Story and Photos by Jeff Kronenfeld, September 2019 Issue.
When someone asks if you want a knuckle sandwich, those who aren’t gluttons for punishment will usually answer with a hard “no.”
However, if you happen to be in Mesa near the intersection of Brown and Higley and someone poses this suspicious sounding query, you may want to consider it. There, knockouts aren’t delivered by clenched fists, but instead, with tall stacks of meat squeezed between slices of bread.
Despite its pugilistic name, the owner of recently opened Knuckle Sandwiches, Roscoe Smith, is all smiles and no fists. Smith is all about fighting, though his foe is hunger rather than some street brawler.
Knuckles isn’t Smith’s first rodeo in the foodservice industry. Originally from Chicago, the gregarious restauranteur studied hospitality and restaurant administration at Missouri State University and has over 22 years of experience in the industry. Having run everything from fast-food chains to hospital kitchens to fine dining establishments throughout the Midwest, Smith and his wife made the move to Arizona in 2014, despite only knowing two people in the whole state. Smith had purchased a faltering Schlotzsky’s in Mesa and was excited by the opportunity to explore a new place while turning it around.
However, after five years slugging it out in the “franchise life,” Smith decided he had enough of running a corporate chain. He wanted to do something that gave him more control and creativity. When his 5-year franchise agreement expired, Smith decided not to renew and, instead, to convert the restaurant into something all his own. “It wasn’t a hard decision,” Smith said. “I feel this is a lot more satisfying because I get to write the menu and have input into everything as far as the food goes, so it’s satisfied my culinary background.”
Smith threw himself into the task of designing a menu from scratch. A true carnivore, he wanted to prepare all his meats in house. He converted the production kitchen into one focused on slow cooking. He partnered with Strictly From Scratch and Capistrano’s Bakery to get fresh bread delivered daily so he could focus on roasting turkey, beef and other meats. For the turkey, he starts by injecting it with butter and rubbing it down with kosher salt and blackening seasoning. After he lets this soak in for half a day, he slow roasts the turkey to retain juiciness even after being sliced and reheated for individual sandwiches. For his roast beef, he uses beef knuckle, actually a cut from just above the kneecap on the cow’s hind leg which he marinates for two days in a citrus base. For the eponymous knuckle sandwiches, he uses a chuck cut from around the cow’s shoulder. He braises this in beef stock, salt, and pepper until its 140 degrees. At that point, he slices it before bathing it in beef stock again to cook the rest of the way. “The idea was to create the kind of sandwich that you’re secretly planning out in the back of your mind while you’re eating Thanksgiving dinner with the family,” Smith explains. “That might just be my fat boy dreams, but that’s the kind of sandwich I was trying to make.”
After preparing the menu, renovating the space and coming up with the name over a sushi dinner, Smith turned to friends and employees to help develop the logo and other art. Despite the quick turnover common in the foodservice industry, most of Smith’s staff have worked with him for years and even stayed on after the conversion form chain to indie. One such employee, Sareah Escarcega, was known to be artistically inclined and so Smith tapped her to design the logo. Local artist Corey Sherman, a friend of a co-worker of Smith’s wife, painted a mural in the store featuring its name emblazoned on brass knuckles. With everything in place, Smith opened the doors on June 16.
With a focus on value, no item on the menu exceeds 10 dollars, even the towering Dagwood. Given the precarious state of the U.S. economy, Knuckles is a great place to fill up your stomach without emptying your wallet. My companion and I ordered several sandwiches, wanting to sample a decent portion of the 27 on offer, plus three wraps, a half-dozen salads, and a range of sides made in-house. For me, the corned beef was the favorite. It featured an inch-thick series of tender pink slices piled onto a fennel-encrusted bun and paired nicely with swiss cheese, mayo, deli mustard, and pickles. The bread held together and the sandwich was easy to scarf down without making a mess, a pleasant surprise considering how juicy and soft the meat was. I also ordered the meatball sub, which featured several huge meatballs drizzled with mozzarella, housemade marinara, and grilled sweet green peppers.
My less gluttonous vegetarian dining partner ordered a pair of paninis. She enjoyed the spinach, tomato, avocado, and cheddar panini — which felt healthy yet filling — though the brie and apple one proved the breakout choice. The soft melted brie complimented the crisp apple and crunch of the bread quite nicely. It was savory and rich without being too heavy. After my one and then two sample bites, I was literally licking my lips.
Had I additional stomachs, I would have liked to try the Sweet!, a panini made with ham, mango chutney, brie, and tomato. The knuckle sandwich — which features shredded beef, swiss, cheddar, grilled onions, and horseradish — also looked intriguing.
For sides, there are chips, but also a range of pasta and potato salads made in house. I ordered the German potato salad, which was creamy with a pleasant tangy kick. However, it’s not for vegetarians, featuring bacon and bacon fat as ingredients.
The salads are large and come piled with goodies, and the lady dining at the table next to us gave her Chef Salad an enthusiastic two thumbs up. There is also a small and very well-priced breakfast menu that we were unable to sample given the late afternoon timing.
All in all, Knuckle Sandwiches provides tasty, well-made food at a reasonable price, plus the service is friendly and prompt. Whether you’re looking for a filling breakfast or lunch on a workday or a quiet spot to dine with family after a weekend excursion to Saguaro Lake or the Superstitions, Knuckle Sandwich should hit the mark.