The door is wedged open, and blue tape runs along the floor of the Royal Blue Grocery in Highland Park Village. Masks and gloves are on, shoppers moving in between the blue-taped lanes like Pac-Man zipping away from those moody ghosts.
Honestly, it’s a strange time to be at a luxury store. Hot pickle dips and churro-flavored popcorn and $20 frozen biscuits are a few glorious foods you’ll find here — it’s surreal to see a surplus of artisan popcorn when toilet paper is limited to one roll per customer.
Panic buying is sending people backward in time to the old, nostalgic foods. Campbell’s surged their soup production. Mac and cheese is disappearing faster than Carole Baskin’s husband in a tiger cage. A recent New York Times article reported a 50% increased demand in Slim Jims as well as the disturbingly floppy ravioli that are in cans of Chef Boyardee.
You’ll find the nostalgic comfort at Royal Blue Grocery at the sandwich counter. Each one is pressed, crackly bread embossed with a diamond pattern. They are cheesy, laden with peppers or slaw or Swiss, wrapped neatly in paper like a to-go lunch from school days.
There are better sandwiches in Dallas, but the Reuben and the Texas Hold ’Em are a meaty solace right now. They are, essentially, big grilled cheeses. They’re the kind of sandwiches you sink into sacred tomato soup.
Royal Blue’s Reuben isn’t a classic bar Reuben: There’s smoked turkey, thick slices of Swiss cheese and slaw in an intensely creamy sauce. Local rye bread (Empire Baking Company), crusty and slightly sour, compresses the ingredients into layers.
The sandwich comes with a shooter of habanero-cream sauce, a heat that hits you like a camera flash. The sauce wakes up any leaden feeling from the cheese. Better than the Reuben is the Texas Hold ‘Em — buttery onions and peppers get smashed into a molten blanket of cheddar and tender roast beef.
In these strange times, although masked, gloved and speaking a sandwich order from a safe distance is devastating — it is, however, a gift that grocery staff still work these stores. It’s a luxury to buy artisan popcorn, true, but it’s also a luxury that there are still people left at stores to press sandwiches into a griddle.
There’s a fine line being walked at restaurants: Owners are balancing the health of their staff against the literal benefits of serving. In other words, it’s disconcerting to even order a Reuben from someone right now. It’s even stranger to watch them put the sandwich together.
Here are a few things that are true: The Reuben shows up warm and crunchy and delicious. On a recent visit, the Texas Hold ’Em is made speedily and passed over the counter, sans contact, via bag handles. They let you push your credit card in the machine. The point is: The store is doing everything they can to get you a warming sandwich as Kraft mac and cheese disappears from shelves one by one. Their door’s still open, and the breeze carries you back outside.
Royal Blue Grocery, 1 Highland Park Village, Highland Park, and two locations in downtown Dallas. Curbside pickup is available. Call ahead.