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The Old-School San Francisco Sandwich That Stole My Heart

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Roxie Food Center employee Miguel Chavarría assembles a pastrami sandwich. Though it is now under new ownership, the beloved sandwich shop is keeping its old-school traditions alive in the Excelsior.  (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Frisco Foodies is a recurring column in which a San Francisco local shares food memories of growing up in a now rapidly changing city.

S

an Francisco might not be known as a “sandwich town,” but hear me out: The City’s grab-and-go culture and proximity to fresh produce make it the perfect place for a one-handed meal.

Two middle school age Filipino American girls dressed in athletic warm-ups, in a throwback photo from the 1990s.
The author and her best friend Arlene during their Potrero Hill Middle School days. (Courtesy of Rocky Rivera)

Yes, you might associate us more with tourists eating clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl, but one of the legacies of the Gold Rush and Frisco’s history of blue-collar laborers is that we hate sitting down for a meal, and we love taking it to go in the car — and finding a nice view to enjoy that sandwich while the fog rolls in. And with the advent of Dutch Crunch bread, invented in the Netherlands but a Bay Area specialty, our local sandwiches have an unparalleled layering of textures that can’t be found anywhere else. Did I mention how well they hold up to California avocados?

I was first introduced to the San Francisco-style deli sandwich at Jackson Park baseball field, where my best friend Arlene and I were the de facto softball managers for the Potrero Hill Middle School Stallions — a position we signed up for mostly just so we could leave class early. Once we set out the mitts and bases, Arlene and I would go around the corner to JB’s, where we split a roast beef on Dutch Crunch and a side of fries.

By the time practice was done, so were we. Stuffed and caught up on all the hot goss, we’d go back to Jackson Park, collect the mitts and bases, and do it all over again the next day. Those lazy afternoons of softball and sandwiches constituted an “America” we otherwise only saw in the movies. To me, they represented an idyllic time when families of color could still afford to live in the City, watch a game at Candlestick and truly feel like a part of the community. After we graduated, memories of our days on the bleachers faded, but my love for those SF-style deli sandwiches remained.

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When Treasure Island Naval Base shut down in 1996, my dad retired from the U.S. Navy and we eventually moved into the Excelsior District, where I found the holy grail of sandwich shops: Roxie Food Center on the corner of San Jose and San Juan avenues. At this tight squeeze of a corner store, patrons knew to go straight to the back to order their special from one of the OG Roxie’s Crew: Kevin, Floyd or one of the Tannous brothers, Tony, Peter or Simon. Those guys were legendary sandwich artists who elevated my humble roast beef to new heights. Hot pastrami, smoked tri-tip, meatballs and even imitation crab all graced the menu.

A sandwich counter is visible at the end of a narrow market aisle crammed full of bagged chips and other snacks.
At this tight squeeze of a corner store, customers know to head straight to the back to put in their sandwich orders. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)
A deli shop worker looks out from behind the ordering window as he checks out a customer.
Co-owner Mike Zunoona takes a customer’s order from behind the counter at Roxie Food Center. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

“It was a little market before, and they added a deli,” Mick Shehadeh tells me over the phone at the end of his shift at Roxie’s on a recent Friday afternoon. He and his cousin Mike Zunoona took over the business after the Tannous brothers — their uncles — retired in the fall of 2021. “The reason why [my uncles] went with that type of deli was because they loved the Italian culture. It’s kind of like our Palestinian culture — it’s really a tight-knit family, good food, a lot of soul.”

Barely past five feet tall, I had to tiptoe to place my order in one breath: Smoked turkey with provolone on Dutch, heated up, everything on it, with avocado. And please don’t forget the jalapeños. While they made my sandwich fresh, I’d place my bag of chips and Gatorade on the counter and grab an Auto Trader from the magazine rack, flipping through it while I daydreamed about buying an ‘87 Buick Grand National.

There wasn’t a place to eat nearby, so like most patrons, I’d sit in my car with my door open, paper bag ripped in half to form a makeshift tablecloth, devouring the sandwich while the Dutch was still warm and toasty and the cheese still melted. In high school, this was the preferred school lunch before Ma made dinner. If you didn’t have your own, you could always rely on someone splitting theirs or at least sharing a bite or two. As a starving college student, sometimes a sandwich had to be lunch and dinner. Hell, I would even reheat it the next day for breakfast — especially if I’d ordered an oversized “supreme.”

Three workers talk as they prepare sandwiches behind a busy deli counter.
Roxie’s employees hard at work behind the busy deli counter. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)
A deli worker wearing blue kitchen gloves holds a pastrami sandwich, cut so that the meaty cross section is visible.
Pastrami on Dutch, a classic San Francisco deli sandwich. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Roxie’s was community. It was sustenance. And it was open seven days a week.

