SIDESTREET SAMMIES AND SALADS: Uncle June’s opens amid Starland Yard’s DeSoto Avenue expansion

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Finding a void in the marketplace is always a great starting point. Since its gates opened, Starland Yard’s inner sanctum has been the permanent home to the city’s best pizza and the nomadic stopping grounds for dozens of delectable mobile eateries.

Along the southernmost stretch of DeSoto Avenue, Crispi grills up eponymous burgers, Superbloom serves pastries and crepes and all sorts of bevvies, and soon, Nixtate will be cranking out authentic antojitos Mexicanos.

Can a brother grab a sandwich?

When Uncle June’s opened next door to Nixtate on Feb. 16, Reid Henninger gladly answered that question in the affirmative.

“We’re talking about a greatest hits menu of casual fare,” he said of a carte that will comprise a half-dozen sandwiches, a similar number of salads, and a few sweets, all without any “regional focus” or overt homage to Dominic Chianese’s role on The Sopranos.

“The character hits uncomfortably close to home,” Henninger explained with a wry smile. “I grew up with dysfunctional characters.”

“It’s a name that has memory quality to it, and it is rather ambiguous in its definition,” he said of the sandwicherie’s sobriquet. “It’s a personal inside joke to me.”

All kidding aside, Uncle June’s fare promises to fill a niche in a neighborhood that has quickly become Savannah’s de facto food district.

TRIPLE S: SANDWICH, SALAD, & SWEET

While Henninger is not outright touting his food as ‘healthy’, he knows that “food prepared excellently is real food and doesn’t have any processed crap in it.”

“I also think that having some lighter options here will bode well,” he added, referring to both SY’s landscape and the proximate restos in Starland proper. “I want to fill that void for sure.”

Among the succulent sandwiches will be a pork belly BLT, the starring meat slow-confited, sliced, and seared off, and a patty melt featuring grass-fed beef from Hunter Cattle Company (Brooklet). Deli meats will be stuffed in an Italian sandwich, on the roster because it is one of the chef’s all-time favorites and not because of his shop’s name, and Henninger plans to go through “lots of local shrimp.”

More than half of the entire menu is “very vegetarian,” including an artichoke grilled cheese with provolone and swiss that Henninger “just kind of pulled it out of the back of my brain” and a fried eggplant with mozzarella and pepper jelly served on a hoagie roll.

Speaking of a roll: what he calls “the most significant part about the menu” are the breads baked by Natasha Gaskill, whose neighborhood cafe, Sixby, is also set to open soon.

“It’s going to be great,” Henninger shared. “I think it’ll be really awesome for both of our businesses to get off on the same foot at the same time. I can supply her with a whole lot of business, and she can supply me with a whole lot of quality because it doesn’t matter how creative I can be.”

“If I don’t have good bread, I don’t have a business,” he continued. “I’m pumped about that, for sure.”

Gaskill’s “dialed-in” breads include a white Pullman loaf, whose same dough will be used to make a sesame hoagie roll, a rye loaf, and rye buns, all of which will be prepared in the Japanese milk bread method.

“There’s something particularly awesome about the physics of the bread,” Henninger said with a glint in his eye. “It has all of the structure to it throughout the whole time that you’re eating it, yet it’s spongy and soft.”

In addition, New England style buns will be baked in-house for the shrimp rolls.

“Each one is a specific, focused creation,” Henningers said of the salads he has planned, one of which is concoction he eats at home all the time and is going to call a “Greek salad tabouli.”

He described it as “basically tabouli with all the ingredients that are in a Greek salad except for the lettuce, like a grain salad,” made with Anson Mills farro verde, bulgur wheat, feta, pickled peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, “all that jazz.”

The buffalo cucumbers are just that dressed in buttermilk ranch with “lots of seeds,” poppy and sunflower, celery, and blue cheese with “Hershey kisses of hot sauce around it.”

For grab-and-go dessert, how about baked-to-order cookies?

“There’s something really special about a cookie that’s been out of the oven for five minutes,” Henninger asserted, adding that he would like to do a “functional dessert that travels well,” perhaps a rotational custard-pudding, a tiramisu in a cup, or a “simple dessert based on fruit.”

BACK ON THE BURNER

Henninger shared that he has been out of restauration game for a couple years. After moving to Savannah in 2021, he worked at Common Thread for a little less than a year and “toyed around” with the idea of opening a restaurant of his own. Inflation, costs of goods, and a shallow labor pool shelved that plan quickly.

“While it might be something that I wanted to do, it wouldn’t have been a very smart thing to do,” he said soberly.

