing Hay Park in the International District, it's room temperature.
Not so at Tat's. Its steak and cheese with Cheez Whiz—a miracle of salt and fat and fried peppers and onions ($7.75 for an eight-inch, $11.75 for a footlong)—comes out of the wrapper almost too hot to eat. (The Cheez Whiz, you'll swear, is still bubbling from the heat.) There's nothing scientific or precise about Tat's enormous, sloppy sandwiches; they're just slapped together with the belief that more is always better. And at Tat's, that's just about right. Tat's also serves french fries, but that's kind of a waste; the fries are great (little salty splinters of potato, crispy and fried to within an inch of their lives), but there's no way they can compete with these gorgeous, enormous sandwiches.
Tat's is about to move half a block to 157 Yesler Way, where it'll have indoor seating for five times as many people, beer and wine, and extended hours. If it can sustain its exceptionally sloppy quality, it will be a welcome dinnertime addition to a Pioneer Square that has suffered too much subtraction of late.
So where does new Pioneer Square sandwich shop Delicatus (103 First Ave S, 623-3780) fall in this sandwich pantheon? The delicatessen, tucked into a storefront formerly held by a disappointing barbecue restaurant, doesn't look like any other Pioneer Square business. With its rough-hewn wooden walls and artisan-chic metal-and-wood flair, it looks like Quinn's wandered westward from Capitol Hill, had drunken sex with Jimmy John's on First Avenue, then squatted down and gave birth before staggering shamefacedly home. Decor aside, with neighbors like Salumi and Tat's, you've got to make a compelling case for your sandwich-making existence. And the Olivitto ($8.50) sure doesn't. Like Tat's Italian sandwich, it's an Italian roll (this one crisp and sharp from Essential Baking Company) stacked full of meats. Delicatus's menu boasts of its partnership with Zoe's Meats, but the pepperoni and ham tasted of middling quality, like they could have come from any supermarket deli section—and all the overstuffing in the world isn't enough to make you forget that. The skunky onions on top practically made the sandwich inedible.
However, the Delicatus menu is divided into halves, and one of those halves maps out Delicatus's chance to excel in the Sandwich District. One half of the menu is the Traditionalists, where the straightforward (if cutesily named) sandwiches like the Olivitto, the East Coast Representin' (pastrami to you and me), and the B.L.F-ingT. live. The other half is the more adventurous Progressives menu, and that's where the Fists of Fury ($7.75) resides. The Fists of Fury is a sandwich that justifies Delicatus. Made of a base of glistening, almost-liquid pulled pork, it is topped with cilantro, cucumber, wasabi aioli, and, brilliantly, a very small amount of tobiko caviar. It's one thing to take a bite of a great pulled-pork sandwich. It's another thing entirely to take a bite of a great pulled-pork sandwich piled high with ingredients that add complexity to the pork and send the flavor spiraling into new directions with every bite. And to top the occasional bite with just a hint of brine and ocean is more than brilliant; it's some kind of mad science.
Sometimes the wonder of a sandwich comes from staring at a fridge and assembling disparate parts into a satisfying and unexpected whole. If the owners of Delicatus are smart, they'll continue to emphasize that aspect of sandwich-making, of playing with our expectations. That's territory that Salumi and Tat's haven't covered, and it's a welcome new area of exploration to add to the city's Sandwich District.
This article has been updated since its original publication.