I fell in love with the muscle cars that drove up and down Mission in the Excelsior. I fell in love with the houses that dotted the surrounding hills like an Italian village, a view on every hilltop. I fell in love with a boy from Delano Avenue, around the corner from the shop. But it was that Roxie’s sandwich that truly stole my heart.

The Tannous brothers must have felt the same way when they immigrated from Palestine and chose this quaint location to represent their own American dream, drawing inspiration from the region’s Italian-style delicatessens. That cross-pollination of cultures felt quintessentially Bay Area, and the love of quality food and togetherness created a lasting bond for anyone lucky enough to grow up in the neighborhood.

“I just remember [my uncles] always being really involved in the community. They sponsored a lot of the baseball teams,” recalls Shehadeh, who was born and raised in Hunters Point. “Just seeing how tight the family was with the community was beautiful, and that’s what really made me excited to really be a part of that.”

Photographs taken by customers through the years show the deli’s deep roots in the local community. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

The shop used to host an annual Fourth of July party, and they’d often let regular customers come back and pay if they didn’t have enough money for a sandwich or groceries. The care and attention went beyond the sandwiches. The Roxie’s crew became a part of our everyday lives.

The walls outside now have graffiti-style murals to honor the late Kevin D. and Floyd S., two of the aforementioned OGs of the Roxie’s crew. Looking back on those early days, Shehadeh says his uncles were always looking out for the team, even when the rest of the neighborhood hadn’t yet accepted Floyd, who was Black and worked at the shop from when it opened in 1975 until he passed in 2011. “He was a really important part of the family,” Shehadeh says.” It was kind of hard — having him work with us in the beginning — because people didn’t like that we had an African American man working for us. We made it work and we told them, ‘He’s a really nice guy, a beautiful person.’”

Zunoona hands a bag of sandwiches to a longtime customer. The mural behind them honors former Roxie’s employees Kevin D. and Floyd S. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

That sense of mutual respect and inclusivity imbued a fierce loyalty in the shop’s customers, who worried that new ownership would be a harbinger of the changing times — a result of growing gentrification in the Mission Terrace and Excelsior districts. “[My uncles] had seen that the community didn’t like that they wanted to sell, so they decided to pass it down, and we were happy to take over,” Shehadeh says. In any case, he says the neighborhood hasn’t changed as much as the rest of the city. It’s truly one of the most diverse zip codes left in San Francisco.

“A lot of the elderly crowd has moved on and it’s now become more family-oriented,” he says. “Nice young families moving in, and everybody’s growing together.”

The last time I visited Roxie’s before the old owners retired, Tony Tannous rang up my smoked turkey and asked how I’d been. Even two kids and two decades later, he still remembered my face — that’s just the kind of place it was. By that time, the pandemic was already taking a toll on the business. It was exhausting to be open seven days a week and hard to compete with food delivery options with cheaper ingredients. While the quality of sandwiches didn’t change, the world around it did, and something had to give. The Tannous brothers wrapped their last Dutch Crunch sandwich in 2021.

A selfie of a a woman in sunglasses and close-cropped hair posing with an older deli man in a black apron and 49ers shirt.
The author poses for a selfie with Tony Tannous, one of the three Tannous brothers who opened Roxie’s in 1975. (Courtesy of Rocky Rivera)

Though I’ve lived in Oakland for the past 12 years, I would trade the sunny weather at Lake Merritt for a foggy afternoon in the Excelsior any day, just to raise my two kids the same way I was raised: as part of a community that watched each other’s back and cared about each other’s well-being. I fell in love with their dad, Bambu, in the Excelsior, when I used to live in a shared apartment on Brazil and Madrid. After performing at the Filipino Community Center, we walked home hand in hand, partying into the night with my roommates and falling asleep to the sound of cars doing donuts in the intersection. It was the closest thing to heaven for an Excelsior girl.

Since he’s from Los Angeles, one of our first dates was at Roxie’s, where I introduced him to the things I loved most about the City. What I didn’t tell him until much later was that the boy from Delano Ave. that I used to love was behind the counter making our sandwich. With so much history in that shop, I spared him the silly details. This was my community, too, and I’d never let that tidbit spoil another amazing sandwich memory.

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Rocky Rivera is a journalist, emcee, author and activist from San Francisco. She has four musical projects out, three of those with her label Beatrock Music. She released her first book last year, entitled Snakeskin: Essays by Rocky Rivera.

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