We’ve all seen the “Soup Nazi” episode from Seinfeld. You know the one I’m talking about. Hoards of people line up for their chance to taste the renowned soups from the Stalinesque immigrant chef, who depending on your ability to follow his meticulous rules, will either serve you or cut you off. I’d thought this militaristic approach to food was only a TV reality. That is, until I tried a sandwich from the long-standing institution, Marina Submarine.
I can walk to the deli’s location on the corner of Union and Steiner, and was thankful for its proximity the last time I went as I was famished from a long drive home from Tahoe. The space is simplistic, with a few tables for customers and a menu that includes only subs, ice cream and the occasional cookie or brownie. The owner is a Korean man of few words who opened the hot spot around 30 years ago and has not stopped slinging some of the best subs since. He is the only one who actually makes the subs, which when you’re dealing with a line of 10-15 people on a regular basis, not to mention intermittent phone orders, spells out a long wait for hungry customers.
Several factors contribute to the “Sandwich Nazi” feel of the restaurant:
1) Long line out the door at almost any time during the day
2) Tense quiet inside the deli – it’s almost like everyone in line understands that you do not talk or complain while waiting for your turn. Yes, it might be a 45 minute wait until you finally get to bite into that meat and topping filled sandwich you’ve been salivating over, but you might as well button up that lip. Griping will get you nowhere in this establishment.
3) Intense focus and personality of owner/sandwich maker – in my last visit I watched the owner skillfully peel, cut, de-pit and chop about 6 avocados in less than a minute. Too bad he accidentally dropped half of one avocado, causing him to curse, wince and self-berate his sloppiness.
4) Strict cash only payment policy
5) Awkward single other employee (usually a pre-pubescent teen) who is only allowed to process payments from customers and occasionally, if really lucky, hand additional meat to the Sandwich Nazi or change the deli’s TV station
So why do people wait so long for what seems to be a rather stressful dining experience? It’s simple, people: Marina Submarine delivers on execution and taste. Those OCD tendencies of the owner result in complete mastery of the sandwich arts.
What makes the sandwiches so good you ask?
1) First off – Size matters. The sandwiches are listed as 5 inch, 7 inch and 10 inch but those measurements are pure understatement…if only men in San Francisco could be so lucky.
2) Oven-toasted bread and melted cheese on top. Makes all the difference when you have a nice crunch to your sub.
3) Ample toppings – think overflowing. This is no Subway; I paid $1.00 extra for avocado and enjoyed a WHOLE avocado on my sandwich. Regular toppings include heaps of onions, lettuce, tomato, Italian dressing and of course, tons of freshly sliced meat. I recommend adding jalapeno peppers to your order for an extra kick and of course a side kosher dill pickle.
4) Great combination sandwiches. My personal favorite is the Italiano which comes with salami, mortadella, copacolla and provolone. There is another sandwich I’d like to try called the “Atomic Submarine.” It’s a $10 sub with corned beef, turkey, ham, melted provolone, and all the regular toppings that will leave your body feeling like Hiroshima. The last sub I’m definitely going back for is the Meatball sub. I’ve done some research at different spots in SF, and have yet to find a place the really knows how to execute a Meatball sub. After ordering my Italiano, I saw another customer go for the Meatball and had a bit of order remorse. I was impressed as Sandwich Ninja/Nazi threw about 7-10 piping hot meatballs, homemade spaghetti sauce and loads of melted cheese on a loaf of bread.
Just a few tips for your visit to Marina Submarine:
1) First time you go, to really have the full experience, go through the line, watch Sandwich Nazi do his magic, and manage through the awkward silence as your stomach grumbles for 45 minutes. Then appreciate the full satiation you’ll feel after you take down your sandwich in about 5 minutes flat.
2) Next time, call ahead. And laugh or smile smugly to yourself as you bypass the line and pick up your sando.
3) Add extras and don’t skimp. Get your own sandwich. Throw on an avocado. Some jalapenos. Maybe even some extra meat.
4) Take note of the different customers that are your companions in line. There are a few types:
- Veterans – they know what to do and will wait patiently.
- Newbies – probably look a bit flustered and bewildered
- The Angry guy – he’ll take off after about 10 minutes, vehemently cursing as he exists the shop, vowing to never return again
- Diehard fans – you’ll hear them sharing tales of how they’ve “been coming to this place since they could barely see over the counter” and will pride themselves in offering advice to newly-initiated customers
I am somewhere between a Newbie and a Veteran but can tell you I’ll definitely be going back for another Pao Wow sandwich. Maybe this weekend actually, I already have Marina Submarine as an entry in my cell phone. Done and done.