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Planet Sub

I get a lot of mail about sub shops, one of the public relations industry’s greatest hits. Remember, the franchise-hoagie universe is ruled by “Doctor’s Associates, Inc.,” the cleverly named owner of Subway and the genius behind an ad campaign that actually makes people believe they can lose hundreds of pounds by eating nothing but Subway sandwiches. In Greater Des Moines, Subway seems to be endorsed by police departments, too, as cop cars accessorize the parking lots of these leaner, meaner 21st century surrogates for donut shops. For serious foodies though, sub shops are the ruination of the sandwich arts, blamed for defining taste down and blaspheming true deli. Foodies rue that franchise subs have created a national preference for soft-crusted white bread, bland cheese and undistinguishable luncheon meats — as long as it adds up to less then $1 per inch.

Lately though, I’ve been hearing enthusiastic endorsements for a 23-store chain new to Dogtown — Planet Sub. My first visit was to check out their chutzpah, for opening half a block from Jimmy John’s (JJ), an established business that offers similar goods and services. In such cases, the new guy is usually perceived as a bully. That’s why such new places usually have out-of-town owners with deep pockets, capable of riding out the initial negative reaction. However, Planet Sub had history on its side when it invaded JJ’s Drake turf. That latter 400-store chain is still reeling in Central Iowa from the perception it bullied a popular street vendor when it opened a shop in Iowa State University’s campus town in 2003.

In many ways, Planet Sub is what JJ’s used to be — a college joint with campus vibes. Planet Sub encourages each store to maintain a unique personality; there is no cookie cutter for the chain. They began at Kansas University and their literature still claims “the independent, easy spirit of Lawrence.” At the Dogtown store, that’s no hype. The place shows off some Drake pride, including the jersey Rick Wannamaker wore when he famously stuffed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in basketball’s Final Four. The place bustles at noon with Drake students, faculty and administrators taking advantage of free Wi-Fi. Service was extraordinary for fast food. Sub orders were scratch-made on whole grain buns, then toasted, foil wrapped and delivered to my table in as little as five minutes, and never more than eight minutes. When I asked for off-the-menu sandwiches, I was perfectly accommodated. (Similar requests confounded competing sub shops.) Orders were tracked with playing cards, so one need not remember a number.

All breads are scratch-made from whole grain flour, not finished from par-baked loaves. That’s as rare these days as real flat-cut briskets of corned beef and pastrami. Both of those essential deli items were standard at Planet Sub, and quite good. I tried 10 different meats and all were muscle meats, no strange concoctions. The vegetarian offerings represented the biggest upgrade over the competition; Planet Sub includes a good tempeh, which is to tofu what brown rice is to minute rice. This tempeh had a nutty flavor that is processed out of tofu. Soups were homemade and both chicken noodle and a potato were superior to soups I tried at competing sub chains. Planet Sub salads sensibly stuck to Romaine lettuce, the only consistently good leaf in winter. Sun chips and Blue Sky Creamery ice cream kept faith with their healthy and local images respectively. They deliver, free, for orders over $25.

Side dishes

As we reported a few years ago, there’s a growing market for anti-Valentine marketing. “Cliché-free restaurants” now promise no heart-shaped or red foods, for instance. This year, the Hotel Fort Des Moines is simply promoting a Valentine’s Day for singles-only. Just show up in their smoke-free lounge at 7 p.m… Expect operatic clichés at Des Moines Metro Opera’s Food & Wine Showcase in the Downtown Marriott Feb. 23, with $45-$125 tasting menus. CV

By Jim Duncan
Past Food Dude Reviews
Amici Espresso (1-4-07) Bandana's (1-11-07)
Perry hotel (1-18-07) Beyond frozen (1-25-07)
Centro (2-1-07) KC BBQ (2-8-07)

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