Pickle Barrel Deli
1565 S. Bragaw St.
$5-$10 per plate
10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

With more news coming in and less time to leave the station for lunch, I’ve been writing fewer Lunchbox reviews as of late -- but a sunny Friday afternoon last week and a special culinary occasion put me back on the prowl, with a rare guest in tow.

My boss, Channel 2 digital director Jeff Rivet, wanted to accompany me on a review, so we opted to visit a strip-mall on Bragaw Street, slightly south of the DeBarr Road Costco, which contained several restaurants. After making the drive, we took a look at the signs for pizza, Chinese and deli fare; all three sounded fairly appealing, especially since it was late in the day. Jeff broke the tie, though, by pointing out a story we’d seen in national media: “Hey, isn’t it National Grilled Cheese Day?”

Once we walked in to the Pickle Barrel, we realized that appearances can be deceptive. While the deli has a separate sign from the adjacent Chef Lee Chinese Restaurant, the storefronts’ interior spaces are linked and share a common cash register. Chef Lee’s dining room was in a separate, more secluded area than the Pickle Barrel’s, which is fairly utilitarian. Several tables alongside the main kitchen area, which is isolated behind half-walls similar to those at a Subway sandwich shop, await customers after they place orders at the front counter from a large chalkboard menu at the front of the establishment.

While Chef Lee offers a full Chinese menu, taking up two-thirds of the space in the combined brochure delivery brochure at the front counter, the Pickle Barrel’s cuisine neatly breaks down into four food groups: hot and cold sandwiches, hamburgers, soups and salads, and baskets of fried chicken or seafood. In honor of Grilled Cheese Day, Jeff and I both picked out hot-sandwich options that didn’t stray far from the theme -- he went for a grilled ham and cheese sandwich ($6.95), while I decided to try a Monte Cristo ($7.95). The deli also offers a modest menu of Frappucino-style coffee drinks and smoothies, so I tried a medium bianco mocha ($4.75) alongside my sandwich. There weren’t many customers, but the kitchen was busy cooking another meal and our food came out in about 15 minutes.

My Monte Cristo was a fairly workmanlike sandwich, built closer to the sweet version of the dish rather than the savory one: the bread was French toast dusted with powdered sugar, framing a modest portion of Swiss cheese layered with a few slices of ham and turkey. The cheese seemed processed and the meat didn’t stand out that strongly; the sandwich also didn’t use strawberry preserves to commit fully to the brunch concept. While there wasn’t anything formally wrong with the sandwich, I couldn’t shake the impression that I could have readily made it at home.

Jeff seemed similarly underwhelmed with his grilled ham and cheese when I asked him about it, noncommitally telling me that “it’s good” before discussing the simplicity of his sandwich and how he was expecting more. He also didn’t pull any punches about the design of the dining area, calling it “drafty” and noting that the layout of the half-walls let him see straight past the kitchen to an area where garbage was stored as he ate. Perhaps his most damning indictment of the meal came at its end, though, when he polished off his sandwich and the pickle spear that came with it, sat back and quietly declared, “I’m still hungry.”

My mocha bianco iced coffee looked promising when it was served, but the grinding of the ice -- the secret to every great example of the beverage -- was far too coarse. Rather than blending into a mix of coffee and ice crystals conveying flavor with every sip, the coffee simply ran through the ice and pooled in the bottom of the cup, resisting my attempts to stir it back in every time. Eventually I drank it to get the mocha flavor (the white part wasn’t really detectable) and resigned myself to chugging down the nondescript slush it left behind over the course of the afternoon.

I’m inclined to be a bit more charitable toward the Pickle Barrel myself, since it offers a split-cuisine kitchen and I enjoyed trying divided fare at the Tri-Grill on Old Seward. That said, it just doesn’t feel like the proprietors’ heart is in the deli side of the Bragaw restaurant. The greater depth of the Chef Lee menu makes it look a lot more promising, but with sandwich shops like Sis’s Café and Catering and the Brown Bag Sandwich Co. offering better value for about the same cost, I can’t honestly recommend the Pickle Barrel unless you’re in a pickle.

Contact Chris Klint