When most people look at a sandwich, they see two slices of bread and some stuffing.

When the effervescent marketing mind of Matt Cahn considers one of the sandwiches on his menu at Middle Child, he sees a Venn diagram of overlapping relationships. Nostalgia and modernity sit at opposite poles, and each tugs at an eater’s emotions — with a wink of Middle Child’s signature wit — as the sandwich lands somewhere on the spectrum between the two.

The Phoagie? It’s a decidedly updated take on the hoagie, with vegan virtue but also an evocation of Washington Avenue Vietnamese comfort with its pho-spiced sauce and hoisin-glazed eggplant. The Shopsin Club elevates the standard with fresh roasted turkey, then takes an unexpectedly fantastic left turn with cranberry miso mayo.

The late-summer phenomenon of Middle Child’s seasonal BLT, meanwhile, relies on the classic form but dives much deeper. Colorful heirloom tomatoes from Urban Roots get salted and drained, then deftly placed inside Merzbacher’s rye with Duke’s mayo, bacon, and arugula dressed in a vinaigrette made from the tomatoes’ strained juices. When it’s perfectly built, the red, yellow, and green hues inside glow like a stop light, one that triggers my open-jawed reflex to “Go!”

“The juices will sometimes be dripping down your neck,” says Cahn, noting the BLT’s heft and barely contained lusciousness. “And I want that summer vibe. I envision you wiping your hands on the grass because you’re on a picnic.”

Can Philly’s Don Draper of sandwich-craft translate that philosophy to other food groups? The recent addition of the Middle Child Clubhouse in Fishtown answers that question resoundingly.

His thriving business over the past four years, a 16-seat sandwich shop dynamo near Jefferson Hospital, is as much a tribute to his attention to details, genuine passion, and locally sourced ingredients as it is to marketing savvy. At the Clubhouse, a much larger all-day space with a bar and ambitious dinner menu, we experience Cahn’s idea of an essential neighborhood restaurant for 2022. It makes it clear that the Middle Child brand is not so much about sandwiches. It’s a way of life lit by neon nostalgia, a hip sprinkle of irony and vintage ‘70s pop art.

And the culinary principles of Cahn’s Venn diagram for sandwiches translates just as effectively to a surprising range of delights. Think fried-to-order onion rings served with layered trout roe dip, a throwback Delmonico steak for two, or salmon cured as lox for a breakfast platter, but transformed for dinner into a crudo garnished with caramelized coconut milk and smoked pineapple nuoc cham.

“We kind of just cook what we like to eat,” said our server, Sarah Myers, lucidly explaining the menu dissonance.

The breakfast and lunch menus are the same in Fishtown as the ones at the original Middle Child, with all orders taken at the counter (unlike dinner, which employs servers.) Former Pizzeria Beddia executive chef Dan Britt, who now oversees the daytime operations, cited the progressive workplace culture at Middle Child, with its fair wage distribution and collaborative decision making, as a personal draw.

Fishtown’s residential character results in some different dynamics — more of an urge for this crowd to linger (and spend more) than the takeaway hustle that can buzz up to 400 sandwich orders a day at the original shop. And the rambling 75-seat room, set into a long Front Street space beneath the Market-Frankford El, generates its own kind of hangout magnetism, with globe lighting, deep booths, and wooden accents that evoke the casual vibes of a neighborhood deli.

Of course, none of the delis I grew up frequenting had pool tables or bars serving “salt water margaritas” steeped with kombu, bargain digestif pours of “trash can amaro” (the combined remains of 20 amari bottles), or a smoky beet juice-mezcal brew that was surprisingly drinkable even as it suggested a boozy campfire borscht.

The dinner service from nighttime chef Adam Sosnowik also turned out some luxuries I never dreamed would be on my Middle Child bingo card: Snails with shaved truffles and stracciatella over cloud-like focaccia? Salt-roasted and brûléed kohlrabi with caviar?

The 30-year-old Sosnowik, a veteran of Zahav, Res Ipsa, and the Rose’s Luxury group in Washington, has the chops to pull them off, even if some of these gastro gestures feel somewhat out of place as weekday specials. His focus has been right on point, though, for a regular dinner menu that specializes in giving familiar comforts some multiculti spins.

