When Maria Sparks and her classically trained chef husband, Jason, decided to open a restaurant, one might expect they would open a high-end dining establishment, or a bistro specializing in French food—a cuisine that Jason Sparks is trained in. But you would be wrong.
Instead, the University City couple opened an American deli, specializing in sandwiches, wraps and salads. Maria's Deli is now a thriving business located at 8332 Lackland Rd. in Charlack.
Jason attended Western Culinary Institute in Portland, OR, where he trained in classical French cooking. How does a chef trained in classical French fare go to owning and operating a deli?
“I worked in a lot of high end establishments, but I was partial to comfort foods, so a deli seemed perfect,” Jason Sparks said. “But the simple answer is this shop was a deli before.”
Although Maria Sparks worked in restaurants while she was in college, her food knowledge comes to her mostly through osmosis. “You'd be amazed at how much you learn when your spouse is in culinary school,” Maria said.
The first thing you notice when you enter Maria's deli is the walls covered in movie posters, contributed by a regular customer who works at a movie theatre. The second is how everyone seems to know each other. Friendly barbs fly from table to table, and even at the Sparks, who throw them right back. It's all good-natured fun and there's lots of laughter. Everyone seems happy here.
“We know 80 percent of our customers by name, and our customers have gotten to know each other,” Maria said. “We've met a lot of interesting people and made some really good friends—people we go out with, people who babysit our kids.” Maria points to a regular and loudly said, “He's not one of them.”
Although Maria's Deli is only open for lunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., there's a wide variety of offerings, so there's something for everyone. Salads run from $4.25 to $5.50, wraps from $5.25 to $5.95 and sandwiches from $5.25 to $6.25. The menu features both standard sandwiches and specialty sandwiches, such as the Cuban and Supreme Combo, plus a daily sandwich special created by Jason.
Recent daily specials have included the Turkey Focaccia Club, Pesto Chicken, Southwest Chicken, Chicken Cordon Bleu sandwich, Shrimp Po' Boy and the Seafood Salad Sandwich or Wrap.
The limited hours have worked well for the Sparks, who are young parents raising children. “I can take my girls to school and pick them up,” Maria said. “Then I can spend the evenings with them. Jason is still going to school to get his accounting degree, so it works out great for both of us.”
Working together has worked out well for the Sparks, in spite of one glaring difference between them—Maria became a vegetarian while Jason was in culinary school. “We have salads, of course, and a veggie sandwich,” Maria said. “I fought tooth and nail to get it on the menu.”
It was time to order a sandwich. I asked Maria's Deli regular, Ryan Manley, what I should order. “The West Coast Reuben was the first sandwich I tried here,” Manley said. “It was incredible. I thought, yep, this is the sandwich for me.”
The West Coast Reuben it was. The first thing you need to know is it's not a Reuben at all. Instead of corned beef, the sandwich features micro-thin slices of melt-in-your-mouth turkey and a slice of smoked Gouda. Instead of sauerkraut, there's house-made sweet and tangy coleslaw with a little spice, thanks to the Thai chili sauce that doubles as the sandwiches lube—thousand Island dressing is nowhere to be seen—and it's served on pumpernickel, not rye.
Expectations aside, it was delicious, and it's no surprise that the sandwich—created by Jason while he was in culinary school—is a runaway best seller. Reuben purists needn't worry. A traditional Reuben is on the menu as well.
I'll be going back. If you'd like to sample the good stuff at Maria's Deli, it's located at 8332 Lackland Rd. at St. Charles Rock Road, Charlack, Missouri. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. It's worth the short trip. Catering and box lunches are available, and University of Missouri at St. Louis students get a 10 percent discount with school ID. Call 314-426-3444 for more information.