Douglas Leong had lived in the Bay Area for over twenty years and never once found an Italian hero that could rival the sandwiches he grew up eating in New York City. But for years he'd been cooking East Coast-style Italian-American food for his two teenage daughters and their friends, at home and for various potluck events, always with rave results. Leong started thinking that if he really wanted that elusive hero, maybe he'd have to take matters into his own hands.
He said to himself, "Shit, everyone likes my cooking. Why don't I just do it?"
So Leong got a few investors together and opened Uncle Dougie's New York Style Italian Heroes in Oakland's up-and-coming Uptown neighborhood. As it turns out, the unpretentious little sandwich shop is part of a growing trend here in the East Bay: After years of local chefs "reinterpreting" East Coast classics, using seasonal ingredients and applying a more upscale, Cal-cuisine sensibility, a number of transplanted East Coasters have started serving the real-deal, straight-up, down-and-dirty comfort foods of their childhoods — much to the delight of nostalgic ex-New Yorkers and former Philadelphians, who until recently had to fly home to get their hands on a decent eggplant parmesan sandwich or an Italian ice or a stromboli.
So, what is a hero, anyway?
New England has its grinders, Philadelphia has its hoagies, and New Jersey (to say nothing of a certain rapidly expanding fast food mega-chain) has its subs. They're all vaguely Italian-tasting sandwiches served on a split oblong roll — "hero" just happens to be the name used in New York. (An article posted on the wall at Uncle Dougie's explains that the term dates back to 1930s Italian laborers in New York — supposedly the name came from the idea that the sandwich was so big you had to be a "hero" to finish eating it, but that part might be apocryphal.)
A basic Italian sandwich might come with cold cuts and cheeses, but Uncle Dougie's only serves hot sandwiches, at $6.50 apiece: Italian meatloaf, sausage and peppers, chicken parmesan, and eggplant parmesan — each doused with a big scoop of homemade tomato sauce. Any self-respecting New York pizzeria probably sells these four sandwiches, with the only exception being the meatloaf, which Leong serves instead of the more traditional meatball hero because he finds the meat fits into the sandwich better that way.
The keys to an authentic hero, Leong says, are the bread and the sauce, and the main thing with the bread is that it has to be soft. Here in California there's a tendency to use artisan baguettes and such — breads with a hard, crackly crust.
"Put it this way," Leong said. "East Coast people say to me, 'When they make sandwiches here, that stuff cuts your gums when you bite into it.'"
Leong's bread is custom-baked for him by the Italian French Baking Co. in San Francisco. It comes in wide two-foot-long loaves — soft, but with enough heft to soak up plenty of tomato sauce without falling apart. Definitely not sourdough, Leong is quick to point out: "My friends in New York would be like, 'You're serving it on what?'"
As far as the sauce, Leong says the main difference is that on the East Coast, tomato sauces tend to be sweeter, a product of the ingredients and the cooking technique (rather than the addition of sugar). He explained, "As you start going west, the sauce starts getting tangier and tangier" — and it's that overly acidic taste that New York transplants find particularly off-putting.
By all outward appearances, Leong — a wiry middle-age Chinese American with flamboyant red-dyed hair — seems like an unlikely ambassador for old-school Italian-American food. But when the guy opens his mouth, the accent is pure New York, his speech dotted with "wiseguys" and "hey, mans."
Growing up near the border between Chinatown and Little Italy, Leong was schooled in the finer points of chopped garlic and marinara from an early age by his Italian-American "uncle," Jerry Longabardi, a close family friend who used to cook home-style Italian dishes whenever he'd come over.
"I took a liking to pasta actually more than I did to rice," Leong said.
He says he must have been thirteen or fourteen years old when he started asking Longabardi to teach him how to cook. Leong would follow his uncle around in the kitchen, picking up techniques, learning recipes — more or less the same ones he uses at Uncle Dougie's today.
Leong would be the first to admit that his food isn't refined or fussy; in fact, this is a point of pride. He doesn't use organic chicken ("growing up in New York ... shit, chicken was chicken"); he doesn't use buzzwords like "sustainable" or "green."
But there is an honesty to the food. Each morning you'll find Leong in the kitchen grilling sausages on the flat-top or frying chicken cutlets. He makes big batches of tomato sauce from scratch every week, using his Uncle Jerry's secret recipe. He roasts his peppers himself; nothing comes out of a can or jar. And the bread comes in fresh every morning — Leong only buys as much as he can use in one day.
The taste? Classic East Coast. Which is to say that it tastes like what someone's Italian-American grandma might whip up. The meatloaf is juicy and moist. The bread is wonderful, toasted until it has a slight crunch to it, but definitely soft — nothing that's going to cut up your mouth — with a pleasant chew. The sauce is thin but with a nice, understated sweetness to it.