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The #1 Order to Never Make at a Deli, According to Chefs

You deserve a fresh sandwich, don't you?
FACT CHECKED BY Justine Goodman

When it comes to ordering a high-quality, delicious meal at any restaurant, fresh is always best. It's a sentiment shared by chefs and nutritionists alike, who avow the merits of made-to-order menu items and fresh ingredients over, say, a buffet steam table. The fresh philosophy applies across all dining styles and cuisines, from sushi spots to dine-in chain restaurants, and it's particularly important when it comes to deli orders.

Offering a bevy of cured meats, cheeses, and breads, at a deli, the integrity of the ingredients is front-and-center—and can make all the difference between hearty comfort food and meaty mediocrity. When it's good, it can be great. Just look at the best delis in the country, and their shared recipe for success, which largely revolves around avoiding packaged deli meats and stacking scratch-made sandwiches with only the highest quality products that all harmonize together. Because even if you're using top-cut meats, there's no buzzkill quite like wilted lettuce or stale bread.

According to Matt Dailey, president and culinary coach of Napa-based PLAYTE Kitchen, when it comes to a deli order, one major red flag is any hot sandwich that contains lettuce. "There are few things more disappointing than soggy, wilted lettuce on an otherwise delicious sandwich," he says. But even if lettuce is present on a hot sandwich, he's not averse to making alterations if need be. "If the sandwich sounds too good to pass up, I ask for it without lettuce and add a side salad to forego any guilt about missing out on a veggie."

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Similarly, other deli red flags usually revolve around freshness. "I tend to avoid anything that looks as if it has been sitting in a steam well for much longer than it should be," explains Don Walker, executive chef at Formento's and Nonna's in Chicago. "Especially if it's during prime business hours, those items should all look freshly prepared."

The chef knows a thing or two about deli-style freshness, too. At Nonna's, an Italian grab-and-go restaurant centered around sandwiches and pizza, Walker eschews steam wells in favor of made-to-order meatball subs and roasted turkey sandwiches with dill Havarti, marinated broccoli, Italian dressing, and spicy honey mayo.

fresh deli sandwiches

Some other deli taboos, according to Walker, include roast beef that hasn't been sliced fresh and has lost its color, and old bread. "Places that will put their products on stale bread show you that they must let other items go out past their prime," notes the chef.

So the next time you're craving a Reuben or a sub, make sure your deli sandwich of choice is as fresh as possible—and ideally, free of any misplaced ingredients that could undercut its quality.

Matt Kirouac
Matt Kirouac is a travel and food writer and culinary school graduate, with a passion for national parks, all things Disney, and road trip restaurants. Read more about Matt
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