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Sammich’s pastrami sandwich

Image: Karen Brooks

I just saw the face of god. And, as heaven’s gates opened, I heard the f-word.

This isn’t a parable. Just your basic afternoon at Sammich, an ode to Chicago’s “wet and hot” sandwich culture on East Burnside. I’ve come to taste the new shop’s famed pastrami sandwich, born in Sammich’s original Ashland location, served at its Portland food truck spin-off, Pastrami Zombie, and now—as always—delivered by its funny, foul-mouthed progenitor, Melissa McMillan.

She is more dude than dude, ruling her little kingdom in a faded Chicago Cubs tee and a backwards cap, hawk-eyeing you as your teeth sink in, waiting to see if you notice all the deets: the tender meat smoked right out front, hand sliced, stacked with gangly slaw and Russian dressing, then tucked in sour rye, the whole thing a marvel of balance and flavor dexterity.

Make no mistake: next to baseball, pastrami is McMillan’s baby, her life. “It’s fuckin’ good, right?” she bellows in her deep whiskey voice. Yes, it really is.

McMillan, 35, seems born for the camera—or at least cult status: a charming, truer-than-a-potato character. And now, with a Portland brick-and-mortar address, Sammich is ready to blow up. (On opening day, December 1, Travel Channel Food Paradise producers were already camped out.)

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From left: the shop’s old-school Chicago Italian beef sandwich; owner Melissa McMillan (with ax)

Image: Karen Brooks

The banter alone is worth the trip. “I got two Timbos [cheesesteaks] for a hangover,” McMillan thunders to her cook Kai—who is literally standing just a few feet away. “You know what to do ... a little extra naughty.” To the shy customers staring at her outsize Chicago Italian beef specimen, McMillan instructs: “Pour on the beef juice and slam it in!” Then there’s her backstory: childhood birthday parties at Wrigley Field, opening Ashland’s Sammich on a lark in 2013, her divorce (“my ex-wife told me she was no longer gay, was banging the cook, and got pregnant”), a 10-year run coaching boys’ Little League (“I took two teams to state!”), and a move to Portland in 2016.

Pastrami rules Sammich’s 14 options ($10–14), but the Zombie Fries, rippling with frizzled pastrami ends and creamy lime-jalapeño dribbles, are upper-echelon trash food. And the burger is beautifully bloody. The rest of the menu’s stepped-up blue-collar sandwiches and salad are mostly notable for thoughtful touches: turkey and beef roasted daily, fresh tuna, local bakery bread, and smoker specials—Texas brisket to smoked chicken.

In the end, commitment separates winners from losers. At Sammich, it’s found in a nearly waist-high ax parked in a corner (not to mention that giant ax inked on McMillan’s forearm). This is how she makes her stand, out front, chopping oak for the smoker that gives her brisket its lifeblood. “It will be a cold day in hell before I plug in a grill and smoke pastrami,” she barked recently. “I’ll die with an ax in my hand.” That sounds about right.

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