One of the most difficult things about being in a new place is not knowing what anything is. Even simple meals become a struggle when you’re used to Albertson’s or Wegman’s but this town only has Shaw’s and Hannaford, and those are all supermarkets—which are easier to recognize from the outside. Sometimes, it can be impossible to tell by looking at them what’s a convenience store and what’s a take out restaurant. We have a whole bunch of stores in my area under the name “Country Maid,” and while they’re not actually all associated, they’re all the same sort of establishment: combination corner store and deli. However, each one has a fryer and a flat top grill, and offers fresh made sandwiches (hot or cold) and assorted fried goodies. I often stop in for a fresh sliced deli sandwich (which costs me less than $5) at the one beside my work. That’s just scratching the surface, though. This week, I’ve ordered a tuna melt, wishing to sample some of their hot food.
To be totally honest, my tuna melt wasn’t the first hot sandwich I’ve ordered at a Country Maid. My little corner of Delaware is only 45 minutes south of Philadelphia, so many culturally Philadelphia things ring true here: this is Eagles/Flyers/Phillies country, there’s brick row houses in Wilmington, and cheesesteaks here are consistently delicious. I felt one day as though I needed to double check this was true (and I was extra hungry), so between shifts at work I walked the two doors down. It was pricier—and more substantial—than a ham and cheese sandwich (on rye with lettuce, onion, pepper, oregano, mustard, and mayo) will ever be. It was also delicious; it was still hot when I unwrapped the foil, with melty cheese and wonderfully caramelized onions steaming beautifully together. It was well executed regional food: one of my favorite things about traveling (particularly within our country).
My tuna melt was a less spiritual experience, though that’s (in part at least), my fault. I’m not sure I picked it up perfectly promptly, and, as my car is considerably older than I am, it has become intermittently cranky and chose that moment to demand my attention. My tuna melt had to wait while I assured it that I still care for it and so on. I knew there was only so much that aluminum foil could accomplish, so by the time I got to the table I was actually surprised by what little warmth it had left. The ingredients and textures were all good, and rye toast is good even when it’s cold. There is a joke in my family about tuna: my mother dislikes fish but loves all of the rest of the ingredients in a tuna sub (mayo, lettuce, onion, cheese, black pepper). Because of this, there are many places she actually prefers the tuna sub over cold cuts. Her memory is not her most impressive feature, however, so she’s in the habit of suddenly saying, “Is the tuna good here?” to whoever she’s with. I do not mind fish, so I found the Country Maid tuna sandwich very nicely balanced. My mother would not like it. I suspect that this is not true only at these stores; I think the kitchen format informs the flavor profile. Please note, this is not a mark against them. I like fish and found the fishiness refreshing and in no way overpowering. It was simply one of the flavors that blended nicely with the rest. If it’s not a flavor you like, however, I must advise you to look elsewhere on the menu.
You’ll find something you like. Mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers are options at many places like this, and these places are practically everywhere in one form or another. Even if you don’t want to have them make you a sandwich, a quarter pound of deli meat and a few rolls are a really cheap way to prepare lunches on the go. Plus, it’s a convenience store: pick up your side munchies and drinks while you’re there! These sorts of spots rarely stick out to us, and often they’re not all that pretty. But it’s places like these where the best food hides. Sandwiches at delis are better because the meat is freshly sliced, and that’s a world of distance from the methods necessary to running a bigger restaurant. Next time you’re new in town, give the little places a chance; they just might blow your mind.