A bowl of steamed mussels becomes an umami powerhouse with a ham dashi broth and an XO sauce of fermented salami bits topped with fistfuls of fresh herbs. A Jewish meets Japanese indulgence occurs when crispy latke squares get topped with garnishes more typical of an okonomiyaki — sweet unagi sauce, smoky bonito flakes, and an optional scoop of trout roe.

The roe offered yet another accent of high-low deli attitude to the five-layered dip with smoked cultured cream and horseradish for the airy onion rings, which were perfect until they were dusted with powdered vinegar salt for one flourish too many. A little restraint can be a chef’s best friend.

Some of my favorite dishes were those that appeared deceptively simple. The burger homage to JG Melon’s, Cahn’s favorite New York saloon, was presented plainly as a plump tavern patty with American cheese, shaved house pickles and Russian dressing on a Stroehmann’s white bun. But its juicy depth made me do a double take. Was it the special blend from Esposito’s Meats? More likely the flavor boost of MSG mixed into the seasoning salt.

Even more straightforward was the Delmonico steak frites for two, a one pound hunk of superb beef from Port Richmond’s new KP’s Fine Meats butcher shop, topped with garlicky hotel butter, a side of crisp fries glossed with molten beef fat, and a house steak sauce tanged with tamarind. Middle Child regulars weaned on $13 sandwiches likely don’t expect to drop $65 on a steak house splurge. But it was impressively good nonetheless.

Cahn’s menus have always paid tribute to other restaurants past and present. The Hershel breakfast sandwich with house-cured corned beef over eggs nods to Hershel’s East Side Deli in the Reading Terminal, while the So Long Sal! is an accurate hoagie remembrance of the Terminal’s long gone Salumeria. (Sub in gluten-free bread,and it becomes a Celiac Sally.) The dinner menu’s entree of plump salt-and-pepper fried shrimp — tossed with shishitos, a smoked paprika aioli , and a whole long hot for extra fire — is a tribute to Chinatown’s Tai Lake.

A fennel-citrus salad dusted with powdered bay is a refreshing side inspired by Sosnowik’s Res Ipsa days. Meanwhile, the most clubhouse-y entree here is the big chicken Milanese encrusted in panko and matzo meal bountifully topped with Caesar salad, piles of shaved Piave cheese, and boquerones.

There were a few dishes I didn’t love. The brick chicken was an example of why chicken is not ideal for confit, a slow-cooking technique best for tougher flesh, like duck legs. The chicken’s meat was so overcooked it dissolved into paste when I took a bite. I also had high hopes for the veggie patty melt, bound with shredded beets, beans, and yuca. But it, too, was mush when I took a bite.

The “beef in weck,” a caraway-encrusted puff pastry riff on the Buffalo, N.Y., specialty known as beef on weck, was delicious — but also not quite right. It felt like an overly dainty reinvention for an iconic tavern sandwich that, at its essence, should offer a fistful of juice-soaked Kummelweck roll stuffed with roast beef. Even in its fancified reimagination, it should be every bit as lusty and drippy as Cahn’s platonic BLT.

These few disappointments stood out in contrast to so many other dishes that perfectly struck the balance between familiar flavors and their clever remakes. And the result taking shape is an engaging new restaurant with breadth that feels fresh, accessible and relevant, down to the organic wines by the glass and Dixie cups of local 1-900-ICE-CREAM for dessert.

Thankfully, there’s no mission confusion at all with Middle Child’s latest obsession: the quest for an ideal pastrami, unveiled recently as a limited weekend special after months of R&D. Each thick-cut slice of vividly cured pink brisket exuded a steamy, savory tenderness edged by a black spice crust that sparked with coriander, pepper, and smoke. A noticeably lean trace of fat was its only modern concession. Classic deli style was the call for this beauty, served atop seeded rye with a caraway house mustard schmear that reaffirmed its place deep within the nostalgia half of Matthew Cahn’s Venn diagram sandwich brain. So, unleash the hungry hoards of pastrami faithful! Because when it’s done this well, the marketing will take care of itself.


Middle Child Clubhouse

The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.

1232 N. Front St., 267-858-4325; middlechildphilly.com

Hours: Breakfast and lunch daily, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until midnight. Closed Monday.

Reservations for dinner service only.

Full bar.

Wheelchair accessible.

Street parking only.