Pedestrian: 14 – Dad’s Killer Sandwich
Finding the best sandwich in all of Des Moines.
I’ve been on a sandwich kick lately.
And while I got my fix walking all the way to Philadelphia last month (I really did enjoy that cheesesteak), I’ve only set eyes on finding another sandwich to devour while staying here in Des Moines.
Now, most don’t associate Des Moines with sandwiches. In fact, I’d argue the city has made larger cultural culinary contributions elsewhere (steak de burgo, anyone?). You won't find a sandwich of cheesesteak notoriety within city limits, but that doesn’t mean locals haven’t quietly crafted something uniquely their own. New Orleans has its po’ boy, Chicago it’s Italian beef, and Los Angeles it’s French dip, but for those living in Des Moines, look no further than Dad’s Killer Sandwich from B&B Grocery, Meat, & Deli – an institution that's fed locals for almost 100 years.
Created in 1979 on the south side of Des Moines, B&B not only produced an icon, but went ahead and created their own league of sandwiches. Forget hoagies, heroes, or subs. At B&B, you’ll find nothing but “killers” on their “killer menu.”
Voted “Best Sandwich in Des Moines” by readers of the Des Moines Register, Dad’s Killer consists of roast beef, turkey breast, smoked ham, corned beef, pepper cheese, Swiss cheese, American cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, Kosher pickles, mustard, Miracle Whip, and Tuscan Italian dressing on an Italian hoagie roll. This sandwich has something for everyone and leaves little else to be desired.
I meant to visit soon after returning to Des Moines weeks ago. I’ve long believed food is an excellent excuse to go on a walk, but given there was nothing but thunderstorms for the foreseeable future, I had to wait. So I waited, and waited, but was only greeted by a record-breaking heat wave the following week. Perhaps feeling a bit impatient and hungry, I waited for the “coolest” day of the week, which happened to be a Tuesday with a high of 93°, and embarked for B&B grocery.
I set off from Beaverdale, a neighborhood on the northwest side of town, and slowly made my way to the south side. In order to reach B&B, I’d have to head downtown, and eventually cross a bridge over the Des Moines River.
Seeing that this was my first big Des Moines walk of the trip, I made efforts to zig-zag through town, stopping at historical sites and locally notable landmarks along the way. Given the city’s penchant for destroying its own history, my walk soon took a somber turn as I visited site after site of a former architectural gem lost to the wrecking ball. Most notably the Victoria hotel, replaced by yet another soulless corporate edifice (see below). Or how about the Old Federal Building? It was demolished to build a parking garage that would keep J.C. Penney’s department store from fleeing downtown for the ‘burbs. Ironically, J.C. Penney’s left for the ‘burbs 20 years later, the city destroyed the parking garage, and now we have an empty lot in its place. Another architectural gem lost in the ether. Such is the way of Des Moines, but this is a newsletter about a sandwich. I digress.
Arriving in the heart of downtown, I took Court Avenue all the way to the Des Moines River before heading south on Water Street. Down the way I saw two boys standing outside of Principal Park – the home of the Iowa Cubs baseball team – with gloves on their hands. They stood beside a light pole with hopes of catching a home run during batting practice.
“Catch anything yet?”
“Nope,” said one boy, “they aren’t very good this year.”
At the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon River I crossed a bridge which exposed an expansive view of the water. Technically, these were my first steps on the south side of the city. Trees lined the banks as groups of fishermen huddled beside the water waiting for something to bite. There is a tradition of fishing along the bridges during the warm months. If you’re patient, you’re certain to catch a channel cat (the state fish), or even a walleye or smallmouth bass. Some use your standard spin rod, while others use nothing but a line and a net if they’re close to the bank. I’ve never actually seen anyone catch anything, but they must be catching something, otherwise they wouldn’t keep showing up.
Down the river, I met a trail that ran parallel to the water. Two women on bikes sang bible songs, and abruptly stopped to say hello in harmony. I could hear them resume just as they passed. Like most small American cities, it’s not unusual to say hello to strangers here, and it’s heartwarming to see the lengths in which some go to do so. Some call it “Iowa nice,” but for those who live in bigger cities, such as New York, it can feel a bit unnatural. All in all, it’s in good spirit and can make one feel seen.
