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Cheap Eats; Off the radar, SoupHerb Gourmet does food right

The SoupHerb Gourmet is a long, narrow storefront in the plaza on Sheridan Drive between Essjay and International, just past the post office. I give these specific directions because five out of five Amherst residents to whom I mentioned this place drew a blank.

Obviously, people do know about SoupHerb, which opened in 1996 and was purchased by its current owner about seven years ago. The place was busy when I stopped in for a sandwich recently, and although there were fewer people dining in when John, Pat and I stopped in for an early Friday dinner, several folks ordered dinners for takeout and picked them up as we were waiting.

The SoupHerb menu contains 20 gourmet sandwiches; most of them are $7.95, including the eye of round corned beef melt, the tuna salad, the roast beef and turkey panini. They come with chips; for $1.50 more you can add a scoop of fresh salad including fruit, seven bean, Tuscan pasta, cheese tortellini with broccoli, and a bright combination of fresh peas, baby lima beans and corn. Our advice is to spend the $1.50.

The setup is casual at SoupHerb. You can pick up a menu of soups, salads and sandwiches at the door, then peruse it as you walk to the back, where a large board lists specials of the day. Your eye will be attracted by the bright, fresh salads kept cold next to the cash register. Order from a staff person, then take your slip to the register, pick a drink, and pay. The food is brought to your table.

Appropriately, soups are among the stars, and there were six simmering in the kettles. We started with a cup of pasta fagioli ($3.75) and vegetable (served with a half-sandwich as a special, $7.95 for all). We had our choice of crackers or bread. The bread, half a sunflower seed roll the size of your fist, was exceptional, with a slight crusty exterior and chopped seeds dotting the interior.

The vegetable soup was delicious, with bite-sized chunks of vegetables in a rich tomato-based broth. The pasta fagioli was rich, with several kinds of beans and pasta in a tomato-based soup, but it had a slight, unexpected sourness.

The sandwiches were all very good. The half-sandwich in the soup-and-sandwich special was a ham and cheddar melt, with high-quality slices of ham that looked cut directly from the bone.

The grilled vegetable pita ($8.95) was exceptional, too. The eggplant, zucchini, red peppers and portabello mushroom all bore dark grill marks that added to the flavor. The vegetables, in a large half-pita, were covered by a delicious melted fontina cheese and augmented by a bit of dill dressing.

The roast beef on baguette ($7.95), served on a 6-inch fresh baguette, was also very good. The beef was cooked through rather than being pink, which we appreciated, and it was still tender and juicy. The sandwich included a layer of portabello and soft, cooked sweet onions, topped with melted provolone.

There are only three desserts -- carrot cake ($2.79), brownies with frosting ($2.29) and cookies (99 cents), but all are made in-house. We tried the carrot cake and the brownie, which was topped with caramel and chocolate chunks, and found them both -- well, superb.