420 E. Frank St.
Soups, sandwiches & salads: $2.99-$6.99
Desserts & smoothies:
Open 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
In fact, the tiny soup-and-sandwich joint just off Old Woodward on the outskirts of downtown Birmingham features, somewhat unexpectedly, a pressed Cuban sandwich as its house specialty. Ham, roasted pork and salami with Swiss, mayo, mustard and pickles are smashed into submission, transforming the zesty components into something almost delicate — a thin and crunchy wafer of a sandwich that nevertheless packs a lot of flavor.
The Cuban sandwich — as well as the atmosphere of the café — reflects the owners' seven-year stint in Florida, where they owned and operated a similar restaurant. The sunny yellow interior, brightened by a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, is matched by the disposition of owners Matt and Grace Dersa. He works the front, making the sandwiches, and she does the baking in the back. As they take orders and chat with customers, it's obvious from their outgoing demeanor that they enjoy their work.
As we sipped coffee on a recent visit, we got to chatting with Matt, who tells us that he and Grace were high school sweethearts of a sort, only she didn't know it. When he was a senior and she a freshman, living in Milford and Commerce, respectively, he wrote in her high school yearbook that they would be married someday. She laughed it off, but years later, when both had returned to the area after college, his words proved true. While they had a good run in Florida, Grace was homesick for her 14 siblings and wanted to return to Michigan, so they sold the business, moved back North, and opened Frank Street Bakery in December of 2011. The formula they developed in Florida seems to be working well for them — a variety of sandwiches (subs, wraps, panini), soups, baked goods and smoothies, with a small but serviceable salad bar, in a location small enough that the two of them can manage it without much additional staff.
On our first visit, we tried the aforementioned pressed Cuban sandwich and, for my vegetarian companion, a Caprese panino (fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil, salt and pepper). Although suffering slightly from out-of-season tomatoes (our fault, obviously, for ordering it in winter), the Caprese was nicely seasoned with salt and pepper — a small but crucial detail. Many of the sandwiches are available in a half or whole portion, something we appreciated since we wanted to allot room for soup and dessert. Chili is always on the menu, and although we didn't try the regular chili, an elderly gentleman who is a regular of the restaurant proclaimed it to be the best he's ever had, anywhere. I opted for a white chicken chili on one visit; it was a solid, standard version with white beans, chunks of chicken, and a few green chilies (more would not have been amiss). My dining companion was disappointed at the lack of a vegetarian soup choice, although we were eating around 2 p.m. and it appeared the other soups had sold out. Overall, however, he was pleased with the variety of vegetarian and vegan menu options, such as a Hummer — hummus, taboulleh, cucumbers, lettuce and tomato wrapped in lavash.
Back on the meaty side of things, another friend and I tried a chicken salad wrap with bacon and a roast beef panino with Swiss and American cheeses, Russian dressing and sautéed onions. The roast beef was, hands down, the favorite sandwich of everything we sampled. If you're a fan of onions, look no further than this. The salty cheese, sweet onions and tangy Russian dressing melded with the roast beef and crispy exterior into pure sandwich bliss. The chicken salad wrap was, like most of the sandwiches, warmed in the panini press; a nice touch. However, the chicken salad itself was a bit strange, tasting predominantly of sweet pickle relish, and the bacon was anemic. A bottle of Tabasco sauce on the table came in handy more than once, as we used it to counteract the sweetness of the chicken salad and to liven up a bland black bean and rice soup.
If you save room for dessert, stick to the made-from-scratch items (just ask which are which) or the Ray's ice cream. Despite the word "bakery" in the business name, some items are not made in-house, and others, such as a chocolate chip cookie we tried, are baked on premise but taste suspiciously as if made from a pre-fab purchased dough. In contrast, the coconut cream pie we tried was outstanding, with an intense coconut flavor and a light meringue topping that rendered us unable to utter anything but "this is so good" as we devoured it. It's also worth noting that the coffee is particularly good for a place that doesn't bill itself as a coffee shop. There are no fancy espresso-based drinks, but who needs them when the brewed stuff is top-notch?
Most of the areas in which Frank Street Bakery could improve are related to its size (the prep and cook areas are minuscule) and the fact that two people are attempting to cover a lot of ground. However, there are more than enough good things going on here to recommend the place. They have their own parking (practically unheard-of in downtown Birmingham), the prices are right, and the cozy, friendly neighborhood atmosphere and warm enthusiasm of the owners makes the food taste that much better.
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