Days after the Internet apocalypse, the line of cars at the drive-thru buckles awkwardly into Lemmon Avenue. Passing car horns begin their blurts immediately as irritated drivers zoom around the gridlock and mouth things from behind the wheel, but none of it deters those who are sandwich-patient. It’s the same scene inside the deli— the Great American Hero staff are loaded up in the kitchen, surfing a steamy, grill-hissing deluge of a lunch rush in their tie-dye shirts. There’s barely room back there for a foot-long. One staffer reaches over the ordering counter with a dill pickle stacker slice in a gloved hand.
“Would you like a pickle while you wait?”
Yes, we would. You wouldn’t know it, but it was just days ago when the Great AT&T-pocalypse sent internet and cable-TV customers service crashing to the ground. Lightning soaked the sky, rain made mirrors of the road, but Great American Hero kept serving. Owner Dominick Oliverie hijacked his landline — he’s likely one of a few left who sports a landline — to save his credit card processors. When that failed him, he used the honor system —customers were given sandwiches on the promise that they pay later.
“They all probably will,” he says. His accent is brightly New Jersian. “They may not do it now.”
About half of the folks who took advantage of the honor system have returned to pay their bill, he assures. Either way, “God bless,” he says. “Pay it forward.”
It’s 42 years after Great American Hero opened, and at age 71, Dominick Oliverie shows zero signs of impending retirement. On a recent visit, he’s seen funneling orders through the lunch rush like a benevolent version of Gordon Ramsey. At one point, he’s a line cook with a full sandwich in hand, managing the onslaught while lattice-working the sub with spicy mayo. Honestly, it’s kind of a wonder to behold. It’s also a breath of clean, rain-washed air to see such personality behind a local chain.
“I work, you know. I tried staying home,” he says. “Some people when they retire, they go out and play golf everyday — this is my golf.”
In our time of shiplapped bars and Einstein bulbs, Great American Hero is impossible to miss: Scooting down Lemmon, Hero is a hilarious clown-yellow and balloon-purple. There’s a ghost hanging from the door right now. Mention you’re a first-timer and you’ll get a cookie.
After moving from New Jersey, Oliverie owned 11 Great American Heroes in his 40-plus years of sandwiching. This is his last stand, the last one he owns. In the 80s, he lost four shops from downtown Dallas as occupancy plummeted. At one point, he was offered free rent and still couldn’t make his payments. The location on Lemmon Avenue kept fighting.
Oliverie's beginnings are humble. He left Jersey as a high school math teacher. He’d just completed a master’s degree at Rutgers when he shipped himself down to Dallas and saw a big, New York-shaped hole in the sandwich scene. To flesh out Hero’s menu, he traveled to different spots around the country to taste iconic sandwiches — he found a glorious muffaletta in New Orleans; a cheesesteak in Philadelphia; a Cubano in Florida. He stopped by Thundercloud in Austin to ask how it’s done. They’re all on the menu now, for less than a $10 bill.
So four decades later, hot and delicious sandwiches are nearly jetting out of the drive-thru window. Soft, toasty ciabatta, snowed with red pepper, tastes damn close to a sandwich you’d find on any district deli in Manhattan. Their Cuban panini is far from authentic, but it’s smoky, stretchy with cheese and charged with mustard seeds. In other words, it’s hard to dislike.
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He went vegan recently, which means his sandwich spot offers that as well. Hummus wraps feature hummus that’s made there.
“We don’t buy things in buckets,” he says.
On the day AT&T jumped the shark, he had another flux of business: There were regulars who swung by to pass the Internetless time. Because when all goes quiet, we look to the stability of our old sandwich joints.
Great American Hero, 4001 Lemmon Ave.