Before chefs muscled their way into the lunch trade and started engineering formidable bites that have reduced egg salad to a whimpering puddle of mayo, sandwiches were the domain of short-order cooks, grumpy deli owners and folks like Kim Carlson and Tammy Prestipino.
Carlson and Prestipino are the siblings behind Sisters’ Sandwiches & Such in Olney, a shop that could have been filled with nothing but restored furniture and tchotchkes had the pair not decided, in 2010, to stretch their creative powers to the ingredients between two slices of bread. Truth be told, it wasn’t much of a stretch for the amateur cooks: Their father owned buffets and two high-end restaurants back in Washington state, and his love of cooking and entertaining clearly left a mark on his daughters.
Located in the historic Higgins Tavern, a trading post and watering hole built in the early 1820s on the old Georgetown-to-Brookville Road, Sisters’ Sandwiches has its own trapped-in-amber quality, as if Carlson, 53, and Prestipino, 49, are trying to hold onto an era that’s slowly slipping through their fingers. Theirs is a sweet, slightly yearning era, embracing both the homily heavy simplicity of the 1950s and the free-spirited DIY aesthetic of the 1960s and 1970s.
You can’t miss the place. Located next to a characterless strip center, the yellow two-story structure with an attached log cabin sticks out like a Victorian hoop skirt at an Old Navy store. Once inside, you’ll find even more personality: well-scuffed wooden floors, a peeling white cabinet loaded with local crafts for sale, a family photo collage, even dish towels that double as a daily source for hand-stitched inspiration (sample aphorism: “Some days you just have to create your own sunshine”).
The old Higgins Tavern does present challenges as a functioning restaurant. Because the building is listed as a Maryland historic property, the sisters are limited in the alterations they can make, no matter how minor. They can’t even pitch a tent over the sunny red-brick patio during inclement weather, Carlson says. Perhaps worse, the kitchen and prep area are housed in the restored log cabin, which can become a Sahara-like work station during the summer months. Every time I peeked into the kitchen, I saw nothing but sweaty, beet-red faces ploughing through countless tickets.
Such 19th-century toil is well-concealed at the front counter, a cheerful outpost where you’ll find the shop’s menu painted in multiple colors on the wall behind the register. Much of the food is prepared in-house, from dressings to soups to the roasted chicken, which seems fitting for a place with such a homey atmosphere. The sisters’ main concession to convenience is their bread, custom-made for the shop by New Yorker Bakery in Silver Spring.
The sandwich-making skills here stop well short of the bread-bursting ingenuity found at G on 14th Street NW, Bub and Pop’s on M Street NW or Duke’s Grocery near Dupont Circle. Yet many of the sisters’ sandwiches, named for friends and family, prove just as pleasurable as those chef-driven inventions, largely due to the siblings’ willingness to keep piling on flavor until they’ve reached a sort of Dagwood ecstasy.
The meatloaf sandwich, otherwise known as the Terminator, proves the point. The thick homemade loaf comes stuffed in a crusty, if underbaked, baguette, the meat swimming in unrelenting waves of ketchup, mayonnaise, spicy mustard, shredded cheddar cheese and more. The Terminator soon becomes an arm-drip sandwich variation, the condiments providing the mess while the filler-laced meatloaf assumes a calmer role at the center. I laid waste to that beast.
Other tasty creatures lie in wait, too. The Jacked Up Roast Beef lives up to its name: A meaty stack of thinly sliced beef, as pink as salmon in the center, is slathered on two sides with horseradish mayo, topped with a toothsome layer of Havarti and encased in the same crusty baguette, the flavors interlocking and timeless. The Great Albert Reuben on toasted marbled rye shows no desire to mess with tradition, either: The acidic sauerkraut plays a superb foil to the pastrami, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing. Even a summer camp improv like the Smasher — turkey breast meat coated with barbecue ranch dressing and crunchy with chips and bacon — manages to ingratiate itself.
The sisters take good care of the vegetarian, pescatarian and vegan crowds, both with sandwich options and a long list of salads. Among the greens, I prefer the Caesar loaded with some dark, seedy croutons and a freshly prepared dressing, at once thick and potent. I’d skip the conceptual question mark called Erick’s Shredded Wedge, if only because the pile of sliced iceberg lettuce deprives you of a principal pleasure: the wedge’s big, watery crunch. The true meatless hero, though, is a sandwich named Trish the Dish’s Roasted Veggie, two slices of toasted Italian white bread bulging with earthy delights, all tied together with fresh, creamy mozzarella and a pesto brimming with sweet basil flavor.
When the food falters at Sisters’ Sandwiches, it falters along predictable lines. The Uncle Russell’s Egg Salad sandwich on toasted marbled rye, the J-Man (shredded chicken, bacon, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato on a toasted baguette) and the white chicken-and-vegetable chili all suffer from a severe case of underseasoning. That said, I don’t think proper salt and pepper levels alone would have saved some of these dishes; the egg salad, for starters, had barely a hint of its promised mustard and garlic pungency.
After you’ve mopped up the last crumbs and started searching for something sweet, I’d look no further than the chunky chocolate chip cookie, baked in-house with dough supplied to the sisters. Crispy, chewy, packed with chocolate squares and just a hint of salt, this version may be my Platonic ideal of a chocolate chip cookie. I’d dare any chef to try to improve upon it.
16834 Georgia Ave., Olney, Md. 301-774-0669. www.sisterssandwichesandsuch.com
Hours: Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Prices: Salads and sandwiches, $6.59-$9.99.