Nov. 10 2010 12:00 AM

’Meat-acular’ is the word for State Side’s specials




Bring your most ravenous appetite — and perhaps unhinge your jaw — when stopping by a State Side Deli and Grill for a sandwich.

Like big-city eateries famous for generous (some may say obscene) portions, State Side measures its corned beef servings by the half-pound.

Owner Spencer Soka, 30, who grew up surrounded by sandwich-slinging shops in the Detroit suburbs, has tasted his way through Chicago, New York City and Philly, and he realized this area sorely lacked what he thought of as a true, red-blooded, sandwich-lovers paradise.

"I approached my father with an idea to finance a deli, and he said, ’Eh, not so sure in this economy,’" Soka says. "Two months later, he came back to me to talk a little more about it, and I already had the menu ready to go."

Soka operates a pair of delis with his brother, Steven, 32. One location is on Okemos Road near Jolly Road; the other recently opened on Grand River in the heart of East Lansing.

"We love delis," Steven Soka says. "We appreciate that kind of food."

The Sokas have worked in restaurants for years, and Spencer becomes especially animated when talking about his passion (think a young, excitable John Travolta). "In East Lansing, our shaved ribeye — you like ribeye? — we marinate it in olive oil and garlic and throw it on the grill. We have a chrome grill, it holds flavor better that stainless steel: It’s good stuff."

Spencer then holds his hand in the shape of a C, stretching his fingers as far as they can extend away from his thumb. "Our sandwiches," he says, "we put a half a pound of meat in each one." (Unless you opt for the smaller version, of course.)

Steven recommends using a fork when sitting down to such a meat-tacular endeavor.

Corned beef is the top-selling sandwich, and The Famous 32 ($8.99), keeping the order number from State Side’s original menu, is requested most often. This mountain of meat piled between thick slices of rye bread is dressed with cole slaw and Russian dressing.

State Side’s bread comes from a baker who works specially for the deli. Although it’s baked off-site, it’s baked a second time in-house, giving it a firmer texture that holds up well to the weight it must carry. It’s a firm bread, the kind that you can hear tearing when you pull it apart, and the crust is perfectly chewy.

The giant vessels for meat come hot, too. The Reuben pastrami on rye ($8.99) is a terrific sandwich. Its pastrami is peppery and moist, the sauerkraut is lively without being overpowering and the Swiss cheese adds a mellow touch.

A pickle is served with every sandwich: either old- or new-style. An old-style pickle is more vinegary, more sour and darker in color; the new-style is brighter and tastes like it’s been directly infused with mild garlic. Both styles retain their cucumber essence, a welcome touch of green alongside the meat mound it accompanies.

Catering is another way the brothers have built their business, and they sell meat and cheese by the pound, too. Homemade desserts from their "aunty" fill a showcase, along with cold salads, like beef chopped liver, tuna salad and cole slaw.

Inside the Okemos location, the smell of warm bread fills the air. Each table is equipped with two bottles of Woeber’s brand mustard: one yellow, one spicy brown. Enlarged photographs of deli trays and sandwiches line the walls, and a couple of large-screen TVs enliven an open seating area.

Soon though, the sound of drills and saws will signal the beginning of an extensive renovation that will usher in an expanded menu, which will include breakfast. A grill and hood will be placed directly behind the order counter, offering diners a show to go along with their meal. It’s that kind of interactive atmosphere that Spencer says he loves about delis.

"I love the atmosphere of delis — it’s different than other places," Spencer says, grinning. "I like that they’re the kind of places where people can yell at you, where a regular customer can come in and yell, ’Hey, where’s my food?’"