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Thursday, November 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 14.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Firehouse Subs and Which Wich offer a wider range of sandwich choices
Between two buns
The salami, pepperoni and capicola grinder from Which Wich.
Credit:Ryan Wisniewski

On one hand, I'm a sandwich fanatic. By sandwich, I don't mean food wrapped in a tortilla or stuffed into pita bread. I mean it how John Montagu -- the 4th Earl of Sandwich and alleged inventor of the form -- meant it. Two slices of bread with meat in the middle. Sandwiches should have fresh bread -- crusty on the outside and fluffy in the middle -- and always include a heaping portion of toppings and condiments.

On the other hand, my sandwich crush causes me to avoid chain sub outlets in favor of restaurants where I can find out more about where my food came from. But sometimes, that's just not practical.

Two new sub sandwich options in the area are Firehouse Subs, founded in 1994 and headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., and Which Wich, founded in 2003 and headquartered in Dallas. Each has hundreds of franchises nationwide.

Overall, both Firehouse and Which Wich are above average in their field. Each has much more interesting selections than Subway, for instance. As a matter of flavor, I don't think they improve dramatically on smaller, more local chains like Milio's. But for people interested in mixing it up, and trying a new fast food, both chains stand out in at least two ways. One, diversity of choices. And two, originality of theme.

Which Wich, with three area locations, one in Middleton, one in Sun Prairie, and now one on State Street, offers a particularly diverse menu. It has 10 categories, based roughly on protein type, and numerous subcategories. If you want seafood, for example, there are five types to choose from: tuna, crab salad, sriracha tuna, crab and artichoke, or surf & turf (crab salad with roast beef). If you prefer turkey, there's a club, a Reuben and a few other choices.

Once you've chosen meat or veggie, select from a variety of sauces, toppings and spices. There are three bread sizes, selections for hot or cold, and choices to eat your "sandwich" wrapped in lettuce instead of bread or have it mixed in a salad bowl. And there's a kids' menu, with classics like grilled cheese and PBJ.

Firehouse Subs, with two new Madison locations, offers a slightly smaller variety. It features mostly hot subs, like steak and cheese, beef and cheddar brisket, along with specialties like the Firehouse Hero and the New York Steamer. Anything can be ordered cold, though I was advised against it by the cashier.

There's also an "under 500 calorie" menu, a small salad menu and a combo menu for kids, which includes chips, drink, and dessert.

Costs at both are about the same. At both Which Wich and Firehouse, you can feed a family of four (two adult and two kid sandwiches) with two drinks for around $25.

Both shops offer a unique atmosphere. Which Wich customers order by using brown paper bags and red sharpies, then handing the bags to the cashier. This process is easier than staring up at a big menu board. Personally, I don't love the idea of sending a bunch of pre-handled bags through the kitchen's food line. The bags are cute, though, and kids' bags even include an exciting game of tic tac toe.

Firehouse has nice -- and considerably cleaner -- décor. Dalmatian-patterned tables. Polished red fixtures. Little kids get a toy fire hat with their combos. And the employees also bring food out to customers, a nice touch that almost makes up for the two blaring TV screens.

My favorite part of Firehouse is the vast array of hot sauces available at the end of the counter. In my view, the best sandwiches have both mayo and hot sauce.

At both Which Wich and Firehouse, I'd advise people to stick with the classics. The salami, pepperoni and capicola grinder at Which Wich was much better than the shrimp po' boy, which was rubbery and bland. At Firehouse, my hot beef brisket was considerably more flavorful than the cold turkey sub. But the tuna was decent and had a nice peppery relish. The salads were fine, making up in variety what they lacked in freshness. Both chains offer both wheat and white buns, along with nutrition information. The buns at Firehouse were a bit tough when cold -- they're better for hot sandwiches, which are, after all, their specialty.

Which Wich has better buns than Firehouse, but no better than most area competitors. They're fairly typical of chain buns -- chewy, not fluffy, without a crisp exterior.

If you're a sandwich snob, these places won't romance you. But if your kids need a quick fix on your way to soccer practice, they are another (slightly more interesting) choice in the field of fast-food sandwiches.

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