Sandwiches, salads built to inspire

Big taste at Little Roni's: Forward-thinking food and people-watching highlight lunch experience

January 14, 2011 

Little Roni's makes sandwiches. Not Reubens, BLTs or Philly cheese steaks, but versions of familiar food assembled in ways you might never have thought of.

Focusing on craft, freshness and flavor – and most of all creativity – the sandwiches here are unlike anything you can find elsewhere in South Sound. From the fresh, artisan bread to the homemade ingredients, thought and care goes into the creation and execution of every item on the menu.

Little Roni’s occupies a corner spot at Franklin Street and Fourth Avenue in downtown Olympia. The space is long and narrow, like a New York deli. But architect Ruben Nunez has taken what could have been a hole in the wall and made it in to a stylish, modern space that feels spacious. Unique plywood stools converse with particle board paneling that covers walls and table tops.

A panhandle of space that once must have displayed mannequins is now a long bar affording in-your-face views of the street. Some of the younger passers-by will be in your face. Decide in advance if you want to scowl or smile.

Namesake Roni (rhymes with macaroni) Moran opened the eatery in October. The founder of nearby Quality Burrito, Moran, 40, has worked in the restaurant business her entire adult life and then some. Moran said in a phone interview that her first restaurant was in a Montana treehouse when she was just a girl. Her fare? Sandwiches, of course.

It’s safe to assume that Moran’s palate has gotten a bit more sophisticated since then. But she still serves the same kind of food now that she did in that treehouse: wholesome, homemade and original. And that was the impetus for opening Little Roni’s.

“I wanted to do the kinds of sandwiches that I wanted to eat,” Moran said. She’s confident Olympia is ready for her sandwiches, which are at once nostalgic but forward thinking in their execution. And to that end she’s a bit of a culinary iconoclast.

“Some people won’t like them because they don’t want something different,” she said.

Little Roni’s offers eight hot and cold sandwiches, salads and a soup of the day. Moran gets her bread from Seattle’s Grand Central Bakery. Choices include rosemary, multigrain, sourdough, ciabatta, baguette and a gluten-free option.

You can build your own sandwich for $4.50, which includes bread and cheese. Meat additions cost an extra $1.75-2.75.

HOT SANDWICHES

Roasted Pork ($7.25) – Moran rubs seasonings on pork before roasting it long and slow in a three-day process. The result is a meaty, flavorful sandwich with a slowly building bite from chili mayo and pickled jalapenos. A marinated slaw of red cabbage, carrot, radish and cilantro gave not only fresh crunch but color to the sandwich. It’s not a coincidence that this sandwich (served on a ciabatta roll) bears a resemblance to the Vietnamese banh mi. Moran says that was her inspiration. Seitan (prepared wheat gluten) can be substituted for pork.

Brisket Dip ($7.50) – Brisket is dry rubbed, seared and roasted for 6-8 hours. Served on a baguette, the meat was tender but still firm. Caramelized onions and homemade mustard completed the sandwich. The jus (made from the braising liquid) had a beefy flavor that screamed fresh instead of the usual straight-from-a-can option. Topping it off was a wonderfully smoky Tillamook cheddar. French dips should go extinct in favor of this sandwich.

Butternut Squash and Havarti ($6.50) – Meat is king at Little Roni’s, but vegetarians won’t feel left out with this sandwich. Roasted butternut squash, seasoned with browned butter and fresh herbs, lends a mildly sweet note while the cheese adds protein and flavor. A hefty helping of arugula gave it texture, color and volume. Meat is one of the most expensive ingredients for a restaurant, so it’s nice to see that the vegetarian options are the cheapest on the menu. That includes a hot Caprese sandwich.

COLD SANDWICHES

Turkey ($7.50) – Moran brines her turkeys for two days before roasting. The result is a sandwich made of thickly cut slices of white meat layered on slices of Granny Smith apples and slathered with bright yellow mustard. The sandwich embodies a fall feast more than a gimmicky cranberry-turkey version ever could. I had mine on multigrain.

Curry Chicken Salad ($7.50) – Moran admits that curry chicken salad is kind of 1980s. Still, when I order it, I want the curry to assertively announce its presence. With this sandwich, the curry arrived with a whimper. It’s furthered watered down with an unnecessary swipe of mayonnaise. On the plus side, the filling contained big chunks of fresh chicken, cashews, apple, tomato and baby green lettuce.

Other sandwich options include a cold roast beef and cold sopressata (salami).

SIDES AND SALADS

Soup changes daily (cup $2.50, bowl $4.25) at Little Roni’s. On one visit, I tried a split pea modestly flavored with bacon. It was so thick I nearly needed a knife and fork to finish it.

The real gems at Little Roni’s are the side salads that come with every sandwich. Changing daily, more or less, the salads come from the creative mind of Moran and whatever fresh ingredients she has on hand. I was never disappointed on my visits. One day, a barley salad was full of crunchy fennel and greens. Another salad featured hearty and sweet delicata squash. Moran said the ever-changing salads keep the staff inspired. And diners, too, I suspect.

Moran likes to stay in the background. Her staff works the counter and makes the sandwiches, and they are uniformly pleasant and quick to offer suggestions on bread choices. When the weather warms up, Moran will tweak her menu and offer outdoor seating.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541, craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

Little Roni’s Sandwich Shop

Where: 301 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia

Information: 360-352-5002; http://littleronis. blogspot.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday

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