For its many well-regarded restaurants, downtown Anchorage has its weaknesses.
Prices and hours at some of these places can vary due to tourist season, many of the better options are sit-down affairs, and after 11 p.m. on a Friday or Saturday, your options cull to the point that $7 can seem reasonable for a street hot dog.
Brynn and Antoine McLeod hope to fill some of those gaps with Brown Bag Sandwich Co., a self-described "sandwich pub" in the red-brick building across from Cyrano's.
The McLeods were inspired by places they'd dined at during a few years living in the Lower 48. The concept would be quick, affordable food and beer in a fun atmosphere with convenient hours.
"I really wanted a place with a fresh, high-quality food that you can grab quickly," said Brynn, who worked downtown the last few years as a bartender and server and found quick meals hard to come by. "You don't have to wait to be seated, wait for a server, wait your food and then to cash out."
Curing late night cravings was another goal, so Brown Bag keeps its doors open until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
"There's only a handful of places downtown that are open late night on the weekends," Brynn said. "Our proximity to Fourth Avenue and having beer on draft, it just kind of made sense. It's another thing we saw other places and were like 'We want that here, too.' "
Brynn, who took the reins on the food side, wanted to have the best ingredients possible for the shop's sandwiches. As such, all of the meats and cheeses Brown Bag uses are Boar's Head and the shop's bread is delivered fresh daily by Europa Bakery.
Meanwhile, Antoine, 28, who Brynn said is outgoing and "can really throw a party," took charge of the marketing and business side.
"A lot of our experience comes from eating," Brynn, 25, said with a laugh. "We yin and yanged it to make it work."
Along with a selection of sandwiches ($9), soups ($2 cup/ $6 bowl) and salads ($5), Brown Bag offers eight beers from Talkeetna's Denali Brewing Company on tap for $4 a pint or $12 a pitcher. Hipster-approved Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys are also available for $3.
McLeod said that even though there isn't a vegetarian choice among Brown Bag's 10 sandwich creations, the shop welcomes any variation on the ingredients at no additional charge, especially on the build-your-own option.
"People come in and say 'I want to eat a Greek Chicken but without chicken and extra cucumbers and add roasted red peppers and maybe throw on some avocado and cheddar.' And we'll gladly do that," she said. "You can get every cheese, if you want, every sauce, every meat, every single veggie including avocado and it's all going to be $9 across the board."
Inside, Brown Bag has an industrial feel (exposed pipes and ventilation ducts) with a rustic-meets-modern decor. In a twist of possibly genius marketing, two vintage arcade games, Neo Geo's Aero Fighters and the classic NBA Jam, sit off to the side.
"We'll get grown men in there being like, 'Is that NBA Jam in the corner?' And then they'll ask for quarters and we say 'Oh no, it's free,' " she said. "They're like 'Oh my god!' and lose their minds over it."
Late on a Friday night to see some friends' band at the Avenue Bar, a buddy and I stopped by a busy Brown Bag to split a sandwich on the go. The hot Chicken Caprese was the perfect elixir for a cool walk. In a nice touch, they split the sandwich without asking, handing us two apropos brown bags with kettle chips and a pickle spear for each of us.
The sandwich was an ideal blend of rustic Italian flavors: Thin-cut chicken breast, gooey mozzarella, tomato slices, basil pesto and a touch of balsamic vinegar sat between grilled rosemary bread. My sometimes picky friend was hooked and I was equally impressed.
I returned with my girlfriend the next week for lunch. The shop was bustling, but it didn't take long to order and have our food brought to our table, including complimentary chocolate chip cookies.
My Day-After Thanksgiving sandwich was simple yet satisfying: thin-sliced turkey breast, havarti and cranberry sauce on multi-grain. The cranberry sauce had a welcome hint of allspice, but on a return trip I would add some cucumber and spinach to spruce it up. Her hot Turkey Pesto was a hit with both of us: turkey, provolone, chopped red onion, roasted red pep pers and pesto pressed between more of the rosemary bread. The only letdown was our cup of minestrone; compared to everything else it seemed a bit bland.
On my final trip, an NBA Jam-loving friend and I ventured out on a Saturday evening to grab a late dinner and flashback to our middle school years. We split a Spicy Yeti and a bowl of tomato basil soup, along with a few tall boys. After ordering, we battled on the sticks and our meal came out promptly, again split ahead of time for us.
The Spicy Yeti packs a punch for your taste buds: turkey breast accompanied by havarti, jalapeno jack, sliced jalapenos, habanero hot sauce and a spicy three-pepper sauce in between grilled marble rye. My buddy, who loves all things spicy, was not let down. The tangy tomato basil soup was nice complement.
The only downer was my performance with the sans-Charles Barkley Phoenix Suns, who fell to my buddy's rough-and-tumble New York Knicks squad.
As for Brown Bag's performance: Sandwiches? A slam dunk. Beer prices? A steal. Ambiance? A roar from the crowd. Customer service? A game-winning free throw.
By Barry Piser
Anchorage Daily News