(A friend of mine contacted me yesterday looking for this piece — it came from a brief attempt at a car-and-food-review site that I operated with the girlfriend of a friend during 2015. I thought the woman in question was a talented, creative person, and I was right. However, I didn’t realize that she was a bit of a head case who would end up leaving my friend for a nonbinary-looking fellow in his fifties who works in the art department of Abercrombie&Fitch. It goes to show you never can tell. Anyway, enjoy this review. I’ll bring a few more back in the weeks to come — JB).
“FOUNDED BY FIREMEN.” The first time I ever walked in a Firehouse Subs, which was during a break in an SCCA Solo National event outside Atlanta or possibly Topeka, I thought I was about to be the subject of some televised prank show. How, exactly, is fireman-founding any recommendation whatsoever? Is it because professional firemen mostly sit around and do nothing all day, thus making them eminently qualified to ascertain the finer points of sub-sandwich excellence? Perhaps it’s just the fact that they are celebrated members of the blue-collar community — but if you saw a restaurant called “PLUMBERVAN SUBS” with the banner “FOUNDED BY PIPEFITTERS” above the front door, would you feel that they were putting their best foot forwards there?
I can see the possibilities in a police-founded donut shop, maybe. In much the same way that Judas Priest hired a fan to temporarily replace Rob Halford, I can see elevating a member of the Fat Blue Line from donut connoisseur to purveyor. Firemen and submarine sandwiches, though? Probably not — although if I had not become thoroughly familiar with Firehouse Subs, I wouldn’t have been able to effectively impersonate a fireman at a Pat Metheny concert.
Now, as they say on the radio, it can be told. It was a long time ago, (May 12, 2010, at Cincinnati’s Taft Theater — JB) and I’d managed to convince one of my favorite married female friends to join me for a fifth-row performance of Metheny’s “Orchestrion”. Some part of me will miss this woman until the day I’m dead. She was thoroughly, delightfully wicked, and she possessed an erotic imagination that would shame any of the courtesans found among the pages of the Arabian Nights. She also liked to live dangerously, to put it mildly.
As we settled into our seats in the gorgeous old theater, a fifty-something couple leaned across me to get my companion’s attention. “Hey, (REDACTED)!”
“Oh my gosh, our old neighbors!” Then, without a moment’s pause, she said, indicating me, “And this is (REDACTED), my brother-in-law.”
“The fireman?” they inquired, taking a very long look at my shoulder-length hair and Brioni sportcoat.
“THE VERY SAME!” I boomed in reply. Sometimes there’s no time to ponder the issue. It was 7:48pm. Metheny was expected to start promptly at eight.
“So,” the wife of the couple inquired, after a few generic pleasantries, “how long have you been a fireman?”
“Um…” sneaking a look backwards to see how many fingers my friend might be holding up, and completely unable to see them in the lowering light, “…twelve years. Yes, twelve years, down at the old station house every day… sliding down that pole… with the Dalmatian assigned to our station, old Spot.”
“Spot? The Dalmatian?” Fuck. Maybe that was just in movies.
“Well, he was more of a Dalmatian mix. I rescued him myself, from a burning building. I’ll tell you the story. There I was… uh, enjoying an Italian sub with some chips… as I recall, there were three kinds of meat in the sub.” It was 7:59. At any moment, Metheny himself would appear to rescue me. “We got the call that the old warehouse was on fire,” I continued. “We arrived in the hook and ladder truck.”
“Do you steer the back?” the man asked.
“Uh, absolutely,” I confirmed. “It’s not as easy as you might think. Anyway, when we got there it was clear that the old building was a goner.”
“There was a warehouse fire in our neighborhood?” the wife asked. “I didn’t even think there was an old warehouse around here.”
“Well, not any more, not after this four-alarm humdinger… uh, so I looked up and saw this Dalmatian in the fourth-floor window, just yelping his head off. It looked like he was about to be overcome by the smoke.” My companion had her head in her hands. “So I ran in there, you know, wearing some breathing equipment that, uh, had been provided free of charge by a local sub shop, founded by firemen, just like me.”
“You rescued the dog?” the couple asked, even though I’d already told these idiots that Spot lived safe and sound at the station.
“Yes, and as I was running out, with Spot cradled in my arms, there was a mighty explosion that threw us both to the ground. A bunch of beams were collapsing. Lucky we made it out, and that’s when I knew Spot would have to live with us at the station. But then…” and I have to admit, I’d had four or five or possibly seven shots of Ketel One at dinner before the show, “…I saw a child waving for help in the sixth-floor window.”
“We had a six-floor warehouse in (NAME OF ONE-SQUARE-MILE CINCINNATI SUBURB)?”
“Not, as I believe I’d said, any more. She was blonde. Maybe eight years old. Clutching her doll. ‘Don’t go back in that hellhole!’ my captain said, but I fought free and ran for the doorway one last time, with only the light of the fire and the moon to guide me.”
“Why,” the man said, “was there a child in the warehouse, at night?”
“Did I say warehouse? I meant workhouse. You know, it was the old Miller place, where the orphans lived. Just then… I realized that we were, um, about to have, uh, what firefighters such as myself call a ‘backdraft’… oh, look, Metheny’s walking on stage!” And from then on, ladies and gentlemen, it was truly a night to remember.
Firehouse Subs, like Jersey Mike’s and Jimmy John’s, occupies that slightly uneasy perch directly above Subway in the deli-meat-fast-food hierarchy. Think of them as Oldsmobile to Subway’s Chevrolet and Jimmy John’s Pontiac. The bread is thick and fluffy. The entire sub is steamed if you’d like a hot sub, which makes it hot but soggy. Sides are limited to a variety of bagged chips. I always get the medium Italian on white. Every Firehouse I’ve seen has a Coke Freestyle machine.
I’m told that the meatball subs are very solid. Even my son, who is a bit of a picky eater, will make his way through the meatball sub. However, I’ve also been told by various companions at Firehouse that, although the meat is clearly of a higher grade than the stuff you get at Subway, the vegetables aren’t much better, if at all. Be aware, in addition, that the meat portions in all the sandwiches are remarkably light. I don’t think that the eight-inch Firehouse medium has any more meat or cheese by weight than a Subway six-inch.
At about nine bucks out the door for most combos, Firehouse is only slightly more expensive than Subway and it tastes much more like food and less like plastic. In the months to come, I’ll be explaining my Personal Hierarchy of Sub Shops, but for now, let’s just say that Firehouse is in the upper third.
Firehouse Subs: Recommended, but don’t expect to see any firemen, or Dalmatians.