In terms of the valley’s culinary secrets, Willow Glen’s La Villa would have to rank with the absolute worst-kept. But despite being one of the most popular delis in the South Bay, there’s an interesting insider quality to La Villa that refuses to go away.

It’s as if the hardest-core of the hard-core regulars, not to mention the employees themselves, refuse to let go of the days when the little Italian sandwich shop on Lincoln Avenue was an exclusively neighborhood phenomenon, fueled exclusively by word of mouth touting the best sandwiches in the South Bay.

La Villa’s “neighborhood” has gotten a lot bigger. Many among the initiated will consider it a misnomer to even call this collection of off-menu items, specialties and “secrets,” since they are hidden in plain sight. But for the uninitiated—and I don’t mean just first-timers, because it can be weeks, months or even years before a regular thinks to ask, “Wait, what’s a Chris Combo?”—there’s a bit of catching up to be done before they can experience the best La Villa has to offer.

1.) The Chris Combo: The headiest of La Villa secrets, this has to be peeled back in layers. First, one has to know to ask for it, since it’s not on the menu. One veteran sandwich artist at the deli told me that most often people discover it by asking him, “What’s that sandwich you’re making? It looks really good.” 

Beyond knowing to order it in the first place, however, there’s the mystery that is the Chris Combo itself. The ingredients are kept top secret, and whatever punishment has been promised to the first person who leaks it must be impressive, because I have not been able to pry it out of anyone there using charm or veiled threats. My Plan B, trying to suss it out from watching them being made, also failed. (They pull some ingredients out of weird places, and seemingly already put together. No fair!)

What I can say is that this sandwich is the ultimate intersection of meat and cheese. There are at least four kinds of meat, and nearly as many types of cheese, from what I can tell, and they’re fused together for a creamy, savory kick that is unrivaled among local sandwiches.

2.) The Death Sandwich: Another off-menu item, this may seem like a cult curiosity compared to the Chris Combo’s groundswell of popular support among regulars. But in fact, it has quite a following. Mere words can barely describe the enormity of this thing. It’s an all-too-aptly named monster that weighs in at 2 pounds—four meatballs cut in half and laid across a quarter loaf of garlic cheese bread, splashed with sauce and then covered with another quarter loaf.

It’s the first sandwich I’ve ever come up against that might require a weight-training regimen to get through. In fact, there used to be a T-shirt you could get if you did finish one. But it also highlights—in the most over-the-top way possible—the fact that La Villa’s meatballs are unfairly overshadowed by the popularity of their raviolis (by far their most popular item). Yes, the raviolis have a remarkable melt-in-your-mouth quality, but the meatballs use the same sauce and are exquisitely spiced.

3.) La Villa BBQ: They only do it on Saturday (and sometimes Tuesday), but the barbecue here is off-the-charts good. A Tuesday lunch plate can get you barbecue chicken or ribs, served with raviolis and potato, macaroni or three-bean salad. If the pit’s fired up outside, it’s a good time to stop.

4.) Seeing Sports Stars: Who else has noticed this seems to be a top pro-athlete hangout? We’re used to seeing Sharks players around town, but I’ve seen Joe Thornton here more than once, and what seemed like the team’s whole front line. Then during the NFL lockout, I sat at one of the outside tables next to 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who was there with three of his teammates.

5.) Avocado and Shrimp Salad: If there’s any knock against La Villa, it’s that much of what’s available is so heavy. This salad (served only when avocados are in season) is the perfect antidote: the top-quality jumbo shrimp are light and refreshing, and the avocado slices are the best I’ve had in a deli salad ever.