Sub Standard: Fine Dining Chef Takes on Sandwiches & Pizza

By Sophie Steiner, March 8, 2024

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The Place 

Shanghai veteran of such high-end Shanghai institutions as David Laris’ Three on the Bund restaurant Laris, Fifty 8º Grill at the Mandarin Oriental, and Coquille & Scarpetta, Chef Jason Oakley recently made the jump from being a partner and chef at Cages to flying solo with his own dream project – Sub Standard

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

A humble sandwich and pizza shop, Sub Standard is reminiscent of the neighborhood sandwich storefronts that dot every corner of San Francisco – near where Oakley worked as chef de partie at three Michelin star French Laundry before hopping across the pond to Shanghai almost a lifetime ago. 

Oakley has traded in his chef’s coat for oven mitts, “so I can cook what I love and want to eat, when I want it.” 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

“I like American pub grub and have always tried to make fun, unpretentious food in all the places I worked, so this is no different really. 

"A different audience and price point, sure, but still buying the ingredients from the same suppliers and using the same techniques.

"Fine dining or fast casual concepts, the end goal is the same: provide a product that will satisfy your customers and keep them coming back in the future.”

And that is exactly what has happened in the six short weeks since Sub Standard flung open its doors. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The constant flood of online orders; the steady stream of walk-ins; and the frenetic pace at which orders fly out the door all stand testament to the simple fact that it’s about honest, well-executed comfort food. 

Nothing more, nothing less. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

In the words of the late, great aeronautical engineer Clarence Johnson, "keep it simple, stupid" – and that Sub Standard does.

The Food 

Beginning with the venue’s namesake item, the subs are the “bread and butter” of the entire operation, with five hot and four cold sandwiches on offer.

The shop is first and foremost a bakery – as evidenced by the fermenting fridge, proofing fridge, and tiered oven that predominantly fill this 20-square-meter hole-in-the-wall – with every menu item passing through that process in some shape or form before being served.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The bread, akin to a Subway footlong in appearance, lives up to the tagline “baked fresh” – in this case at least twice daily – in sesame seed, parmesan & herbs, and “naked” varieties, filling the shoebox storefront with a yeasty perfume at all hours of the day. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Fridays are for F*Bombs (RMB38/half, RMB68/whole) – a newly introduced sammy special featuring two semolina flour dusted, crispy-edged, pillowy puffs of focaccia shmeared in mayo and sandwiching mortadella, lettuce, tomatoes, and banana peppers. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The star is, no doubt, the focaccia, a recipe Oakley began playing around with during his Scarpetta residency, and later tweaked for Sub Standard.

At once airy and crusty, the corrugated surface is flaked with sea salt, rosemary, a generous lashing of garlic olive oil, and sweet and sour-brined red pepper drops – an Italian imported antipasti that belongs in a dirty martini. 

In short, this F*Bomb is f*cking bomb. 

Every morning, the team receives an order of chicken and ground pork to make the daily quota of sausage, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

There’s no room for a freezer in the miniscule space, so you know the only option is fresh, fresh, fresh. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Which is why the Italian Sausage Smash (RMB58) is such a coveted item.

A pressed patty of said sausage is spiced with a bucketload of fennel seed before being seared on the flattop and finished with charred broccolini, gooey mozzarella and a fiery harissa aioli.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Medium rare roast beef is the heart of the Steak and Cheese (RMB68), slow-cooked for 16 hours at 54 degrees before being combined with melted cheddar and slathered in a zippy, homemade horseradish sauce – concurrently tangy and nose-tinglingly spicy – and stuffed inside a par-sliced sub. 

Ideal on-the-go fodder. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Like a reinvented version of a Jimmy John’s Italian Night Club, the top-selling Italian (RMB58) is a straightforward stack of Prague ham, salami, pepperoni, capicola, mozzarella, peppers, vinaigrette and mayo. 

Served cold and oh-so-crushable, it's the basic, classic combo of no frills meat, cheese, and a whole lot of it – the fixings we crave, delivered tableside (or to your doorstep, if you so choose) with a dose of nostalgia.

The sandos, on the whole, embody the ethos of Sub Standard – unelaborate, stripped down, a shining example of minimalism.

DSC01025.jpgImage by Sophie Steiner/That's

The other half of the menu sees six artisan pizzas, four with red sauce and two without, all at 12-inches in diameter.

Baked to order using 48-72-hour cold-fermented dough, this labor of love translates to some pretty standout crust – salty and warm, with corners that flake while the center remains light – so you can fill up on toppings more than just carbs.

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

There are requisite toppings, like Three Cheese (RMB78) and Pepperoni (RMB88), but also loaded pies worth dropping a few extra kuai on, like the Deluxe (RMB108) – a substantial pizza even for two, every inch covered in Italian sausage, curling pepperoni medallions, bacon, green peppers, mushrooms and onions. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

The “no tomato sauce” pies score the same overachieving marks, with options like the Smoked Bacon (RMB88) mimicking flammekueche – a specialty flat bread from Alsace, France covered in fromage blanc, onions and pork lardons.

At the beginning of his Shanghai stint, Oakley prepared this dish as a starter on the Mandarin Oriental menu, but this time around, he takes that same flavor profile and “Americanizes” it with sour cream and bacon. 

Focaccia (RMB18), Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Sicilian Pepperoni Pizza (RMB28), Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Despite the fact that 95% of orders are made through delivery, there’s also a noteworthy to-go counter featuring everything from roasted garlic oil and rosemary Focaccia (RMB18) to Sicilian Pizzas available in Cheese (RMB18/slice), Pepperoni (RMB28/slice), and Deluxe (RMB38/slice) varieties, heated to order and served with a side of marinara. 

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

And if you’ll ask nicely, Oakley may even warm up a Chocolate Chip Cookie (RMB24) for you, resulting in brittle edges and a molten center, salt flecked chocolate chips melting onto your fingertips. 

As for drinks, there are "Top Shelf" offerings for RMB28/can – like A&W, Fanta Orange and Grape and Canada Dry  followed by the conventional for RMB10/each – Coca Cola, Gatorade, or Chang Soda Water. 

The Vibe 

The blueprint for Sub Standard was drafted back in 2017, and “it’s crazy to me that no one has filled the gap in the market since that time,” says Oakley, layering a sub with an extra fistful of pickled banana peppers – an ingredient he doesn’t shy away from including in over half his menu because it’s the “superior” pickled pepper. 

(Step aside jalapeños.)

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

Image by Sophie Steiner/That's

“Every day feels like working a food truck at a music festival,” he adds with a quick smile – a split-second pause amongst the controlled chaos of saucing buns, cross-checking waimai orders, stretching dough, and frying up brisket on the flat top, “and I love it.”

Sub Standard, 230 Wanhangdu Lu, by Xinzha Lu 万航渡路230号,近新闸路.

Read more Shanghai Restaurant Reviews.

[Cover image by Sophie Steiner/That's]

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