The Mathematics of Sandwiches: Stove & Tap Reviewed
On a Sunday night, Stove & Tap is busy. Not full, but I’m not really sure there would ever be enough people dining out in Lansdale on any given night to fill the place completely, what with two floors, outdoor tables, multiple bars and an upstairs patio. It’s big, loud, hot, polished, beautiful, and there’s a bear—a taxidermied brown bear in the front window, standing on its hind legs with a sign asking people not to feed it.
I wanted to buy a stuffed bear once. I found it at a pawnshop in Royersford, standing amid the hocked stereos and stationary bikes. It was a nice bear—huge and fierce—and my wife, seeing the wild look in my eyes, offered what was not exactly a rare connubial ultimatum and said I had a choice to make: her or the bear. Piece of advice? Don’t ever hesitate when offered those options. I did. For perhaps half a second too long. Now, years later, she still won’t let me forget it—the day I considered, however briefly, trading my wife for a pawnshop bear.
On Sunday night, I see the bear. Laura sees the bear. She squeezes my arm and says to me, “Hey, Jay. Look. Someone chose the bear.” And I have to wonder for a minute if owners Justin Weathers and Matt Moyer have significant others at home. Or if this is why Weathers (a Starr veteran who managed properties for the group and also worked in the kitchen at the Dandelion) and his partner Moyer decided to come all the way out to Lansdale, move into the former home of Molly Maguire’s, and turn it into this lovely, crowded, homey restaurant and bar full of gleaming wood, Edison bulbs and black-and-white photographs of old baseball teams.
Because sometimes a man just needs a place to keep his bear.
Stove & Tap’s kitchen is run by another Starr alum, Benjamin “Biff” Gottehrer, who did time at El Vez, JG Domestic and, most notably, the Dandelion. Both he and Weathers have moved through the kitchen of Starr’s 18th Street British pub, and this matters because except for the fact that Stove & Tap is nothing at all like the Dandelion, it reminds me powerfully of the Dandelion.
Stove & Tap is big and sprawling, with widely spaced tables and a bar that seems to go on forever. The Dandelion, on the other hand, is small and cramped (“cozy” is the polite word) and claustrophobically full of dog art and doilies, with a compact bar and crowds that stack up almost on top of each other. Stove & Tap does a throwback American menu—potpies and cedar-planked salmon, corn dogs and fried chicken. The Dandelion has duck terrine, rabbit pie and an afternoon tea. Stove & Tap has a bear. The Dandelion has some sort of weasel in a glass case, dressed in a black jacket and white collar like some kind of village parson, that I have sworn to someday steal in a daring Mission Impossible-style heist.
What they have in common is less easy to define. It’s a sense of completeness—a solidity of concept and execution. It’s the sense you get, when you walk in, of an operation that’s fully self-possessed, which reads as comforting and confident. It’s the fact that for years, the Dandelion has been my go-to spot for meetings and long fuck-this-day lunches. It’s where I go when I don’t want to think about where I should go. Where I know there will always be something on the menu I want, a gin and tonic with my name on it, an afternoon that can be comfortably and painlessly killed by three cream ales, a Welsh rarebit and a pint of prawns.
With Stove & Tap, I went twice in two days and three times in five. I wanted to go yesterday but didn’t make it. By the time you read this, I will likely have gone again. Three months out from opening day, the place has already rooted itself deep into a town that needed exactly what it’s offering—elevated American comfort food, local beer, casual service, and baseball on the TVs behind the bar. It’s a place for neighbors and families and date nights and day drinking all at the same time. It has a happy hour with cheap drafts and $5 snacks, and a brunch with roast pork in red-eye gravy, peanut butter and Nutella waffles, and a three-egg breakfast sandwich with cherry peppers. At lunch, you can have a catfish po’boy or a corn and asparagus flatbread, a solid backyard burger with pickled onions and American cheese for less than 10 bucks, or a plate of grilled shrimp served with a charred lemon, arugula, and a smear of Old Bay vinaigrette that gives them just the right kind of bite.
