Sandwich lovers (so, pretty much everyone) rejoiced when chef and co-owners John Bates and Brandon Martinez announced the second, central location of their famed shop, Noble Sandwich Co. Adding to the growing food boom on Burnet, the new location at 4805 Burnet Road is reportedly set to open in March.
Eater spoke with Bates about the new project, its expanded menu and why sandwiches have been his key to happiness and a healthy family life.
What are some of the new things about this space you're most excited about?
Being a lunch place, take out is really important to us. We get a lot of takeout business, so we're creating a separate takeout area for guests to come to.
One of the problems we have at the current spot is that we get really busy, and people get really intimidated by the line. Do they have to come to the front to get their food? Or, if they call in, do they have to stand in line for 20 minutes just to get their food?
With this, we're able to address that problem because we'll have an area just dedicated to take out orders. We're setting up an online ordering system also, so people can look at the menu online, order, pay and then be in and out of the restaurant in 30 seconds just to pick up their food.
What about the menu? Any expansions there?
The biggest changes to start will be to the breakfast menu. We're increasing the lunch menu by a few items. The other thing we'll be looking at a lot is growing our deli takeout and selection of charcuterie, sausages and terrines.
I think breakfast is a big opportunity. It's a great location for breakfast. There are some people doing good breakfasts in town, but I don't think they're very adventurous or very culinary forward.
What will the new breakfast menu be like?
We'll be doing a whole new take on waffles. So, we're doing a sesame waffle with roasted apples and ginger syrup. We'll be doing a potato and leek waffle with braised oxtail. We're going to be doing variations on grits served in bowls with cheese folded in. Some served with ham hocks, and some that will be strictly vegetarian. Maybe just straight grits with a fried egg on top.
Also some nice, lighter options on the menu as well. People think about ambrosia, and they think about fruit salad that's kind of mushy. Well, if you look at it from a new point of view and take that same fresh fruit, top it with some lightly sweetened whipped cream and put some shaved coconut on it, now you have this fresh, lively fruit salad that we'll pair with poppy seed waffles.
That's the approach we're taking with breakfast to start. Then we'll allow it to evolve and grow with the customers. Because they kind of decide what we do anyway.
If a sandwich is successful, it starts out as a special, and if it gets good feedback, then it can eventually transition to the regular menu side.
How often does that happen?
I'd say three or four of the sandwiches started out as specials. One of our signature items, the beef tongue sandwich is one. That started out as a special, and we ran it a few times. We'd get people calling in and asking for it.
This was way before all the press over it. Brandon and I wanted to play with the types of food we like to eat… off cuts and tripas, and we thought, let's just see how the beef tongue does. And it just kind of took off from there. It became one of our top sellers.
Then Adam Richman came in and did the show on it, and there were tons of blogs.
It was good timing. Austin has a pretty adventurous palate now. People seem to be ready for the off cuts.
Yes, you see a lot of restaurants with beef tongue now. I think the next thing you'll keep seeing more of is oxtail because it comes across like braised short ribs. It's like the poor man's short ribs. You see it a lot in Latin America, and there's just something about some of those cuts we don't see as often that is just so good. You just have to give people a chance to try them.
Any other favorite cuts you want to add?
I'd like to look at pork tongue. Beef tongue started out as being really cheap, but now it's more expensive to get. That's the way it goes. Something is really cheap. Then suddenly everyone loves it, and the price goes up.
We'll keep playing with off cuts and offal. I'd like to do a play on a Jewish-style chopped liver sandwich. We've got great farms around here. I mean why couldn't we do like a venison chopped liver sandwich?
What else do people need to know about Noble? Any sandwich secrets or lesser-known items?
We're trying to spread the word about some of the stuff we offer at the 620 location that is not on the menu, but we feel like it's good for people to know. We do a lot of salads right now. People who are gluten intolerant or want to do a starch-free diet can order salads, and we carry gluten-free bread as well. We really want to get the word out about the special things that we'll do and the extra effort we'll go to make sure everyone is accommodated at the restaurant. We don't really have room on the menu to cover everything we'll do, so we just want people to know by word of mouth.
But with this new space, we'll have a bigger menu format and a bigger kitchen to be able to really tell the story about how we do salads, lettuce wraps and gluten-free bread…how we can do vegetarian and some of the lighter options we can do.
We're really flexible. It's a sandwich shop, but it's a very inclusive format, especially since we make it all from scratch. So if you want a plain turkey sandwich, we're going to give you the best plain turkey sandwich you've ever had. It may not be on the menu, but we're always happy to do it. That's what some people don't realize with how the restaurant is right now, but we want to share that with people as we grow.
Speaking of all the things you guys do, are you planning any more dinner series?
Yes, Brandon is playing with the idea of taking over the dinner series up on 620, but if he doesn't, I may bring it here. We have such a loyal following on 620 that we don't want to stop doing what we do out there. It'll continue. It may be from here or there sometimes. It'll probably travel back and forth.
Those are a lot of fun. I love the dinners. They're a way for me to cook the kind of food that I did prior to opening this restaurant that I get really excited about, but I don't have to give up this wonderful lifestyle I have now.
Yes, it probably is really nice not being open for dinner. You guys are smart.
It's so cool. I get to actually see my wife and have dinner with my family every night now. It's great. We get to have our cake and eat it too. When we opened the restaurant, me and my wife were trying to find a better lifestyle for me. She met me in the restaurants and put up with all my shenanigans for the last basically 15 years, and my kids are getting older. They're 15 and 11. They needed…I think we needed to give them a stronger family unit, especially in the evenings. Because I wasn't seeing them.
