Feed yourself at Swede's

Release Date: 2002-10-17

Innocence is not dead, y'all. Not only have rumors of its demise been greatly exaggerated, but this Eisenhower-era quality — along with its cohorts honesty, simplicity, and openness — might be about to stage a comeback. And not a moment too soon — assuming that Swede's sandwich shop is something more than a temporary anomaly in a time of tension, that is.

With the exception of Volvo, the Swedish import most of us are familiar with, alas, is ABBA; forget that. Swede's, a squeaky-clean place with pale yellow walls, natural wood chairs and tables, and Old World memorabilia on prominent display, is the quintessence of mom and pop (plus the kids and grandparents, too, if I have this straight) — not perky pop. Although it hasn't been in operation that long, the lunchtime crowd already seems like family, too.

The menu — excluding raspberry vinaigrette (let's peg that one in the late '70s) and maybe chipotle mayonnaise — is a relic of kinder, gentler times. Just titled in Swedish. Under the smörgåsar category, Big "Swede" Jake's roast beef sandwich is as good a place as any to start; it's not your everyday deli version. In fact, Jake's roast beef is much like my mother's: roasted to medium if not more. Pulled apart into substantial chunks, it amply upholsters the sandwich, further trimmed out with real lettuce, tomato, and red onion — all on a house-baked potato bun. Fashionable? No way. Fine? Absolutely — especially with a little of that currently hot chipotle mayo.

The roast beef sandwich is a mouthful, but it doesn't compare to the Boy — named for one of the waiters, who will eat anything and everything. This one is an ode to appetite — at least that's what "the Boy" told us. And it is a very big sandwich, stuffed with ham, turkey, roast beef (yes, that roast beef), three cheeses, and trimmings. Apart from its excess, the Boy is actually a very simple sandwich; it only gets swell if you add herbed mayo. Paired with your choice of red potato salad (creamy and very good), pasta salad (flawed only by the use of those overly nostalgic California olives), fruit or broccoli salad or chips, it's easily a meal for two.

The obvious solution for a single diner is to order half a sandwich with quiche (another blast from the past), salad or soup. Potato soup is a staple at Swede's, but if lentil comes around, leap right on it. Spangled with diced carrot and simply but effectively seasoned, it partnered half of a Dana's chicken salad sandwich to perfection one day. For its part, the chicken salad, distinguished by chunks of roasted chicken, is a far cry from the mulched and over-mayo'd mess one is often served. No fancy flavors, no grapes, almonds or other unnecessary additives ... just chicken.

True, there are slivered almonds on the baby spinach salad — the one that sports the actually acceptable raspberry vinaigrette — but here they add desirable texture. The mandarin orange sections add color, but, in true retro fashion, they're canned — a shame, given that tangerines are currently looking good in the market. Still, the salad was a good green antidote to the daily special, roast pork loin with lingonberry sauce.

The daily specials rotate from week to week and change monthly as well. Sauerbraten, smothered pork chops, meat loaf, Swedish meatballs, and meat lasagna have all made recent appearances. The herb-rubbed pork loin was unpretentious, and the sweet-tart berry sauce played the same contrasting role cranberries do with Thanksgiving turkey. Candied sweet potatoes with pecans and plain, buttered noodles filled out the plate. No artful arranging, no tricked-out accessorizing, just honest eats.

Lingonberries (they look like red huckleberries but have a cranberry's tartness) may be typically Swedish (as is the substantial, stainless tableware), but pecan pie is the kind of dessert one imagines only Southern cooks genetically prepared to make. Stand back, Beulah; Jake turns out a mean one: deep, not too sweet, and with a sturdy but still tender crust. The array of house cookies is impressive, too, and the peanut butter models are especially good of breed. Take some to go; they'll keep the glow of sweet simplicity going all afternoon. (Máma mía, here I go again!)