Gottehrer’s dinner menu is tight and varied, hitting all the sweet spots of American appetite: fried and smoky and salty and bloody. His gnocchi is done as a light, summery dish—long, soft potato dumplings seared in the pan, tossed in a lemon and parsley sauce with smoked tomatoes, green peas, and whatever fresh beans the kitchen can get its hands on. The fried chicken (with forgettable collards not cooked long enough, and some excellent scratch pan rolls) comes in a chili-spiked jacket of thick dark-brown crust, honey-sweetened, made for defending the tender, juicy meat beneath. There’s a hanger steak, sliced and fanned, served with chili-spiced tomato butter and roasted potatoes (which is nice even if Gottehrer’s crew seems constitutionally opposed to cooking the meat anything but medium rare), some terrible fried cheese curds (too much batter on too-small chunks of mozzarella that melt, essentially, to liquid or nothingness before they hit the plate), and a kind of garbage plate of house fries (with chunks of brisket, meltingly soft cheese curds, beef gravy and a beer cheese sauce) that no one should ever try to share with me unless they want to get bit.
First time in Stove & Tap’s dining room, it was the fries that sold me—best thing I had, easy. The fries, followed by the gnocchi (which got extra points just for being original and a little bit surprising), and then maybe the smoked chicken potpie, which (again) benefited from a sense of being better than expected. Potpies are often terrible—just trim and scraps and goop in a soggy pastry hat. But here, the smoked chicken, the bacon, the oyster mushrooms all came in a smooth, savory cream sauce, covered over by biscuit dough risen into a golden, soft dome. My only problem with it was that I hadn’t ordered two.
The second time, it was the brisket sandwich and nothing else.
It wasn’t that everything else wasn’t good. The flatbreads, the burger—they were fine. The fries without gravy, without cheese curds and beer cheese, were okay. But the sandwich—stuffed fat with shaved brisket so pillowy and tender that it seemed to merge into the soft roll, everything smoothed out by melted gouda and punctuated by the hot spike of horseradish mayo—was the best I’d ever had.
Granted, I’m saying this as a man who falls into and out of love with sandwiches weekly, sometimes daily. A man who always (almost always) loves the sandwich in front of him more than any other remembered sandwich or potential sandwich yet to come. I’m saying this knowing full well the scope of my own hyperbole when it comes to the things I love, but also understanding the way it brushes up against mathematical reality.
On a Monday night, the brisket dip sandwich (did I forget to mention the rich, salty, slightly sour beef jus on the side?) was the best sandwich I’d ever had. As it sat there in front of me, I would have sworn that to anyone. But it also, simultaneously and absolutely, existed within the set of best sandwiches of my life overall, completely independent of proximity. I don’t know what they do to their brisket at Stove & Tap, but the kitchen deserves some sort of sandwich-based genius grant. The horseradish (which I enjoy with perhaps too much enthusiasm) was like cocaine to me. I wanted to rub it on my gums. Laura and I had intended to share the sandwich, but as it grew shorter, its approaching vanishing point became a threat to our relationship, the equitable distribution of last bites the sort of thing that might have required lawyers and a hostage negotiator. The only solution, as we saw it, was to get another—to make sure there was too much sandwich for either of us to eat in a single sitting. The leftovers we would deal with later, in the privacy of our own home.
Stove & Tap is a neighborhood place in the best possible sense—better than you expect it to be your first time through, with a gravitational pull of comfort and ease that’s hard to resist forever after. In concept and execution, it could have held its own in Old City, or in Manayunk for sure. It would’ve killed in Fairmount. Been maybe a bit square for Fishtown. Instead it sits like an anchor now in the middle of Main Street, Lansdale, amid the slowly gentrifying blocks of comic-book stores and vacuum-cleaner repair shops. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel lucky you live in the ’burbs (and how rare is that?) and does so by doing nothing more than cooking the brisket, rolling the gnocchi, pouring the pints, feeding the neighbors, and making regulars out of everyone who sees the bear and steps inside.
2 stars – Come if you’re in the neighborhood
Stove & Tap [Foobooz]