The Old Charm is Back at Wan’s New Location in Allston
It was the hottest part of the afternoon and the only thing that remained of the busted air conditioning was a residual drip of scalding water. A quaint looking screen door—defying any sort of logic—was propped ajar, while the front door remained ensconced in its frame. The humidity was rising inside, but the Deathwich in my hands—a blend of turkey, bacon, thinly sliced pork, and shaved steak—was easing my discomfort.
“Al’s always late,” an employee named Manuel says, laughing. A fixture in the building since its days as Wise Guys, Manuel (who declined to disclose his last name) was retained by new owner Al Niles to continue cooking the primavera and lasagna that made his former employer an off-the-radar favorite in Allston. Now his Italian-American comfort food is served alongside sandwiches like the Richard Pryor with roast beef, turkey, and ranch dressing and the Jerry Springer with Genoa salami, turkey, and banana peppers.
“When we opened in May, Al told us to be here by 11 a.m.,” Manuel continues. “People were lining up outside trying to get in. I think Al showed up at 2:30 p.m. that day.”
It was all starting to make sense. Last February, when I first went to write a story about Wan’s Convenience in Mission Hill, the phone perpetually rang, never to be picked up. I went by several times, only to be greeted by a locked door and a hand-written note that cryptically explained, “Wan’s is evolving, not closing.” Now here I was at his shiny new restaurant, a photographer in tow, and Niles was an hour late to our agreed upon time. I almost felt lucky.
Just then Niles walked through the service entrance, his booming West Indian accent echoing through the cramped dining room. “I’m so sorry,” he said, flashing a bashful, contrite smile. Niles looked like he’d just gotten a haircut and a shave, but the memory of his tardiness melted away as he shook our hands with his warm, catcher’s mitt-sized paw, and chuckled at his absent-mindedness.
“I’m here for you,” Niles said. “Whatever you need, wherever you need me to pose, I’ll do it.”
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Niles’ entry into the culinary world was almost accidental. When he left his former occupation in 2004 (something that had to do with “mixing paints and chemicals”), he had no grand aspirations outside of resurrecting a struggling convenience store on Tremont Street. Christened Wan’s Convenience, an acronym for his full name, Winston Albert Niles, he continued to peddle bodega specialities like Little Debbie snack cakes, potato chips, Pepsi, and pre-packaged Goya products.
“It was more of a survival thing than anything else,” Niles says. “I just got tired of working for a big company and wanted to test my ability to do something on my own. At the time I had some money I had put away, so I took a chance on running my own store. The whole sandwich thing came about a year into it because college students were always coming in asking for something to eat. I had a little background mixing and matching and putting things together, so I started blending my own spice mixtures and sauces and making sandwiches for them. I didn’t even have a menu for the first couple of years, but they loved it and it just kept progressing until it became this full-fledged deli.”
Niles invested in a deli grinder and a two-foot-long propane griddle and began putting more of his energies into his largely improvised sandwich creations. One of his regulars, an accounting major from Northeastern University, suggested he purchase French baguettes and rye bread fresh from Quinzani’s Bakery and become more selective about his choice of meats. Another college undergrad, a photography major at MassArt, volunteered to shoot his growing list of offerings and make it into a largely visual, wall-length menu. Niles credits these contributions for his almost instantaneous success.
“My customers are really the driving force behind what I do here,” Niles says. “They’ve helped take it to a whole different level. They would tell their friends and family and spread the word all through the various campuses. The college students have inspired me to make this and continually do it better. I always like to say, ‘It’s really the customers’ business, I’m just the caretaker.'”
Soon, lines were an inevitable part of the Wan’s experience as his tiny Mission Hill storefront became congested with students and neighborhood regulars clamoring for the foot-long Deathwich and the “Hero” stuffed with salami, corned beef, ham, and a secret blend of spices from the West Indies.
“You can buy any other sub on the street and I guarantee you it won’t taste anything like what I’m doing here,” Niles says. “Anyone can buy a ham and cheese or turkey and cheese; that’s bland. I want my food, which is my creative art form, to have tons of flavor and a nice presentation. Every bite should make you want to come back.”
It wasn’t just the food though that was bringing in bigger and bigger crowds. Niles is a throwback to the bartenders and restaurateurs of yore, a sympathetic sounding board receptive to small talk and a day’s worth of grievances. The anarchic ordering system and the extensive wait times were largely forgotten as Niles drew each customer into his web of conviviality.
“When you walk into my door, I say hi to everyone. I develop a relationship with everyone who walks through that door,” Niles says. “My customers often come by to ask for advice or just talk about what’s happening in the classroom. Everyone is comfortable with Al.”
What most of his dedicated clientele didn’t know though, was that Wan’s Convenience had always existed on borrowed time. Niles had originally signed a rent-controlled, 10-year lease in a building ill-suited to the restaurant trade. Which explains why on December 31, 2013, Niles permanently boarded up its windows and seemingly disappeared. A Reddit thread was launched in February inquiring: “Does anyone know what happened to Wan’s Convenience/Al’s Deli?” Niles had left an email address pasted on the window of his former residence, but news was practically non-existent.
Then, in late-April, came an innocuous announcement posted on the Wan Convenience Facebook page, heralding a new location at 172 Brighton Avenue and re-opening date of May 1.
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“I was missing for a few months and somebody wrote an article on Reddit that asked, Where’s Al? Al is missing. He just disappeared,” Niles says. “I took some time off because I was just coming off a 10-year lease. I hadn’t ever had any vacation or anything of the sort. After 10 years with no break, I thought I’d take it easy. Plus, I needed some time to reflect and see where I wanted to take the business next. So, I took off and slept late and just enjoyed Al.”
Since launching his new restaurant, now simply called Wan’s, business hasn’t been quite as brisk. He has a full-size kitchen, a new Italian side to his menu, but the same uncompromising philosophy when it comes to fresh ingredients. Quinzani’s has resumed deliveries (40 baguettes and a marble rye every morning) and he continues to cherry-pick produce and leaner cuts of meat from Chelsea’s Restaurant Depot. But in a way, Niles has been forced to build his clientele the same way he was forced to back when he first set out on his own: through word-of-mouth.
As we sat in his steamy new headquarters, rummaging through his past and his seemingly random path to culinary acclaim, Niles would occasionally excuse himself to catch up with a returning customer. Without fail, each of these former regulars would burst through the entrance with arms outstretched, chatting with Niles on a familial first-name basis.
“Even today I have customers who walk through that door and say, ‘Al make me something to eat,'” says Niles. “That’s why I have something called The Hush, where I can improvise whatever I want. As long as the quality is fresh and the flavors are good, it doesn’t matter what I make, they enjoy it. There’s not much more to it than that. What you see is what you get. This is Al.”