I'd known about AJ's for a while (kinda hard to miss them when there are three other places I eat in about a two block radius), but it was a co-worker's endorsement that finally convinced me to try it. I had to try the hot Italian Sub, he said. I asked him if it was amazingly good or something, and his reply was that it's "different". A slave to my own morbid curiosity, I ended up at AJ's before the week was out.
The atmosphere is very diner/cafeteria style. Some small effort has been made toward putting up a few homey touches, but the end result is still pretty spartan. Still, it is very clean, and the proprietor is a really nice guy. It's easy to pick him out, he's the only person who works there and he looks a little like Sid Haig's healthier, better-groomed brother. Following my co-worker's advice, I ordered the Italian Sub, hot (the majority of the sandwiches are available either hot or cold), with pasta salad as the side.
|Hot Italian Sub with pasta salad|
All of AJ's hot sandwiches are served on garlic bread, which is a good thing. The pasta salad was probably the most interesting example of its ilk than I have ever encountered before. There was spiral pasta, shredded lettuce, garbanzo beans, broccoli, celery, and red pepper. The dressing itself tasted VERY strongly of vinegar, as in it was a little strong even for me, and I love vinegar. My co-worker advised me that it's not always that intense though. The pickle spear was pretty typical. Not so typical were the pickled peppers that have been included with every order I've gotten from AJ's, that are somehow literally filled with vinegar that floods your mouth when you bite into them, so be careful. Now, about that sandwich...
|Inside the hot Italian Sub|
The bread is garlic bread, as I mentioned previously. The fillings are salami, turkey, ham, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, mustard, mayo, and some kind of sauce that I haven't been able to get much detail about other than that "there is a little garlic in it". Is the end result particularly "Italian"? That's arguable. Is it delicious? Most definitely. The fact that it sounds so odd may be the reason why the components aren't described on the menu, but trust me when I say it all works.
On my next visit, I decided to try one of the small selection of pita sandwiches: vegetarian, chicken kabob, and beef kabob. Go ahead, guess which one I picked. The same co-worker had previously said I should try the chili, a non-menu item, should the chance present itself. It was an unseasonably cold day, so I figured what the hell. Unfortunately, AJ told me that chili wasn't available that day, that he reserves it and soups for Autumn and Winter. Here is what followed next in the conversation, as verbatim as I remember it. AJ said...
"I do have some beans."
"So, you're saying you could whip up some chili?"
"No, but I can heat up the beans."
"That's alright, I'm not really fond of just eating beans."
"I can heat them up, it will only take a minute."
"No, really, I just asked about the chili because it's a little cold out today. It's not a big deal."
"The beans are really good, lots of Mediterranean seasoning."
"Do you want me to heat some up for you?"
"Sure, why not."
So yeah, I let myself be sold on the beans, even though I didn't really want them. I'm just not a fan of a side of beans, be it with barbecue or Mexican food. I also thought that I was being overcharged a bit, until he handed my my bag and I found a 16 oz container of beans inside. "Stir them up first," AJ said, "there is olive oil at the top."
|Mediterranean Bean Soup...or something.|
I have to say, the guy was right. These things were really good, reminiscent more of a thick bean soup than of beans as a side dish. The flavors were intense and balanced, with just a little bit of heat at the back end that built as I continued eating. I ended up finishing my "side" before I even opened the sandwich box, only to find out that I had bitten off more than I could chew this time. Hey, is that even considered a pun in this context?
|Beef Kabob pita sandwich with macaroni salad|
The constituents of the Beef Kabob pita sandwich are basically what you'd expect to find in a gyro: meat, feta cheese, onion, tomato, lettuce, a little sauce, and of course pita bread. As I said, though, AJ's consistently defies expectation. The meat here is Angus beef, no lamb. The sandwich is dressed with ranch rather than tzatziki, and instead of the bread being folded like a taco shell, the pita is stuffed with the sandwich filling. The biggest difference is with the vegetables, which are all chopped up and seasoned into "Mediterranean relish". Eating this was so bizarre. I looked at the ingredients, I smelled them, my mind said "gyro", but this didn't have the flavor or texture of a gyro. The ranch dressing was very lightly applied, so what really came through more was the flavors of the beef, the herbs and the veggies. I was finally getting used to this sandwich when I hit the wall (like I said, that was a big serving of beans), and I had to save half of my sandwich for dinner, when I thoroughly enjoyed it. The macaroni salad I'd chosen for my side wasn't quite as unusual as the pasta salad I had on my first visit. If you're looking for a more conventional deli salad as a side dish, this one is probably the way to go.
I wasn't feeling particularly hungry on my last visit, so I figured it would be a good time to try the one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb on the "extras" section of the menu. Amidst the normal deli fare like the salads, chips and cookies is garlic bread and meat sauce, and it costs two dollars more than any of the other appetizers/side items. I ordered it expecting to get a container of meat sauce and a small stack of sliced garlic bread, though I was anticipating slightly different seasoning than you would get at an Italian place. And even though I was just there for a snack, AJ talked me into getting a side of potato salad. I really need to learn how to stand up to that guy. He asked if I wanted cheese melted on top. I wondered if he meant on top of the bread, the sauce, or both, and finally decided it didn't really matter.
|Garlic Bread and Meat Sauce with potato salad|
And what you see above is what I got. Yes, once again my expectations were a bit off base. The potato salad seemed to have more of an olive oil than a mayo base, and the dill was a nice touch. Overall a solid potato salad, but still not quite on the level with the pasta salad. As far as the bread and "sauce" goes, the sauce was more of a spread or a meat paste, the seasoning again very Mediterranean and a little spicy, while the cheese was very domestic. There was definitely some tomato involved, but this was about the exact opposite of what I think of as a meat sauce (i.e. a tomato sauce with meat in it). It was a good dish and I'm glad I tried it, but I don't think it's quite as good a value for the money as some of the sandwiches are.
Whatever you decide to try if you go to AJ's, you basically can't go wrong. This is yet another niche place run with a pretty unique and singular vision, something I'm finding surprisingly often in Nampa, and is quickly becoming a favorite of mine.
Food: Some pretty unique twists on some very standard deli items. I suspect his cold sandwiches might be more straightforward, but who knows? I've been wrong so far.
Value: The sandwiches are a better buy than the sides, but luckily the sandwiches come with a side, or if you want to save even more money you can get the lunch special with chips and a soda in place of the side.
Service: AJ is a friendly, no-nonsense kind of a guy, a kitchen staff of one and damn good at it.
Atmosphere: If you're talking to AJ, it's interesting, otherwise it's cafeteria all the way.
Final Grade: A