Big G’s Deli
Located in Winslow, Big G’s Deli is a central Maine institution, feeding class after class of Colby College students since 1986. What started as a small sandwich shop has since evolved into a large, 200-seat cafeteria-style restaurant that takes up an entire vinyl-sided modular building, with a giant grimacing illustration of founder Gerald Michaud leering at you everywhere you look. Boasting around 100 sandwiches, mostly named after celebrities, the restaurant’s menu and interior are equally astonishing in scale. They are also completely insane. No, that’s lazy writing. We can do better. I’ll try to elaborate.
Imagine taking the basic concept of a famous NYC delicatessen, say, a Carnegie Deli, or a Katz’s Delicatessen, that of glorious excess, where obscene amounts of freshly-carved, fatty homemade pastrami are piled 8 inches tall on hopelessly ineffectual, thin slips of rye bread, where the fatty parts of the brisket are as delicious as the half-sour pickles. Then, do away with the long history, almost all traces of Jewish cultural influence, and replace the pounds and pounds of ingredients in these sandwiches with the most whitebread, suburban, commonplace sandwich items you can think of, like bologna or ham salad. Pile these ingredients in crazy combinations on top of huge slabs of scratch-made bread, and serve them in the bar section of a candlepin bowling alley, full of a mix of tired-looking Colby students in matching sweatshirts, mealy-moustached townie teenagers, and, completely inexplicably, tables full of senior citizens eating plates of spaghetti that seem to have appeared out of nowhere. We’re getting warmer.
Standing in line at Big G’s, you can’t help but be kind of stunned by the efficiency of the operation. It’s a mom-and-pop sandwich shop extended to its greatest possible level of success, where every seat in the room is taken, and the line stretches a dozen people deep from the three cash registers, past the dinner plate-sized whoopie pies and the homemade silkscreened merchandise, out to the front door. After taking a moment to try and make some sense out of the giant menu that stretches behind the counter, we placed our order with an exceptionally patient woman behind the counter with several blown-out forearm tattoos. Not knowing that one whole sandwich at Big G’s is plenty of food for four people, we ordered four half-sandwiches, in an effort to get a wide sampling of the different options available. The counterperson cocked an eyebrow, certain that we must be taking such a large order to go, but no, and a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and a root beer as well, thank you. She gave us one of those chain restaurant sensors that lights up and generally goes berserk when your table is ready, and we snuck off to our booth to wait for our order.
Jillian left the table to get a soda refill, and came back peering over a stack of three plastic trays precariously balanced on her forearms, each holding some of the biggest sandwiches I had ever laid eyes on. Each sandwich was made on the restaurant’s signature fresh-baked bread, a country-style white, each slice about as thick as three slices of bagged sandwich bread, with a fluffy, light chew and a light brown crust that stood up wonderfully to the chaos looming inside of each “half” of sandwich. Jillian started with the “Zeppo” ($5.35/half), a combination of warm deli turkey, cream cheese, tomato, and onion, piled high on fresh pumpernickel bread. While tasty, with lots of big, fresh ingredients, and certainly enough food two feed two people, it didn’t win the day; the onions overpowered the rest of the sandwich. We were much bigger fans of the “Jack LaLime” ($5.65/half), a mile-high hot sandwich combining tuna salad, melted cheddar cheese, huge slices of pickle, sliced onions, and a pickled spicy pepper relish. It’s a sandwich I have made myself at home several times, when I am alone and free to do what I like with tuna fish and Wickles relish; I had no idea that the senses-destroying combination of fish, pickle, and spiciness was appealing to anyone else in the free world.
It’s here where our two additional sandwiches, hastily ordered at the last minute, took a turn for the peculiar, though still delicious. The “Paul Harvey” ($5.90/half) combines a huge portion of sliced deli turkey with a three-inch thick stack of liverwurst, and then adds bacon, American cheese, and tomato for good measure. It’s an outstanding sandwich, for the three-to-four times per year that I have an insatiable, chemical craving for liverwurst. Combining it with turkey is an unusual choice, but it makes for a lighter (!!!) flavor. Even stranger was the “Egg Macmahon” ($5.60/half), a sandwich that combines egg salad, ham salad (which I don’t think I’ve even thought about it years), onions, lettuce, and pickles into a triple-play of sogginess that has to be tried to be fully understood. Both the egg salad and the ham salad are very finely chopped, making the entire sandwich a textural explosion of ham and egg and squishy bread that extends from your chin to the bridge of your nose. It needs another layer; the pickles, lettuce, and onions don’t quite provide enough of a crunchy contrast to the four inches of mayonnaise-y salad within, making the sandwich lose -10 points. The fact that it is balls-out crazy makes for a gain of +400,000 points, however, making this sandwich something to try at least once in your life.
As it has for nearly 30 years, Big G’s Deli in Winslow is raising expectations for what sandwiches in Maine should be. From the more mild, mundane offerings like the “Dr. Seuss” (ham and Swiss cheese) to the wild, truck driver creations like the “Mystery Meat” (liverwurst and egg salad), one thing is consistent in all of Big G’s sandwiches: a dedication to fresh ingredients, scratch-made when possible, and served in obscenely large portion sizes, for a low price. We were surprised, also, to find that most of the sandwiches erred on the “healthy” side. Okay, so maybe liverwurst isn’t high on anyone’s list of healthy eating. But it would be all too easy for Big G’s to bury Waterville and Winslow residents in an avalanche of canned SYSCO meatball subs, processed BBQ “rib” sandwiches, or to stack pounds of fried chicken and gravy onto their sandwiches. Instead, we found a wildly creative menu designed with an eye to not just lean meats and cheeses, but that also included vegetarian options, and far, far more avocado being thrown around than we are used to seeing in Central Maine. Eating at Big G’s is an endurance event; go and fill your table, as we did, with as many crazy sandwich combinations as you can carry, taking lots of pictures and attracting the eyeballs of the locals, or be much more sensible and quietly share a half sandwich and an enormous whoopie pie. No matter your approach, you are going to leave Big G’s full, fat, and happy, with plenty of money left in your wallet.