We’ve driven past Mayback’s Deli, on the Tona- wanda side of Niagara Falls Boulevard across from Barnes & Noble, oh, probably a million times without ever realizing that it was more than just a place to pick up a six-pack and a bag of chips.

That’s our fault, because about five years ago a local college student suggested Mayback’s as one of his favorite places for a quick fresh-cooked bite at a good price. So on a cold Sunday, Pat, John and I stopped in for a look, and found a place that offers much more than you would expect.

The door opens into a regular convenience store, with a shelf or two of necessities (cat food, paper towels, crackers), a good selection of chips and salty snacks and a couple of coolers stocked with cold drinks. But take a few steps toward the back and you will see a smallish deli counter behind which four or five people are energetically cooking and assembling some really good food.

At that deli counter we were further reassured by the presence of two young guys, a type often found at really good cheap eats spots. Clad in knit caps, insulated flannel shirts over hoodies, jeans and boots, they looked like they burned 3,500 calories every 10 minutes, and had made an art of finding ways to stave off hunger.

“What’s good here?” I asked the nearest young guy. “Everything is good here,” he said emphatically. “I honestly have never had anything here that wasn’t really good.”

That morning, the two young guys said they had been hungry, so they ordered breakfast subs, which aren’t on the menu, but can be made for $5.38, double the price of the breakfast sandwich ($2.69 for egg, cheese and bacon, sausage, ham or turkey).

We were surprised to see that the menu has a variety of items offered in most casual restaurants, from the usual fried items (five pizza logs, $5.99; jalapeno poppers, $4.79; onion rings, $2.49 small or $3.49 large), soup of the day ($2.09 or $2.79), salads, tacos ($3.49 for beef, $3.99 for steak, grilled chicken breast or chicken tenders), sandwiches, specialty sandwiches, pizza ($1.60 a slice), wings ($7.99 for 10), tenders ($7.99 for five), cold and hot subs and specialty subs. There are also chicken, fish and shrimp dinners ($8.99) or fried scallops ($9.69).

We placed our order, then wandered to the coolers to select drinks, which include a couple of cane sugar sodas and flavored lemonades. At the register, the drinks and our lunch slip, which had been delivered there by the kitchen guy, were rung up together and we made our way to the front seating area, where there are three booths and two or three tables. It’s worth mentioning that you can’t buy and drink beer in the eating area.

We passed a metal shelf set up with a heat lamp for “to-go” order pickup, a good idea for a place that obviously gets very busy.

The wood-paneled eating area is clean and tidy and separated a bit from the store traffic by an arrangement of flourishing houseplants, which was a nice touch.

It seemed just minutes after we sat down that our food was delivered to our table. The service is strictly no-frills – the plates are foam, the cutlery plastic. But the food is really good, hot and fresh.

We started with a special of the day, half a ham sub with a side ($5.95), which included potato or macaroni salad or soup. We chose the soup, which was minestrone, and it was exceptional. The broth was slightly thickened by long-simmering, and wow was it hot. It was perfectly spiced and contained elbow macaroni, both red and white beans and bits of celery and carrot. Bravo for the minestrone!

The ham sub and half a chicken finger sub ($3.99) were made on nicely toasted, fresh rolls and included lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese and mayo or oil. The sliced ham was fresh-tasting and delicious, as were the two thick chicken fingers on the other sub. They were hot and slightly crispy, served mild, as ordered. While the pile of shredded lettuce on the chicken finger sub made it a challenge to eat, cutting it in half made it work.

We also tried the triple-decker Reuben ($6.99) from the specialty sandwich menu. The sandwich was a little unorthodox in that it was made on wheat bread, but it was excellent. A third slice of bread separated the half-inch-thick layer of tender, flavorful meat from the tangy sauerkraut and melted cheese. It was far too much for any of us to eat at one sitting, although the guys in the flannel shirts probably could have managed it.

The sandwiches came with a handful of fresh rippled chips, and, charmingly, a delicious dill spear nestled inside a folded sheet of deli paper.

We tried the potato and macaroni salads ($1.99) and found them to be fairly standard and very mayonnaise-y. Skip them and go for the excellent soup instead.


Mayback’s Deli

Where: 1598 Niagara Falls Blvd., Tonawanda (835-0115)

3 pennies

Hours: The store is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday; the kitchen closes 30 minutes before the store.

Wheelchair access: Yes.