But doing a breakfast and lunch place has been fantastic. It lets me do what I do. Do it well. But I still get to spend my nights with my family, which is really important.
Was that one of the major impetuses behind this concept then?
That's exactly why this concept is what it is. I was at a point when I was thinking about how can I continue to do what I love and spend time with the people I love. That was one of the starting points when I was trying to figure out, how can I have it all? How can I see them but feel like I'm doing something I'm really proud of? Because I've spent so many years trying to figure out how to become a chef and to become a restaurateur, I didn't want to just give it all up.
So I came to my wife and was like, "You know what? I'm going to open up a sandwich shop. I could do it really well. The city needs a good sandwich shop."
I can do breakfast and lunch, and then I can go home and see the kids, spend time with my wife. Something I was really not able to do. The only time I ever saw my kids prior to opening up this restaurant was in the summertime. I'd have free time in the mornings, but they're at school. They get home in the afternoons, and then I'd go work at a restaurant.
That was one of the driving forces. We were eating at a sandwich shop, and I thought, gosh, I could really do this.
You spent some time in Portland too, right? How did you end up back in Texas?
I worked in Portland for about four years. My long-term goals were always to open a restaurant, but we didn't want to be so far away from extended family. Austin was always a place we wanted to extend roots.
Prior to opening the sandwich shop, I was at Wink. I was running Asti for a while. Mark Paul was really good to work with when I first got here because Wink was probably one of the first restaurants that was doing local, sustainable, was creating a menu that was very intimate and of the region. You felt like it belonged here. Working with him was also really good because they're consummate professionals when it comes to running a restaurant. They're big picture restaurateurs. They're not just chef. Not just restaurateurs. They're the whole package. That was the first step in learning how to run a restaurant – not just how to run the kitchen but how to run the whole restaurant.
I learned a lot of that from those guys.
How has it been working with Brandon, especially given how long you've known each other? What are your roles?
We had dual roles when we first opened. We called ourselves chefs and co-owners. What it really was – we were cooks, dish washers, bus boys, accountants, general managers, counter helpers, servers, construction guys, design people.
I mean, when we opened up we were actually a terrible example of how to open up a restaurant. We had no money. No people. And no time to get it all done. So, we wore all those hats.
As we grew and were able to separate a little bit, Brandon continued to kind of manage more of the kitchen, and I've always kind of managed the front of the house. We always coordinate on food and front of the house issues as a team though.
Now that we've grown to this point, Brandon has taken over what is essentially the general manager position at the 620 location, and here I'll be doing the same thing. We both still have active roles in the kitchen, coming up with specials, looking over the food, the prep schedule, but as you grow, you know, you can't do everything….or at least, you can't do everything well.
You have to start letting the people you train that are really good at what they do to come into the restaurant and become bigger parts of the restaurant. That's really cool about what we're doing right now. This expansion is allowing us to give back to the employees that have helped us be so successful.
Guys that were our prep cooks are now in charge of the kitchen at 620. People that came on as basically interns from Le Cordon Bleu are now going to be helping me run this kitchen and the front of the house here.
We're finally at that point that we can give back to the people that have given to us. It's cool.
It's hard in this business. Every restaurant is the same way. It's a tough job. You're working for somebody else. The pay is not that great across the board. And the only way you get to a better pay grade is to grow into a business, and I had a few people that did that to me when I was a young cook, and I feel like it's my responsibly now that I'm a restaurateur to give those opportunities because I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for people giving me a chance.
We really believe that. You got to give back to those guys. Or they're just going to leave…go work for someone else or open their own place. Just jet. And it's hard to see people you've worked so hard to grow and teach and educate take their skills somewhere else because you don't give them the chance to grow.
What's up with the Dr. Pepper sign? What was the history of this building?
This place is probably from the 40s or 50s. It was originally a supermarket called Sunshine Market. Then it became a place called Sam's Market, so there's actually legitimate food history here as far as I'm concerned. It's always been a place that people have come to for food and nourishment. A place to get what they need.
When we came in here, it was all sectioned off and they had all the modern finishes. There was a drop ceiling in here. At some point there was carpeted floor over here. When we came in and started getting rid of all that stuff, they found the original wood ceilings. Original wood floors. So what we have now dates back to when this place was first a market, a grocery.
The outside had been covered up with some nice metal siding. When they started cleaning up the outside, they found the old Dr. Pepper sign. It's probably from the 1940s. It's hand-painted on plaster. I didn't know it had been uncovered, and all of a sudden I started getting pictures, emails, text messages on my phone from people I didn't even know had my number. They were like "you have to go save this sign!" I didn't even know it was in peril…or even there at the time.
I said, "Yeah, of course. It's a great sign. Why would we get rid of it?"
We've had it patched by someone who does restoration. We've contracted a local artist who does vintage signs who is going to come in and match the color and hand paint it all back with the original paint you would have used for this type of sign. When it's all said and done, it's going to have that faded old-school look but feel complete again.
Austin loves this stuff. If I had torn down that sign, I would have caught such hell.
But at least Austin cares. You go to Houston or Dallas – nothing wrong about those cities – but a lot of what was old about those cities has been torn down. At least Austin cares about preserving something. It may not be super old, but we care.
It's a very active neighborhood association around here too. They're very involved in the kinds of businesses that go here. We're bringing an Austin feel and flavor to this area with this place. I think it's important that this strip represent homegrown businesses instead of McDonald's and Starbucks and Taco Bells.