Local Pennsylvania chain, Isaac’s Famous Grilled Sandwiches offers smorgasbord of gluten-free options

Isaac's Famous Grilled Sandwiches, Ephrata, Pennsylvania
Isaac’s Famous Grilled Sandwiches, Ephrata, Pennsylvania

Restaurant: Isaac’s Famous Grilled Sandwiches, Ephrata, Pennsylvania

I have to once again break my vow to not blog about chains.  And why?  Because I recently visited a chain restaurant that is only found in Pennsylvania.  Much like California’s own In-N-Out Burger, this little sandwich shop is only available regionally.  Therefore, I will not be able to find anything like it where I live in Indiana.

Welcome to Isaac’s Famous Grilled Sandwiches.  This chain began on August 25, 1983, when two friends attending college, Phil Wenger and Isaac Williams, met.  After graduating and going in two separate directions (Phil taking a job in sales for a flower wholesaler and Isaac working as a chef in a local restaurant), the two friends began to brainstorm the idea of a deli/restaurant.  Isaac provided the knowledge of cooking and his flair for decorating, and created an eclectic interior and a working menu.  Phil provided the experience of running a business and his desire to create something that would give back to the community.  And with that…Isaac’s Restaurant and Deli was born in the heart of Pennsylvania.  Now with 20 restaurants in 6 counties of Pennsylvania, this local chain is providing a delicious menu with a variety of choices in soups, salads, and sandwiches.

So, how did this out-of-towner stumble upon this little chain?  The Internet, of course.  My roommate was researching possible places to eat after I ran in the Hershey Half Marathon while we were out and about in other areas of Pennsylvania.  She came across Isaac’s on Find Me Gluten Free, and it had really great ratings.  It also had gluten-free flatbread!  Now there was something new and worth checking out, yes?

So, after a very successful run that morning in Hershey, Pennsylvania, my roommate, my friend Jenn, and myself headed out of town toward Ephrata, Pennsylvania.  We wanted to stop by the grave of Major Richard D. Winters, best known from Band of Brothers.  After the drive out there and the visit to the cemetery, we found that we were ready for lunch.  There was actually an Isaac’s in Ephrata.  Even better…it wasn’t that far away either.  BONUS!

We made our way to the Cloister Shopping Center and pulled in to park.  The actual center itself looked a bit sketchy.  In fact, Isaac’s was located next to an open (WOW!) Blockbuster Video.  I wasn’t feeling too confident about the situation.  But, at this point, we were committed.  We stepped up to the door, which thankfully had a large-scale version of their menu up.  I double-checked the gluten-free option and it was listed…so we stepped inside.  As we came in near the Blockbuster Video, we had to walk down a very long hallway in order to get to the restaurant itself.  We stepped inside and went to the hostess station in order to be seated.

A table was just clearing up where the three of us could sit, so we were told it would only be a minute.  Looks had to be deceiving, because Isaac’s was quite busy.  Every table was taken.  I glanced around in awe, as it didn’t look like much from the outside.  Inside, it was very much like the old diners you are used to seeing in movies.  There are crazy decorations and colors throughout the interior.  And right next to the hostess stand…the dessert case.  The three of us too a moment to ogle the pies and cakes inside…but then were told the table was clean and ready for us to be seated.

We followed the hostess to the booth and got situated.  She said our waitress would be right with us and left us to peruse the menu.  There were a lot of options to choose from.  So much sounded really good.  I was having a hard time deciding and I knew both Jenn and Cathy were also eying a few options as well.  Our waitress came to our table to get our drink order, and we all stuck with water.  She returned and gave us a little more time with the menu.  When we were all set…a different waitress came over.  Our waitress just got assigned a large party and they wanted to get our order in first.  We appreciated that…and so we began to put in our order.

Jenn decided to create her own sandwich.  She put salami and provolone on a pretzel roll ($6.99).  It came with a side of ranch dressing.  And she kept the chips as her side item.  Cathy opted to do the half soup-half sandwich combo.  She went with a half Mockingbird Sandwich (thinly sliced grilled ham and provolone cheese, topped with tomatoes and onions with mayo on hearty multigrain bread) with a cup of Isaac’s Famous Pepperjack and Tomato Soup.  She had that with a side of the Utz Potato Chips ($7.39).  As for me, I alerted them that I am a Celiac and was interested in trying the Gluten-Free Larkspur, which consisted of muenster and cheddar cheeses, fresh tomatoes, spinach and sprouts all wrapped up in a gluten-free flatbread and served with ranch dressing, which I was assured was also gluten-free.  I ordered the dressing on the side and opted for the baby carrots as my side ($8.04).

I will point out that there is an up-charge for the gluten-free option on the menu.  The gluten-free flatbread carries an additional $0.75 charge.  Not a problem.  After all, most restaurants charge a lot more.

Our orders went in and we had a good amount of time to sit around and chat.  I mostly talked about how interested I was in this gluten-free flatbread.  After our wait, our meals were brought out to us.

Let me tell you, the sandwich I got was nothing like what I expected.  But…it looked fantastic.  The gluten-free flatbread was grilled to a beautiful golden color.  Inside it was stuffed with spinach, sprouts, and tomatoes.  The cheeses were there…but not in overabundance.  I appreciated that.  And, as I asked, the ranch dressing came in a cup on the side.  I was dying to try this out.  Pausing only long enough to take a picture for my blog, I picked up the knife and sliced into the sandwich.  I took that little wedge, dipped it in the ranch dressing and took a bite.

I died and went to sandwich heaven.  The gluten-free flatbread was definitely the star of the show.  In fact, what it reminded me of the fried bread that Taco Bell Chalupas were made in.  They had a nice crisp outside but were great and soft when you chewed them.  I found it to be the perfect compliment to my vegetables inside.  And I honestly appreciated that the cheese wasn’t filling the sandwich.  It complimented it instead.  I gave a piece of the bread to both Cathy and Jenn and even they liked it.  I savored every bite, not wanting the sandwich experience to come to an end.  But with each bite…my sandwich grew smaller and smaller.

Here’s what I have to say…while it looked like an absolute dive on the outside, inside, Isaac’s is a quirky, fun little soup/sandwich/salad deli establishment.  I had a great dining experience there.  The waitress wrote in big letters on the order that mine was gluten-free.  And the receipt also made mention that it was gluten-free and yes…it was an allergy.  These are the little things that someone like me appreciates while eating out.  It just puts your mind a little more at ease.

I never knew how much I missed flatbread until I could have it again.  And this was a great place to start as far as finding one that had lots of flavor, no strange texture, and was just awesome with every bite.  I didn’t even need the dressing…the bread provided a lot of the necessary flavor for a sandwich filled with fresh vegetables.  This was love in flatbread sandwich form.  And I was one happy gluten-free customer.

If I find myself back up in southeastern Pennsylvania again, I will actively seek out Isaac’s as a safe place for me to eat.  Looks can be deceiving as I have come to find out quite often.  And in this case…this little dive of a place in a strip mall provided me one of my favorite gluten-free sandwiches to date.  The care of the staff at the restaurant and the variety of gluten-free options on the menu was awesome.  Totally worth a repeat visit sometime!

Isaac's Gluten-Free Larkspur Sandwich
Isaac’s Gluten-Free Larkspur Sandwich

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