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Image: Thomas Cobb

What’s been hailed as the worst restaurant economy in decades hasn’t tempered the spirits of Portland’s innovative gastronomists. With restaurants increasingly seen as shaky ventures compared to, say, Dollar Stores, some of the city’s most talented chefs have tossed aside their white coats and fancy kitchens to tinker with the lowly sandwich in the culinary equivalent of the tree house. But these craftsmen aren’t settling; they’re raising the standard of the sandwich—and saving dough in the process.

Since last fall, five sandwich shops with chefs at the helm have popped up in Portland, garnering the city a national reputation among the foodie set as a sandwich-lover’s paradise—one that’s already been extolled in the pages of GQ, Food & Wine, and the New York Times. Chef John Stewart (formerly a line cook at Park Kitchen) opened his Southeast Portland establishment Meat Cheese Bread in September 2008. Two months later, Tommy Habetz, formerly executive chef at Gotham Tavern, and his partner, Nick Wood (of Meriwether’s and Pok Pok), followed suit with Bunk Sandwiches, just a few blocks away.

What these Portland chefs call a "sandwich" transcends the merely mortal realm of cold cuts. Bunk Sandwiches, for instance, elevates the standard lunch staple with exceptional combinations like milk-braised pork and pickled green tomatoes served in po’ boy form, or a Spanish-influenced salt-cod sandwich, complete with black olives and house-made chorizo on a ciabatta roll.

But there’s much more fueling Portland’s current love affair with sandwich shops than a penchant for reinvention. While the Rose City remains one of the country’s hottest food towns, the credit crunch has rendered start-up capital for restaurant projects scarce. "A restaurant kitchen alone can cost an operator up to $250,000‚" says veteran restaurateur David Machado, who has debuted seven Portland eateries (including Lauro, Vindalho, and, most recently, Nel Centro at the Hotel Modera).

Sandwich shops, on the other hand, require far less equipment."Opening a sandwich shop instead of a full-scale restaurant saved me at least $100,000," says Stewart. Savoring the layers of sweet roasted beets, crispy Nueske’s bacon, and tangy aioli on sourdough that make up Meat Cheese Bread’s signature sandwich, the BLB, one hardly notices that the kitchen it came from is the size of a closet.

Stewart isn’t the only chef trying to minimize the financial gamble on a restaurant. Last summer, when the bank loan for his planned Italian restaurant didn’t come through, Habetz—a former chef to Mario Batali and mentor to Le Pigeon’s Gabriel Rucker—briefly considered opening a food cart before deciding there were better ways to spend a Portland winter than shivering in a six-foot-by-eight-foot trailer. Wanting to do the most he could with as small a budget as possible, he and Wood spent nearly a month in early fall renovating a shabby storefront on SE Morrison Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues with spare equipment—countertop electric burners, a small convection-style oven, and a sandwich press. Today, scores of hungry patrons queue up at Bunk Sandwiches for half a block to get their sandwich fix; on a good day, the shop sells as many as two hundred sandwiches.

Even established PDX pastrami kingpins Ken Gordon (Kenny) and Nick Zukin (Zuke) of Kenny & Zuke’s Delicatessen had to reconsider recent plans for a second full-scale operation after an investor backed out. "We wanted to make sure we had enough in cash reserves in case things got tough," Zukin says. So they nixed plans for an expensive kitchen ventilation system (needed to prepare fries) and opened a modest, minimally equipped alternative that would specialize in what they do best: sandwiches. The result has become one of Northwest Portland’s hottest lunch spots: Kenny & Zuke’s SandwichWorks, where such classic standbys as the pastrami Reuben are served alongside new favorites like a black bean, chorizo, and roasted-pork torta.

Despite the success of the local sandwich shop, the recent boom was born out of necessity more than a desire to expand Portland’s culinary frontiers. "We weren’t trying to start a trend‚" Habetz says while adding a thin slice of ham to his now-legendary Pork Belly Cubano sandwich. "It was all about the Benjamins."