Sandwich, toastie, grinder, sub, sammie, hero — these may all sound synonymous to some, but ask AJ Shreffler about hoagies and he’ll construct a heartfelt homage to his hometown of Philly. Denver may have developed the first Quizno’s; it built Snarf’s into a staple after expanding from Boulder; Cherry Creeks beloved Zaidy’s Deli revived since the pandemic briefly shuttered its door to reunite fans with their iconic Reuben, featuring corned beef and kraut glued to seeded rye by gooey swiss cheese and thousand island dressing. Nevertheless, Shreffler struggled to find a sesame seed hoagie roll loaded with Italian fixings that he treasured as a kid, which left him inspired to show the town what it was missing.
Shreffler, the current sous chef at Bar Dough, trades in his wood-burning oven with his tiny apartment kitchen on Mondays and Tuesdays. While the intense labor of working a restaurant line leaves some incapacitated and yearning for sleep on off days, Shreffler has other plans.
“I call it the 36-48 hour push,” chuckles Shreffler. “It’s 100% adrenaline, and I guess some caffeine.”
Rather than the taxing nature of pulling a traditional all-nighter, these nights and days spent making sandwiches for his pop-up business Little Arthur’s Hoagies is fueled by Shreffler’s joy for this everyday eat.
He leaves the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the brown bag lunches and composes his Italian and East Coast upbringing between a split sesame roll. Shreffler presents the Mile High City with more than a mountain of thinly sliced ribeye and gooey cheese sauce. While it’s often a favorite, even outside Philly, he’ll give it a bit up an upgrade — and it begins with the bun.
“There’s something special about the Sarcone’s sesame seed bun. Maybe because they’ve been making em’ the same way for 130 years. But anyway, you can’t experience sandwiches without going to Sarcone’s,” says Shreffler.
Sarcone’s provided Shreffler with an understanding of Philly sandwiches as a kid from the classic steak to the layers of cured Italian meats. Thus with these memories lingering in his mind, he started slinging sandwiches in his free time.
Shreffler is a veteran to side hustles as he mentions the kitchen isn’t always financially stable. A start rate for cooks is $10 an hour, even with the long shift it leads to precarity. He began with baked goods — pies for the holidays and letting his cinnamon rolls perfume others homes on Sunday mornings.
It wasn’t until his year and a half long stay among the shores of Hawaii that he realized mornings with tender bagels and shmear don’t extend far beyond the New England area. After bringing forth NYC’s notorious breakfast, he felt the same loss of place when arriving in Denver to a hoagie drought.
He began with under a dozen sandwiches at his first pop up. It quickly ramped up to four dozen and now he’ll go until he’s close to 200. Even with production reaching its highest peaks, the core that built Little Arthur’s makes it feel as though he’s still crafting just a handful.
When his 48-hour timer starts, it’s Tuesday and his menu starts manifesting in his mind — then once it’s released, orders ring in as fasts as his time ticks away. Following an apocalyptic haul from restaurant depot, he’s ready to start on the bread so when morning rises the bread has done the same and is being pulled from the ovens.
Regardless of the filling, that iconic bread remains that constant. He rotates through sandwiches inspired by people, to circle back to how connected his food is to his life. “The Uncle Jimmy” showcases the Italian version of barbecue. The pulled pork has herbaceous spices intermingling in each shred. Broccoli rabe gives greenery and spice, and charred red peppers impart smokiness all while replacing a traditional slaw. The sandwich then is all bound together with provolone and garlic mayo.
There’s nothing more Italian than the name DeLuca, or the sandwich Shreffler made to uphold this title. Hokie — or the broken translation Italian deli masters preached as hoagie — means the scraps of meat and cheese from their days of slicing. Shreffler’s creation reflects on being handed samples from scraps at the counter. Mortadella, Genoa salami, pepperoni and capicola make up the meat and, of course, provolone makes the cut. Lettuce, tomato and onion, unbelievably enough, pile on next. Pitching the mustard is a must for the acidity of red wine vinegar and its partner, cold pressed Sicilian olive oil. It’s an ode to Shreffler’s mother and the culture he’s influenced by daily.
Currently, Shreffler operates out of his home, but as he mentioned before, it’s the altruism in the community that has brought his pop ups to other local businesses like Bakery Four’s old location on 32nd Ave. It also garnered help — David Right from Right Cream stepped up to be his right-hand man when orders creep closer to the 200 mark.
“It’s the people in the industry and the people that care about the industry that make it easy to stay within it. This group of people is special. No doubt it’s hard work, but there’s nothing else I’d get the same excitement from,” says Shreffler.
Even with the fire alarms and grease glazed walls of his one-bedroom, his work continues to grow. His next pop up with be alongside wonton icon Penelope Wong of Yuan Wonton. Banded Oak Brewing will set the scene on Tuesday, October 12, 2021. Pre-orders for both are available.
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More information is located on both Yuan Wonton‘s and Little Arthur’s Hoagies’ Instagram pages.