The Exacting Sandwich Expert James Dicks and His Improbable Frussies

Frussies Deli & Sandwich Shoppe

133 E. Moody Ave. 577-2108

Great roast beef, the whisper on the wind had it, wonderful, incredible, succulent roast beef. This was the word of mouth wisdom regarding an alleged new deli that no one seemed able to name, even those lucky few who had been there. It was fantastic, they claimed—fresh breads baked daily, homemade sandwich salads, and home-cooked turkey, pork, and, yes, roast beef.

But no one seemed able to recall the name—only the South Knoxville location on Moody Avenue. Zippy and I pondered this skeptically. Surely, we reasoned, no restaurant could open right under our noses without us knowing about it, and knowing about it first. After all, we make it our business—nay, our life’s very purpose—to keep track of the comings and goings of Knoxville restaurateurs. If there were a new deli, we’d know about it alright, especially if it were good. Having made a few futile passes down Moody with nothing leaping out at us, we dismissed the rumors as just that—as the kind of urban legend that also has folks believing sordid tales involving movie stars and small pet rodents.

Nonetheless, Zippy is a roast beef fan nonpareil, and the rumor began gnawing at the edges of his mind (not unlike, I must say, a small pet rodent). “Not to worry,” I assured him. “We’ll check it out. . . someday.”

“Someday” turned out to be last Saturday, when Zippy and I—up to our ankles in home repair (literally) and with nowhere in particular to go while the latest coat of interior paint dried—found ourselves cruising up and down Moody on a quest to finally locate the proverbial no-name deli.

We did, in an unassuming little strip plaza called Moody Complex, residing in the shadow of Big Lots. Immediately, it was clear to us why the name had failed to stick. Not only was there no street signage to indicate the presence of culinary greatness in this most unlikely spot (only a modest, handpainted sign near the door), but the name itself defied logic: Frussies.

Zippy puzzled over this as we made our way through the storefront door into the big, plain-as-plain can be interior. Aside from the deli case, this was unlike any other delicatessen we’d ever seen. No cola-filled coolers lined the walls, no racks displayed a plethora of chips, no televisions blared ESPN from the corners of the room. There was just six or eight vinyl-covered tables, a serve-yourself soda fountain, a few magazines and papers scattered along the counters lining one wall and the window. . . and him.

You can’t miss him—he stands poised behind the counter, every inch the master of his domain. With his penetrating glance, he will appear to be sizing you up sternly before extending his greeting, delivered in an endearingly grating New-Jersey-inflected deadpan: “What can I get you?”

He is James Dicks, a transplanted Yankee who’s made this small corner of the world his life. His brusque intonations might imply that the man could care less whether you eat or don’t eat, whether you like his food or not. But with the first bite, you’ll know he does care—and care a lot. For one thing, the man arrives at his deli at 2:30 a.m. to begin the process of baking the bread his sandwiches are served on—nine kinds of homemade bread including, white and wheat French, white and wheat pitas, white and wheat Kaiser rolls, white and wheat sandwich bread, and rye. He then spends the time leading up to his 10 a.m. opening kneading and baking, making fresh salads, slicing fresh lemons and tomatoes, preparing his meats to his exacting standards, making sure everything is fresh and delicious.

And it is. The fabled roast beef lived up to its legend. It is tender and flavorful and delicately seasoned, world’s apart from the slivers of shiny hunks of meat that come prepackaged in watery goo—staple fare in these parts. Zip and I love it on the wheat French with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, onion, Swiss, and just a wafting of horseradish ($4.85 including $0.40 for the cheese). Dicks does not steam his sandwiches, choosing instead to warm them on the grill. Hence, they are substantial, a far cry from the sodden pumpernickel sammies we’ve come to know and love.

Even dearer to my heart, though, is the Reuben ($5), a sandwich so tantalizingly delicious when done correctly and heartbreakingly disappointing when it is not. At Frussies it’s worth ordering—every touch from the spicy homemade rye to the lean corned beef to the tangy kraut to the actual Russian dressing is right on. This is what a Reuben should be.

The turkey ($4.45) also is good, with the slightly gamy flavor that characterizes a homecooked—as opposed to processed—bird. The meat is appealingly dense and toothsome, the way your mother probably made it on Thanksgiving. And compared with the slimy slivers of white meat we’ve grown accustomed to, this makes all the difference.

Most Frussies regulars—who Dicks mostly knows by names—are hooked on the chicken salad sandwich ($4.30), which is simple and delicious. As with every salad on the menu—tuna, egg, potato, pasta primavera, and cole slaw—it is made fresh every day, with a minimum of spices. It is created using the whole chickens that Dicks cooks and chunks himself, tossed with just enough mayonnaise to lubricate things a bit along with celery, green onions, and grape halves. Salt and pepper constitute its only spices, and they are the only spices it needs. Each individual flavor is allowed to sing out and stand on its own merits even as it adds its voice to the overall chorus.

Dicks’ minimalist approach to spicing is most apparent in his cole slaw ($0.75), which is neither sweet with sugar nor tangy with vinegar. Instead, it tastes of, well, cabbage. And let me tell you, never before had I so appreciated the naturally earthy, oh-so-slightly sweet flavor of this unsung green. His clients rave about it, as well they should.

There are but two problems with Frussies. First, because Dicks makes everything fresh in the morning, when he runs out, he runs out. Second, sweets are not his strong suit. I’d advise you to avoid the cookies ($1 for two) and brownies ($1.25), both of which rang false to my all-knowing sweet tooth. But, if Dicks’ is offering a slice of his homemade carrot cake, grab it. It is not overly sweet, but redolent with carrot flavor and dark, rich spices, with a cream-cheese icing that is on the money.

And, oh yes, the name. It is a cross between “fussy” and “frog,” named for an anniversary gift that overlooks the register: a slightly bedraggled, love-worn stuffed frog. As it turns out, Dicks—despite his somewhat crusty exterior—has a soft spot for stuffed animals, which he collects and names. Which just goes to show you, you never know. . . .

© 1997 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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