A big-ass tea. (Photo: Staff)

This week, I visited the Signal Mountain Road McAlister’s Deli for a late lunch and haircut. The latter was at Great Clips next door because, to my knowledge, you cannot get a haircut at McAlister’s Deli. I did not ask about a haircut, so I could be mistaken.

Chattanooga has two McAlister’s Deli locations. The Signal Mountain restaurant is at 541 Signal Mountain Road (near the Walmart), and the other is at 2288 Gunbarrel Road near Hamilton Place. Originally, the franchise started in 1989 in Oxford, Mississippi. You can now find about 400 McAlister’s Deli locations in 28 states.

If you’ve never been, McAlister’s Deli is a sort of Panera Bread without as much bread kind of place. Guests line up down the center of the room and order (fast-food style) from a large menu. This restaurant has several big-screen TVs, all of which were tuned to Fox News during my visit. The appeal of McAlister’s, at least for me, is the routine comfort of the menu and surroundings. I know I can count on a soup, sandwich or spud to be the same every time. They also boast the biggest tea I’ve found. I love me a big-ass tea.

The pixels of death send subliminal messaging to encourage the purchase of a cookie. (Photo: Staff)

As I walked in and approached the counter, the first thing I noticed was a woman (presumably a manager or assistant manager) involved in one of those mea culpa phone calls with an angry customer. From one side, I gathered that someone had botched an order of spuds (something about “missing bacon” or “too much sour cream”). Of course, the customer is always right (even when they’re wrong), but I was impressed with how quickly she handled the situation. Not only did she offer the woman coupons, she also apologized for the mistake and recognized the value of the customer (apparently, this customer is a regular). It was unfortunate that I had to hear the conversation, but I’m glad I did.

I’ve never had to wait for more than a minute at this McAlister’s Deli. This day was no different. I placed my order and was given a number and my big-ass tea. One of the TVs behind the counter worked fine until this one particular slide showed up. It would then fizzle into this neon green pixilation that was actually pretty cool to get lost in. I’m not sure if it was on purpose, but I felt my brain succumbing to the subliminal messaging and almost bought a cookie. 

The cheesy broccoli and cheese soup with an Italian sandwich. (Photo: Staff)

A full sandwich and side are too much for a lunch portion. I usually do the “pick two” menu and opt for a half-size sandwich and cup of soup. You can get a cup of soup, any half-sandwich on the menu, salad, spud or “shareable” (e.g., nachos and queso dip). Some of the recommended pairings include the four cheese grilled sandwich and tomato bisque or the French dip with a Caesar salad. You do your thing, OK?

The food
My thing is usually the Italian, which has ham, salami, provolone, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, black olives and Italian vinaigrette. I order a side of broccoli and cheese soup (better than Panera’s, in my opinion) and I’m all set for a good lunch. Hell, they even include a pickle.

The food was delivered to my table quickly, and I ate alone near a few other business folks and a Walmart employee. As always, the sandwich was good, and the soup was creamy and cheesy. I tend to avoid looking at nutritional information for McAlister’s because I know if it’s anything like Panera I’m consuming far too many calories. You don’t taste as much cheddar in this broccoli and cheddar soup unless there’s A LOT of cheddar in it.

This is the worst photo of a sandwich I’ve ever taken, which is why I’m including it. (Photo: Staff)

Another quick thing to point out about this particular McAlister’s is that for several years I’ve noticed the same employees. I cannot say the same for my Red Bank Taco Bell, for example. That means they’re doing something right, no? The only quibble I have with McAlister’s is the price of some items. My meal was $14 and change, which is a bit steep if I’m buying for two or a family of four or 16.

What do you get at McAlister’s Deli?

Would I go back?
McAlister’s Deli is not my favorite or least-favorite place in Chattanooga to grab a sandwich. If I’m feeling like treating myself, I’ll visit River Street Deli; if convenience is important, I’ll go to Panera. But if I’m getting a haircut or visiting Walmart (to purchase deodorant or tires or whatever), McAlister’s will always be better than Subway. I also recommend Curtis at Great Clips. He’s great and keeps my hair from achieving that Bozo the Clown effect.

The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.