After a few more “hello’s” I reached SE 6th Street and hopped off the trail. A sign pointing south read, “Little Italy.” This area was once home to a large Italian immigrant population that still lingers today, however it was the first time I’d officially seen it called “Little Italy.” As far as I know, the area doesn’t really have a name, but is labeled Columbus Park or Mckinley School on Google Maps. Over 150 years ago, the area was actually it’s own settlement known as Sevastopol, named after a well-known Russian fortress from the Crimean War. By 1867 or 1868 it was incorporated into the city of Des Moines.
These days, I’d argue it still possesses a character which makes it feel it’s own small town. A few Italian restaurants, including a prominent Italian grocery store, still remain. On the main drag, where SE 6th meets Hartford Avenue, are traces of commercial activity, although a few vacant lots line the streets. The area still boasts a healthy amount of pedestrian activity, perhaps spurred by the crown jewel of the neighborhood – B&B Grocery.
You’ll know when you’ve arrived thanks to large, mismatched red letters sitting high on a mallard green facade. They read, “SUPER MARKET.” Below are two more signs. One claims, “Old Fashioned Service” while the other “Home of the Killer Sandwiches.” It’s clear from the exterior that this place of business houses a lot of character and is unlike anything in all of Des Moines.
Open one of the front doors, and you’ll find yourself at a crossroads between a roadside gas station, New York City bodega, and a traditional meat market. The walls, barely visible, are cloaked by hand painted signs, family photos, ephemera, and posters that have likely hung for decades. Along the perimeter of the ceiling hang hundreds of baseball caps wrapped in plastic. It’s unclear whether these hats are for purchase or simply a collection on display. Appropriately, a sign above the deli bears an illustration of a sandwich which reads “KILLER ZONE.”
I’ll admit, despite B&B’s welcoming appearance, I was initially intimidated to place an order – a feeling I don’t often feel in Des Moines. Curious to see the rest of the store, I played it off as if I was searching for a product. However, there’s only so much “browsing” you can do before you start looking suspicious. Before I had a chance to really scan the expansive menu, I was greeted with a friendly, “what can I getcha?” at the deli counter.
“Dad’s Killer Sandwich,” I said.
The man behind the counter, Timmy, quickly got to work and weaved in between two other employees simultaneously making sandwiches. I made conversation with an older gentleman named Mark and mentioned it was my first time visiting B&B. He made a fuss with a big smile on his face. Timmy overheard and gave me a welcome. I told him I walked all the way from Beaverdale, which is just 6 miles away, and he gave me a puzzled, but approving look.
“You’re a long way from home buddy”
Given this heat, there was some truth to what he was saying. Had the weather been cooler, a walk of this length would be considered a cakewalk. I did have plans to walk back to Beaverdale after visiting the deli, but would opt to catch a ride instead. This wasn’t the day to carry an oversized sandwich in your stomach while attempting to close out a long walk in 93° heat.
Before I knew it, my sandwich was ready. In unison, the men behind the counter said thanks. I wished Mark well and assured Timmy I would return soon. There’s so much on the menu besides sandwiches and I’m convinced it would take a few years to truly make your way through it all. That is, if your body can handle the cholesterol.
I ate my Dad’s Killer across the street, underneath a covered picnic table, and washed it down with a much-needed bottle of water. In the distance, a field of overgrown wheatgrass swayed back and forth in the wind. Transfixed, I continued eating before realizing I finished my entire meal. I wasn’t trying to eat the whole thing in one sitting, but obviously underestimated my hunger.
While certainly tasty, Dad’s Killer is not the best sandwich in the world, but lives up to the hype. Likely considered standard fare in a place like North Jersey, it’s definitely the best sandwich I’ve had in Des Moines. It only tastes better given recent additions in this city, which consist of trendy hand-me-down restaurants and cookie cutter style condos that float down the Mississippi River from Minneapolis or find their way up Interstate 35 from Kansas City.
To find a place of business innate and truly of Des Moines character feels like stumbling upon something noteworthy and rare. B&B Grocery has stood the test of time. It’s not trying to be anything other than it is – and that is a modest deli in Des Moines – which feels like an unusually radical gesture these days. I’ll be back before returning to New York.
Thanks for reading,
Check ‘em out next time you’re in Des Moines:
B&B Grocery, Meat, & Deli. 2001 SE 6th St, Des Moines, IA 50315
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As always, this is Pedestrian: a newsletter about walking and our everyday surroundings. Thanks to Aaron for making this month’s edition possible!