Once again, our friend the Retiree has turned up trumps, inviting the rest of the dine-around bunch to one of Unicoi County’s best-kept secrets, that being the aptly named Whistle Stop Deli.
Operating from the little brick building that’s tucked in next to the CSX grade crossing on Howard Gouge Road at the old Erwin Highway, the Whistle Stop has been in business for nearly five years now. From the way owners Wanda and Kenneth Taylor greet their customers, you’d think they know nearly all of Unicoi County by their first name.
When the dine-around bunch stopped in late one afternoon, we were greeted by Kenneth, busily taking orders from a crowd of hungry patrons literally bellying up to the counter. The deli section is on your left, featuring a selection of Amish meats and cheeses. The bakery is on your right, filled with a variety of homemade breads such as cinnamon, wheat, sourdough and salt-risen. The pastry case was packed with fresh-baked cakes, pies and other assorted treats.
Seating for your meal is provided next door at a tidy little pavilion complete with comfortable patio furniture and chairs, along with roll-down windows for when the weather gets pretty.
Back inside, Ms. Wanda was working the Whistle Stop’s well-appointed kitchen, and very attentive about how we wanted our orders prepared.
My dining partner chose the Philly Cheese Steak sandwich ($7.99) with a side order of German potato salad ($1.49).
The Dieter decided on the Seasoned Chicken Breast sandwich ($6.99) with regular potato salad ($1.49) for her side.
The Carnivore spied the Grilled Sausage sandwich ($6.99) and decided to forego any side order.
For a change, I ordered the Bacon, Lettuce & Fried Green Tomato sandwich ($5.99) and some three bean salad on the side.
Our Retiree chose one of the three Saturday Specials, a BBQ Pork Plate ($6.99) plus two side orders of regular potato salad and a broccoli and cauliflower salad.
While the rest of the dine-around bunch found seating next door, the Carnivore and I stayed behind to collect the orders. This provided me an opportunity to people-watch the steady stream of customers that were just arriving. Young couples, oldsters, families with kids, a sheriff’s deputy or two, even a state representative had joined us at the Whistle Stop, and Kenneth Taylor was friends with all of them, or soon would be.
Orders completed, the Carnivore and I toddled off to the pavilion, and we settled in. My dining partner’s Philly Cheese Steak sandwich was of heroic proportions, nearly a foot and a half long, cut in half and packed with juicy thin-sliced beef, onions and provolone cheese (my partner doesn’t like Cheese Whiz on her Philly.) My hopes to get half of it for lunch the next day disappeared as fast as the sandwich did.
The Dieter’s Seasoned Chicken Breast sandwich was packed into a chewy, soft pretzel roll along with havarti cheese, lettuce and sliced cucumbers. The chicken’s seasoning provided a gentle but very evident spicy kick to each bite, and nicely balanced by the mayonnaise base in her potato salad side order.
The Retiree’s Pork Plate had a very generous helping of pulled pork in a spicy-sweet sauce, flanked by two stalwart biscuits of excellent heft and flavor. The broccoli and cauliflower salad made an excellent match with the barbecue.
Of the Carnivore’s Grilled Sausage sandwich, I had the merest glimpse of well-grilled meat, onions and peppers before all of it vanished, leaving a polite and satisfied belch to mark its passing.
My three bean salad was good, though unremarkable. As for the Bacon, Lettuce and Fried Green Tomato sandwich — this is my current choice for the Whistle Stop Deli’s signature sandwich. Served between two generous slices of toasted white bread, four to five slices of masterfully prepared fried green tomato share space with at least 1/3 pound of thick-sliced lean bacon and crispy shredded leaf lettuce, a dab or two of seasoned mayonnaise rounding out Whistle Stop’s new take on a classic. It takes a good appetite and two strong hands to test the mettle of this sandwich, but I was up to the task.
As I was finishing up, my dining partner brought out two selections of pie ($2.99 a slice) for our dessert course. The pineapple pie was good, though the crust was slightly tough, and was easily surpassed by the strawberry pie. The strawberries were so fresh that, with the area’s strawberry crop just getting into picking season, it had me wondering if the Whistle Stop had a “first pick” deal lined up with the growers.
Whistle Stop also does catering, and has fresh baked goods every day to tempt the unwary. As we were leaving, I debated taking the whole key lime pie that was beckoning me with intent. Willpower to the fore, I chose a loaf of homemade sourdough bread ($4.99). Thoughts of breakfast featuring crunchy buttered toast and strawberry jam keeping me company on the drive home.
Whistle Stop Deli
110 Howard Gouge Road
Tues.-Thur. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Fri.-Sat. 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Credit cards welcome.