Instead, he stepped away from professional cooking and labored at another lifelong love: construction. In addition to a Fine and Studio Arts degree from the College of Charleston, building, metalwork, and carpentry have always been in his life, so he “attacked it as a second career,” working this past year with Danny Reddin (Reddin Construction), whom Henninger dubbed the “most talented guy” in Savannah.

Some SY folks have been Henninger’s friends as long as he has been in Savannah, including general manager Ava Pandiani and former colleague at Common Thread John Benhase. They turned to Henninger in August after the container shop’s initial occupant backed out, just about the time a construction crew was breaking ground.

“The Starland opportunity just kind of fell in my lap, and I thought it would be really foolish to turn it down.”

“It wasn’t something I was expecting to do,” he confessed, “but it didn’t take me long to figure out that it was a smart move.”

The deal was inked in September, and “the concept came from talking with ownership and managers [at Starland Yard] about what would jive well with what is already happening here,” Henninger said.

He summed it up: “You’ve got the town’s best Neapolitan pizza, you’ve got a Mexican concept, and then sandwiches and lighter fare sounded like a good puzzle piece.”

“There’ve been constraints due to size,” said Henninger of outfitting his 300-square foot shop. “It is small, but it is only a kitchen. It’s not a restaurant.”

“That’s been challenging,” he added about the infrastructure of a flat top, coolers, grease trap, and triple sink, “but I couldn’t ask for anybody better than Bill McIntosh (JTVS Builders) to help me figure it out.”

Like Nixtate, Uncle June’s shipping-container shop will have service windows that open into Starland Yard and out to DeSoto Avenue, and Henninger anticipates plenty of overlap hours between the pair, as well as SY’s courtyard, but different days off, most likely.

“I’d like to capture a lunch crowd on the public window as much as I can,” he said.

Clearly happy to be in Starland Yard’s culinary constellation, he added, “So far, landlords here, people here, I just really like working with them. They’re good people, and that’s the most important thing.”

A TALE OF THREE CITIES

Henninger’s fascinating personal food map has taken him from Charm City to The Holy City to The Hostess City.

Back where it all began in Baltimore, Henninger’s Tavern was opened in 1980 by his parents, Chuck and Connie, and was a gold standard of gastropub cuisine before America even leaned into that culinary moniker. His family sold the restaurant a decade later, but it stayed open under the family name until 2020.

As much as I hate injecting myself into these articles, I have to share that Henninger’s was one of our favorite restaurants for American tavern bistro fare during the twenty years we lived in Baltimore, and it was not until Reid and I met that we discovered our ‘Smalltimore’, and now ‘Smallvannah’, connections.

I think I might have even coached against him while I was at Gilman School and he was at Loyola-Blakefield.

Only five years old, he was too young to help out at the family tavern, but the familial food foundations run deep and olfactory memories linger.

“I remember the smell of stale beer in the cellar,” he said. “I still love that smell today, that yeasty living remnant of good times had the night before,” he said seriously but smiling.

Henninger recalled his dad going down to the nearby Broadway Market in Fells Point on Christmas morning, returning home with smoked fish wrapped in newspaper.

In Baltimore from 2010 to 2012, he cheffed at Dogwood and at b Bistro in Bolton Hill, where my wife and I had a farewell dinner with our dear neighbors and the couple who bought our house before we moved down to Savannah.

“The chef there, Jamie Forsythe, he became a real mentor to me,” Henninger said. “He is someone that I personally really looked up to and have modeled myself after.”

After a brief stay in New Orleans, he cut his chops in Charleston kitchens, “carving out [his] career as a chef” working in finer-dining restaurants. He called his time at The Ordinary “formative training” before he served as executive chef at Edmond’s Oast for three years.

Post COVID, Henninger migrated down the coast and settled in Savannah.

Letting slip a laugh, he admitted, “I don’t really get excited. I’m a pretty even-keeled guy, but it’ll be nice to own a business, even though it’s a small one.”

“I’ve been educated in some of the best restaurants in the south, and I want to take that same level of quality to whatever I do, even if the food happens to be handheld,” Henninger offered.

“I do not take myself very seriously,” he said simply. This is not someone who wants to hear, “Yes, Chef” and who is the opposite of holier-than-thou in his kitchen.

All the same, he pledged, “The food that I prepare, I do take that seriously.”

Uncle June’s (2411 DeSoto Avenue) is open in Starland Yard Tuesday and Wednesday (5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.), Thursday through Saturday (noon to 8:30 p.m.), and Sunday (noon to 7 p.m.). The hours for the public window with online ordering on De Soto Avenue are TBD but will most likely be weekdays for lunch.

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