A sandwich can be as simple, or as simply awesome, as you’d care to make it.
brick & tin chef-owner Mauricio Papapietro aims for awesome, and the successes of his two locations – one downtown, the other over-the-mountain suburban – show that he’s hitting that mark every day.
“I spent many years in their kitchens, and they are, behind the scenes, every bit as good as you’d think they would be,” Papapietro says. Buying the best ingredients they can buy. Knowing the farmers who are growing the foods they’re using. Caring that these foods are sustainably raised, that the animals are treated humanely. Using traditional slow-cooking techniques to make things the right way. “What I walked away with was all of that,” he says, “but where I departed was wanting to do a place that could be more everyday. Somewhere that’s not a splurge, necessarily. Somewhere people could come with their kids, a place where families would go, and want to go, two times a week, maybe.
“So in my mind, I was thinking, ‘How can I take all of that and make it into something accessible every day?’ The sandwich was what I came up with. And so the goal became to take all the techniques and all the training I had learned from Frank and from Chris and other places and to put it between two pieces of homemade bread.”
That’s why Papapietro bakes his own breads and delicious cookies in-house. That’s why his ham sandwich starts with Niman Ranch pork that they cure and then smoke themselves. That’s why the brick & tin staff goes through some 700 pounds of heirloom tomatoes each week in the height of summer – even keeping a steady supply on wooden shelves in the bakery for visitors to buy and take home.
One of Papapietro’s remarkable sandwiches has achieved national acclaim.
Southern Living named brick & tin’s braised beef brisket the best sandwich in Alabama in a tour of Southern sandwiches.
“This sandwich,” Papapietro says, “really encapsulates what I learned from Frank and Chris. We get the best brisket we can; we buy all-natural, certified-humane beef brisket that we pay close to double what we would for commodity beef. We make the bread from scratch. It’s pain de mie, a French type of bread, so we bring the technique to the bread. The bread takes six hours to make. We get the brisket in, we brine it for two days, and so we’ve already got two days gone there. After brining, we simmer it for four hours. And after we simmer it, we chill it overnight in the broth it cooked in so that it can firm up. And the next day, we carve it and then make the sandwich. There are four days in that sandwich.”
It comes to the customer with a bit of white barbecue sauce and some caramelized onions. “So it’s really just three ingredients. It’s simple. But it’s got all that stuff behind it that, I think, makes it taste good. I think the public has recognized that, too, because, since the day we opened, it has been the best-selling sandwich.”
But there’s more to brick & tin than fantastic sandwiches.
A deviled egg plate features McEwen & Sons farm eggs; large homemade cheese straws; a seasonal salad with olives, lemons, olive oil, bits of crispy house-cured ham; and fresh herbs. Catfish from Mississippi is fried crisp and served with pink-eyed peas, sweet corn, peppers and homemade tartar sauce. A cucumber soup is cool and refreshing with a little peppery heat. The bluebird salad has fried chicken, avocado, cherry tomatoes, bacon, romaine, spinach and bleu cheese dressing. There’s a nice selection of wines, with many by the glass, including lunch specials. The bar at the Mountain Brook location serves craft cocktails and local and regional draft beers.
Right now, the Alabama summer salad of heirloom tomatoes with a field pea salad of sweet corn, cucumbers, basil and balsamic vinaigrette is a popular item at both locations.
“It’s not overly complicated,” Papapietro says. “There’s an old saying: ‘What grows together, goes together.’ So if we get a list from one of our farmers that has all his summer stuff, it’s pretty easy to take those things that are so good naturally and do the minimum to them and then present them simply.
“In June we start to see tomatoes come in, and that’s the same time peas start to come in and, by peas, I mean pink-eyed peas, lady peas, butter beans, lima beans. Also cucumbers, corn, basil. All these things, literally, you can go to a farm in Cullman and find them all growing in the same field. We take all those things and prepare them simply. Put them in a bowl together. Make a dressing. Take a nice slice of tomato and put it all together. People love it.”
This practical approach has been part of the brick & tin process all along. Papapietro opened his first location in 2010 because he wanted a place he could go in early, have a nice, profitable lunch service and then be home for his young family. He opened his second brick & tin in Mountain Brook Village in 2014. The bakery in the Mountain Brook store supplies breads and sweets for both locations. The menus are slightly different; the Mountain Brook eatery offers a kid’s menu and Sunday brunch.
“I found myself wanting to be in a residential area where I could have foot traffic,” Papapietro says of his second location. “Have people living around. People who I thought would support a business like mine. That’s what led me to this neighborhood.”
Even the name brick & tin came about naturally.
While creating the downtown store, Papapietro says they uncovered a tin tile ceiling behind two drop ceilings. Original brick was hidden beneath plaster walls. “We ended up with a huge, beautiful 1,800-square-foot shell of incredible brick walls and a beautiful original tin tile ceiling. So the name just jumped out at me.”
The Mountain Brook location has tin tiles rescued from another renovation; the brick walls are original to the 1920s building. The tables and the large, handsome bar are made of red and white oak from a cattle corral in Eutaw, Alabama.
These elements, these similar spaces, reflect what Papapietro likes to do with food – “to go and reclaim something old and make it new again. The heirloom tomato is a perfect example of that,” he says. “Taking something old and giving it new, fresh relevance.”
The brick & tin menus change often, depending upon what’s fresh each week. The starting point, Papapietro says, is always the ingredients. “We are, throughout the whole year, talking to farmers. We have good relationships with several farmers in and around Birmingham, south of Tuscaloosa, north of Cullman. We get their lists every week. We are constantly designing the menus around the ingredients. We take those ingredients, which are so good and fresh, and essentially prepare them as simply as possible.”
The current menu features Joyce Farms chicken and Trent Boyd’s Harvest Farm squash and okra. These and other local and regional growers are a critical part of Papapietro’s business – and not just because of what they produce.
Papapietro values his relationships with his growers. He says he loves bringing those purveyors into a business that is successful and is one that people love. “That’s far and away what I’m most proud of.”
He talks about going to the farms, sitting down with the farmers, seeing their children there. He speaks of a deep appreciation of these farmers for bringing their produce to his restaurant. “I write him a check,” Papapietro says, “and I know he’s taking it back to his farm to put food on his table. And we’re using his produce on the tables here to feed a community of people who are bringing their own children in. I mean, the connectivity of all of that is the best feeling. And looking at my books … I can see how much I spent with a farmer last year, and I want it to grow every year. To grow for that guy I now have a relationship with. And it has. I’m proud of that.”
brick & tin
Mountain Brook Village
2901 Cahaba Road, Mountain Brook, AL 35223
Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
214 20th St. N., Birmingham, AL 35203
Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; closed Sunday
Look for dinner at this location later this year.
Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades, much of that time as a trusted restaurant critic. She is a founding member of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality. Swagler shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog.