I've never tasted a sandwich like The Chilean at Pop's Deli. Neither has my friend from Chile, but never mind that. Mark my words: The next time a contest asks for the best sandwich in Memphis, this one is going to be on the list.
When Chile was the honored country of Memphis in May, I researched Chilean food and kept coming across a place in Boston that sold what they declared to be Chilean sandwiches. Pop's menu brought those Google searches to mind, and I eagerly ordered the sandwich containing the following:
A choice of grill-scattered chicken or beef, melted muenster cheese, guacamole, marinated string beans,
tomatoes and Chilean hot sauce, piled up on ciabatta bread.
Do I even need to add delicious?
Get in your car, head on out to Shelby Drive, eat, then beg Pop to move some place more convenient. East Memphis or Midtown would be my preference, but here's betting that Pop knows we'll keep coming to his shop no matter where it is.
All of the sandwiches are good, and some are exceptional. We'll come back to The Chilean, but let's tackle something more familiar. The gyro at Pop's is possibly -- probably, even -- the best I've tasted, and I was a teenager when I first tried the Middle Eastern sandwich.
You know, a year or two ago.
It all starts with the pita, which is soft, warm and fresh. It's generously filled with gyro meat (a pressed combination of beef and lamb), topped with tzatziki (yogurt sauce with cucumber), tomatoes, onion and dill pickle slices. Much as I love pickles, I hesitated a little before ordering the gyro all the way. Do it. The pickles add a nice tang to an all-around excellent sandwich. The tzatziki is creamy, the onion a little sharp, the tomatoes fresh and the meat deep and satisfying.
You'll be offered homemade chips when you order a sandwich, and you should treat yourself. I think "house-made" would be a better term, as we saw the frozen chips in big bags, but I'm willing to let anyone who goes through the trouble of frying them call them what they want.
Ridged chips are fried when you order them, sprinkled with Cavender's Greek seasoning and served hot. Some are crisp; some are a little soft and chewy. I like the textural variety.
Nathan's all-beef hot dogs are grilled with short slits down one side and dressed to order, or you can go with Pop's Loaded Dog. Let's just say I wasn't paying attention. I saw tomatoes, jalapeños and celery salt, so that's what I ordered. I'd taken a couple of bites before I realized there was ketchup on it, and guess what? I'm still living. I wasn't struck by lightning. I didn't even gag. Maybe the other ingredients -- mustard, relish, onion and pickles -- tamed it, or maybe, just maybe, I liked it with ketchup.
Pop is Imad Ismail, a Jerusalem native who opened the deli in 2008. His father-in-law owned a deli outside Boston, where one of his sons lives. The family was visiting several years ago when they ate a new sandwich.
"My brother took us to try this sandwich from Chile that he liked," said Ali Ismail, a son who works at the deli. "We all liked it, and so we came home and started making our version at home. This was before we opened the store, and when we opened, we put it on the menu."
Accept my thanks.
I tried the sandwich with beef first, because that seemed more authentic (correct, as my Chilean friend pointed out the same thing). I was so impressed that I went back for the chicken -- and it was even better.
There's so much flavor. Either meat is chopped and cooked on the flat-top. The beef is thin, the same meat used for the Pop's Famous Philly, and the chicken is diced in small bits. Cavender's seasons either, and as this is my favorite all-purpose seasoning and something I always have at home, it was nicely familiar.
The creamy avocado is on the bottom, and the green beans come next. These aren't pickled, which was what I expected when I read "marinated," so there's no sourness. The meat follows the beans, then the cheese, toppings (go with it as printed; add onions if you must), and a slather of hot sauce on the top bun. It's wet enough, but not too wet. And you are going to love it.
All the sandwiches I tried were good -- the Italian was big and meaty (Boar's Head meats); the All-American club a little different because it's on a hoagie bun; the Reuben even had Russian dressing, which is not as sweet as Thousand Island.
But The Chilean and the gyro are supremely good, and it sounds like I missed out on Pop's Philly. I figured the meat was the same as The Chilean, so I'd try some other things. The photographer e-mailed me after she took the pictures and grabbed lunch:
"Did the Philly steak. Transplants from the NE will be in heaven!"
--Jennifer Biggs: 529-5223
Address: 6755 E. Shelby Drive.
Telephone: (901) 366-3463.
Hours: Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Reviewer's choices: The Chilean ($6.99); Mediterranean- style gyro ($5.49); Pop's Loaded Dog ($3.49). Add fountain drink and homemade chips to any sandwich for $2.09.