In the mood for something new? Try something old.
That would be the stromboli sandwich at Mike’s Burger Royal on East Trent Avenue.
It’s a tasty treat with a history to match.
The cappocolla ham and provolone cheese are smothered in an Italian chili sauce on a French bread roll.
There is some debate whether the name stromboli was first applied to a sandwich invented here by Mike Aquino in 1954 or in Philadelphia in 1950, as detailed in The Spokane Chronicle in 1976. But there is no doubt the Spokane sandwich is a local claim to fame.
“They’re more of calzone style, we’re a pizza-sub style,” said Holly Johnson, Mike’s granddaughter.
Both businesses said they named their sandwich after a popular movie of the same name, starring Ingrid Bergman. The name fit for a hot, spicy Italian sandwich because it’s also the name of a volcano and island off Italy.
According to local history, Mike and Louie Aquino owned Burger Royal as well as the Dairy Freeze, which is now Wolffy’s across from Jack and Dan’s Tavern. Mike’s brother-in-law, who ran the tavern, then named Joey’s, asked Mike to come up with a sandwich that would induce thirst in the blue collar and college cliental. Hence, a spicy, salty volcano of flavor.
The Aquinos eventually consolidated their holdings to the Burger Royal, while friends Ray and Dora Martire took over the Dairy Freeze. Johnson owns the Burger Royal, but her brother Mike Aquino III handles most of the day-to-day operations.
“My brother is the heart and soul,” Johnson said, who has a different job. “We do a pretty good business. We could do better if we had the funding, things the big chains have.”
What the chains don’t have is the truly local flavor of Mike’s, where some people like Sam, who works at nearby White Blocks, has eaten almost every day for 30 years.
“That’s the most rewarding part,” Johnson said. “People that knew grandpa, my Uncle Louie, will make a special trip here, and my brother and I get to meet them and hear their stories.”
Mike’s has most of the usual burger joint fare, including a double whammy before Dick’s sold whammys, as well as chicken gizzards, all without the flashy neon draw of modern places. There are only a handful of picnic benches out front for seating, or you can call ahead to place an order and pick it up at the drive-thru, although it’s way too wonderfully messy to gobble on the run.
The signature sandwich hasn’t changed.
“It’s the same original recipe – everything is the same except it’s about $6 more,” Johnson said with a laugh, remembering when the sandwich cost less than a dollar. “It’s fun to have something no one else has. It’s been copied but never perfected. Even on hot days, a spicy Italian sandwich is still good.”
But if the weather isn’t conducive to loitering at Mike’s, eating in the car lets your mind wander back in time.
Some may remember the 1926 Model T that the original Mike drove around with advertising on the side. Mike III said the family story is he got it for $50 and a sandwich from a hungry customer.
“We do things the hard way, but it’s the old-school way,” Johnson said. “I think the people appreciate it.
“It’s been hard but it’s very sentimental – to the point it’s the only thing that keeps us going. It’s so fun to work there with my husband, my brother, my niece and nephew. It’s been cool to serve the customers we’ve known so long. I’ve grown up with these customers.
“This is really rewarding, I can’t tell you,” she added. “If the doors ever closed … I can’t think about it. By the grace of God, we’re just making it, a little luck, a lot of work and great customers.”
And a darn good sandwich.