Friday, November 26, 2010

16 Kids Deli And The Italian Roast Beef Panini

Many years ago, while my college friend Cliona was attending law school at the University of Virginia, I decided to pack my bags and head out for a visit. While I had some places I wanted to visit on my personal agenda, as we were talking about things to do, Cliona kept mentioning this amazing food place that we absolutely had to stop at for a bite to eat. The problem was that her pronunciation of this destination restaurant had confused me. I kept hearing the phrase, "Eggs On Heaven." Figuring it was some type of breakfast joint serving angelic omelettes, I was eager to try it out.

The morning after I arrived, I climbed into her car with my curiosity piqued because of her eagerness and we started on our trip. When she pulled into a gas station, I thought it was to refuel her car. Instead, she proclaimed, "We're here!" I looked around quite puzzled until I realized that "Eggs On Heaven" was actually "Exxon Heaven." It seemed that there was a deli counter inside the gas station that was serving up some tasty sandwiches with unusual toppings. Havarti cheese and fresh avocado? Yep, they had it. We picked up some sandwiches to go and continued on our way.

Just as that small deli counter had been an unusual sight in a regular run-of-the-mill Exxon gas station, another friend, Ryan, told me about an oddly similar experience in Cuyahoga Falls. It seemed that the Marathon gas station at the corner of Broad Street and 2nd Avenue housed a small take-out delicatessen called 16 Kids Deli. Considering he lived within walking distance of this establishment, he ate there quite often and recommended that I stop in and give them a try for myself. I thought at first that he might have been joking with me, but when I pulled up their website, any feelings of doubt melted away.

The Marathon station was located at 2014 2nd Street, Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44221 and can be reached at 330-929-1616. While there were a few spots for non-gas buying customers, the day that I visited the gas station was in full swing and I decided to park next door at the public library and walk over. Here was a shot of the left side of the Marathon station, essentially the entrance to the deli:

Entranceway to 16 Kids Deli
Once inside, I couldn't help but notice the large wall menu listing all of the sandwiches and sides that the deli offered:

16 Kids Deli's Wall Menu
I also noticed a breakfast menu inserted into a plastic display holder perched on the counter:

16 Kids Deli's Breakfast Menu
Ryan had suggested I try the Italian Roast Beef Panini with a side of the jus. While I thought about getting a side of the homemade coleslaw, when I saw that a free order of French Fries was being offered to people who had the deli's phone number programmed into their cell phones, I went with that instead. Most of the side items were of the fried variety and when I saw how they were frying these from-frozen treats, I was genuinely intrigued. It seemed that 16 Kids had a fryer that sat on the counter. Frozen food was dropped into a slot in the top of the machine. When the food was done being cooked, a door was opened at the bottom of the unit and the food simply fell into a tray below. It was then packed up and served to the customer. I can honestly say I've never come across a machine like that before.

After packing a brown paper sack with my sandwich and fries, I walked the few feet to the gas station portion of the small building, selected a bottle of water and returned to the cashier to pay for my dinner. When I returned outside, I was fortunate to spot a picnic table on a small patch of grass between the gas station and the library.

Here was a shot of my wrapped panini and the cup of requested jus:

Wrapped Panini Au Jus
Almost all of the sandwiches were available in three sizes: half, whole, and New York. I decided on going with a whole Italian Roast Beef Panini:

Italian Roast Beef Panini
I have a funny feeling that the difference between the regular roast beef panini and the "Italian" one was the presence of sautéed peppers and onions. The bread, referred to as a ciabatta wrap on the website, had the exact same flavor and texture as a Taco Bell gordita shell. It felt like it had been fried in oil before being mercilessly squeezed inside the panini press. Calling it a ciabatta wrap was a somewhat misleading moniker as this flatbread had none of the qualities of a good ciabatta.

Upon pulling the two halves apart, I managed to take a side shot:

Side Shot of Italian Roast Beef Panini
I tried the sandwich by itself first. The roast beef was definitely juicy and hot. The provolone cheese was nicely melted and the peppers and onions were soft without being mushy. While there were definitely grill marks on the ciabatta wrap from the panini press, the outside of the wrap didn't have that nice crunchy texture that a properly pressed sandwich should have. That being said, this was a decent sandwich and the flavors were pretty good. I had asked for the optional horseradish mayonnaise sauce to be added while it was being prepared. When I tasted the sauce by itself, I got a bit of the heat from the horseradish, but just barely. On the sandwich, however, any hint of the spicy root were completely lost, rendering the sauce essentially down to simply a creamy condiment.

When I dipped the sandwich into the jus, almost all of the flavors in the sandwich were overwhelmed by the prominent beef and even more prominent salt flavors in the small cup of liquid. Serving a sandwich au jus is a great idea in theory, but here in practice today, it wasn't the best idea. While I didn't specifically ask while in the store if the roast beef and the accompanying jus were homemade, after discovering that the pulled pork sandwich was a pre-made item that they simply bought and heated for service, I was inclined to believe that most of the other sandwich ingredients were not made in-house either.

After taking a few bites from my sandwich, I put it aside and turned my attention to the free order of French Fries which had come with my order:

French Fries with Ketchup
These were definitely the style of French Fry that I preferred: thickly cut with some of the skin showing at the tips. However, the execution of these fries was a mixed bag. Some of them were nicely fried, crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside. Others were limp and greasy, either a sign that they weren't fully cooked or that the temperature of the oil wasn't hot enough and the potatoes had simply absorbed the oil instead of cooking in it. The small red container in the photograph above was ketchup. It helped to allay some of the problems, but couldn't alleviate them entirely.

Additionally, since the fries hadn't been salted upon leaving the fryer, by themselves they were a tad underseasoned. They weren't bland, per se, but they were also missing that little bit of salt that would have made them taste much better.

Finally, wrapped up separately from my sandwich was another lunch time staple, the dill pickle spear:

Pickle Spear
There wasn't anything particularly memorable about this pickle other than it had a nice snap to it. The flavor was nice, but pretty standard for this typical sandwich companion. Having now finished my dinner, I threw the remaining trash back into the paper bag, walked back over to the gas station and disposed of it in the garbage receptacle.

Reflecting on my meal that I purchased at 16 Kids Deli today, I would say that it was better than average, but not particularly notable. Would I stop here again if I were already in Cuyahoga Falls? Yes, I would. Would I drive here specifically to try out the cuisine? No, probably not. While the novelty of a delicatessen inside a gas station may be enough to draw in the curious local diner, there are several much better places in Cuyahoga Falls (like here, here and here) to get a good sandwich and French Fries.

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