“Carter & Cooley” may sound like the title of a 1970s-era detective show but actually its “retro” roots go much farther back. Inspired by one of the first sandwich shops in Houston created by two of the original community planners of the Heights, Carter & Cooley is named in honor of Oscar Carter and Daniel Denton Cooley. Although this duo’s original shop is long gone, its culinary legacy as a neighborhood institute is carried on by Carter & Cooley who have managed to maintain a loyal clientele because as the Heights changed rapidly over the past two decades…well, they didn’t.
Unlike some of the manufactured old-school kitsch popular in certain hipster dining establishments, the quaint knick-knacks and architectural details at Carter & Cooley are the real deal. See, for example, the original crimson tin ceiling, so beautiful that you find yourself glancing up as often as down at your terrific sandwich. The no-nonsense paper menu board and chalkboard announcing daily specials are reminiscent of an era when a quality restaurant required only word of mouth and a consistent product rather than a fancy menu fonts to sell its food.
Thus at Carter & Cooley, expect amusing vintage details but no modern bells and whistles with its sandwiches, salad plates, and baked goods. Don’t worry, in this case, the simplicity is simply divine. Naturally, the shop is most well-known for its selection of 20-odd sandwiches incorporating various standard cold cuts, cheeses, spreads, and meats all made to order. The friendly staff behind the deli will, of course, make you whatever you and customize any sandwich; however, why mess with a good thing? Order one of their classics like sweet ham with melted brie served on a warm onion roll, whose warm porcine and dairy flavors readily relieve the chill of a stormy summer day. I also found satisfaction with the hearty B.L.T., which being roughly 70% bacon, 5% lettuce, 10% tomato and 10% mayo, is perfectly proportioned. For vegetarians, Carter & Cooley offers purely botanical sandwiches stuffed with tomatoes, alfalfa sprouts, guacamole, etc. But for vegetarians that don’t like vegetables, I strongly suggest the spicy pimento cheese on a croissant. All full sandwiches come with the appropriate sidekicks: a dill pickle slice and a styrofoam cup of creamy potato salad not light on the mayonnaise (yes!).
Having tried many an egg salad in this town, I can say Carter & Cooley’s version is among the top five and distinctive for its high yolk content and varied texture thanks to the inclusion of ample chunks of celery. Portion sizes are modest, which means there’s room for some accompaniments. For something sweet, I suggest a hand-scooped shake or malt or the homemade saran-wrapped mini-pies in varieties such as cherry, blueberry, and apple that have a delightfully flaky crust and a rich filling with whole fruit pieces – and if you fancy, go a la mode.