There is a strong connection between firefighting and food. Firefighters eat meals together, and many firehouses can boast excellent cooks. My own grandfather, Albany Fire Department Capt. Jack Haggerty, once had a firefighter bring his new bride to the firehouse so my grandfather could teach her to make gravy.
Although my grandmother did the vast majority of the cooking for the family, Capt. Jack specialized in lunchtime soups with plenty of spice.
So I know he would have approved of the shelf offering 50 kinds of hot sauce at the newly opened Firehouse Subs on Transit Road in Clarence, which appears to be the first of this 500-eatery franchise to open in New York.
The sauces, some familiar and some exotic, are rated from 1 to 10, from mild to scorching. Firehouse Subs' own Captain Sorensen's Datil Pepper hot sauce is sold in a plastic bottle shaped like a fire hydrant ($5.99).
The decor at Firehouse Subs is sure to entertain even the youngest would-be firefighters. Bunker gear and helmets from the closest fire departments - Main-Transit, Clarence, Clarence Center and Harris Hill - hang from hooks near the door. Red plastic helmets are handed out at the counter, and the bright red chairs are set around tables topped with Dalmatian spots. The centerpiece of the firehouse decor, though, is a mural of a large suburban house fully involved in a raging fire, with several firefighters striding around the scene. Amusingly, they have large, shaggy bison heads.
The firefighter theme extends to the menu, where you can order any of 10 specialty 8-inch subs that include the Hook & Ladder (smoked turkey, honey ham and melted Monterery Jack, $5.69), the Firehouse meatball (meatballs, melted provolone, marinara and Italian seasonings, $5.60) and the Firehouse Hero (roast beef, smoked turkey, honey ham and provolone for $5.99).
Many of the subs can be ordered "fully involved," which means they are made with mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomato, onion and a dill spear on the side.
Simpler hot subs (smoked turkey, ham, pastrami, corned beef, roast beef and chicken breast, each $5.69, and veggie, $5.29) and two cold subs (tuna salad and white-meat chicken salad, $5.69) are also offered. Subs can be made on 12-inch rolls for $2 more.
The menu also offers a Chief's salad (romaine and iceberg topped with peppers, cucumber, red onion, tomato, provolone, sliced egg and any meat for $5.89) and award-winning firehouse chili for $3.89.
After ordering at the counter, we headed to the drinks bar, where we were impressed by a computerized Coca-Cola Freestyle machine that offers 21 kinds of drinks, ranging from Coke, Diet Coke and caffeine-free Diet Coke to Fanta, Powerade, Mello Yello, Minute Maid Lemonade, Barqs and Dr. Pepper. Each type of drink has up to seven extra, mostly fruit flavors that can be added, which adds up to some 120 combinations. The cherry lime-aid was particularly good mixed with seltzer.
We started with an order of the chili, then John, Pat, John and I made our choices from the specialty subs listings.
Our first reaction was that the mediums are not the largest subs we have ever seen, although at these prices, they are a good buy. But anyone with a hearty appetite will want to go for the large.
We did find every sub to be extremely tasty, possibly because the cold cuts and cheeses are steamed and the freshly made rolls are toasted before the sandwiches are assembled.
The Hook & Ladder sub ($5.69, $7.98 as a combo with a bag of chips and a drink from the magic machine) was very good. The combination of high-quality turkey and ham was delicious with the melted cheese, and the roll was fresh.
It was designed to be made "fully involved," but the onion and mustard were omitted, as ordered.
The Engineer sub ($5.69), made with smoked turkey, melted Swiss and sauteed mushrooms, was an unusual combination that was very good both in taste and texture.
The turkey bacon ranch (5.89) was made with smoked turkey, crispy bacon, sharp cheddar and creamy peppercorn ranch dressing. Oddly, we found this sub a bit bland. Maybe the cheddar fell short or the turkey wasn't steamed enough, but except for the bacon, which was crisp and good, it was ordinary.
However, the New York Steamer Sub ($5.69) delivered the taste big-time. The mixture of corned beef brisket, pastrami, provolone, topped with mustard, mayo and Italian dressing, was exceptional, with the two meats delivering a double shot of flavor.
The firehouse chili was very tasty, but could have contained more meat and beans. It was a bit more soupish than chili thick. The deep-flavored tomato base was not greasy, and had bits of chopped celery, onions and peppers. Although it was made with plenty of chili powder, it was not spicy, and was a good excuse to visit the rack of hot sauces.
Where: 5205 Transit Road, Clarence (276-3259)
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Wheelchair-accessible: Yes.