Sometimes a meal is far more than just a meal. Sometimes the food and the very act of eating it join to create a transcendent experience.
This is, after all, a blog, so no, I'm not talking about food as mere survival. I'm talking about gustatory excess. Because I have just eaten my favorite cheesesteak of all time.
I'm from Philly. I have eaten, literally, hundreds of cheesesteaks. This is a notable landmark.
The event in question took place at John's Roast Pork. The sandwich — a cheesesteak with mushroom and onions, sharp provolone, and ketchup — was tremendous. The meat, infused with the taste of its roll-mates. Heavenly.
The first sandwich I fell in love with was a simple one. In high school, a friend and I used to drive over to the local convenience store for lunch once or twice a week. I would get deli turkey on a kaiser roll, with lettuce, mayo, and American cheese. Boy, I dug that sandwich. But like many first loves, I have evolved, and
it was inherently flawed to begin with we have grown apart.
Love, you ask? Oh, indeed. A sandwich is more than just a slab of meat (or veggies or legumes or whatever) between two slices of bread. It's convenience. It's simplicity. It's a lifestyle. Occasionally, it is even culinary perfection.
That said, I've put together a modest hall of fame, as follows. Now the great thing about the sandwich hall of fame (SHOF) is that it's an ever-expanding (perhaps to match the waistband) entity. There are certainly classic sandwiches (say, the muffaletta at Central Grocery in NOLA), which, sadly, I have yet to consume — as well as sandwiches that have yet to be created.
Note: This is the sandwich hall of fame, so I'll forgo any mention of wraps. A few are worthy, most are not. I understand full well that forces exclusion of my favorite falafel joint in the holy land, but such is life.
In any case, the honorees thus far:
Cheesesteak — John's Roast Pork, Philadelphia
Fresh, hot, not greasy, and the perfect meld of ingredients. Thank god I don't work around the corner from this joint (I'd pretty much have to be a stevedore to do so), as I'd be a little scared to find out what the repertory of a daily cheesesteak or roast pork would do to my vascular system.
Pork Báhn Mì — Báhn Mì Saigon Bakery, NYC
I stumbled (literally) onto this place only recently, on the walk to a friend's place after a successful Fung Wah experiment. The crusty, chewy baguette, the pork, the hot sauce, the sliced cucumber and carrots, the fresh sprigs of cilantro. So good that I went back 16 hours later for another to get me through the return bus trip.
Italian Roast Pork — DiNic's, John's Roast Pork, Tony Luke's, Philadelphia
The other Philly sandwich. Succulent roast pork pulled from a bath of broth and juice, served on a hoagie roll with sharp provolone and garlicky broccoli rabe. Mercy, mercy.
Ferdi Special — Mother's Restaurant, New Orleans
When you order your po' boys at Mother's, they ask if you want it with debris. Your answer should always be "Yes." Debris is the juice, fat, and flavor-filled detritus that falls to the bottom of the pan when the meats are being roasted. It's spooned over the top of the sandwiches and soaks into the bread, making everything heavenly. Upon finishing his first debris-addled masterpiece, my good friend Spider decided that next time he might skip the meat and just ask for a debris sandwich.
Lobster Roll — Red's Eats, Wiscasset, ME
The lobster roll debate is a lively one, and I might cast my vote for a different place on a different day, but Red's Eats knows how to bring it, and they don't fuss with accoutrements. You're served a whole lobster's worth of meat on a toasted bun. No hacking up the meat, no obfuscation, just goodness.
Italian Hoagie — The White House, Atlantic City
Like the mighty lobster roll, the hoagie debate is strong. For my money though, good deli meat is good deli meat, and it's not too difficult to come by. I've had great hoagies (though they sometimes go by different names) all over the map, and passable hoagies nearly everywhere. So the deciding factors are sandwich construction and the roll. And absolutely nowhere serves better classic crusty/chewy hoagie rolls than The White House.
Turkey Reuben (a/k/a, "Rachel") — The Original Turkey, Philadelphia
There is just so much to be said for a shmear of good Russian dressing and coleslaw topping a pile of fresh sliced, perfectly roasted turkey breast. I've had similar deli versions served cold — a favorite of which was a turkey/roast beef combo. This particular version adds a couple slices of Swiss, puts it between good wheat bread and pops it on the sandwich press until its absolutely beautiful. This is a sandwich that simply melts in your mouth.
I don't know that I have yet found the perfect cubano — a delicious pressed construction of roast pork, ham, cheese, spicy brown mustard, and chopped pickles — but that only serves to inspire me to continue the quest. I've certainly come close. Clearly, this may require fact-finding missions to Miami and Havana and all places Cuban. But in my own backyard, there are two places within a stone's throw of each other that do the cubano solid: Chez Henri and the Montrose Spa.
Chicken Torta — Tacos Lupita, Somerville, MA
Torta is a generic Spanish term, which, like the Vietnamese báhn mì, loosely translates to "that which makes the mouth water, the knees go weak, and the heart grow fond of foreign lands." My favorite torta starts with well-spiced grilled chicken, adds a spoon or two of beans, avocado, lettuce, tomato, a couple of jalapeño slices, and mayo. Nothing crazy, but the roll is nice and soft and the effect is outstanding.
Cheeseburger (fast food) — In-N-Out Burger
In-N-Out is to fast food burgers what a hot-off-the-line Krispy Kreme glazed is to donuts doughnuts — namely, the only kind that I will happily eat. It's not quite slow food, but it's good enough and fresh enough to make you forget it's fast food.
Cheeseburger (for reals) — Your Backyard, Your City
Don't let anyone make a better burger than you can serve your damn self. There is nothing more simple than grilling up your own burger, grilling it right, topping it with your favorite cheese, a perfect slice of tomato, etc.
Yes, I realize full well that the above list is guilty of a dearth of cold sandwiches. Rest assured that there are indeed plans for a future annex to the SHOF for our heat-challenged friends — once we are able to secure proper funding. Perhaps a reserved space for the buttered Parisian baguette with country ham, gruyere, hard-boiled egg, and lettuce. But for now, these are my darlings, and I'm gonna dance with them until a cardiologist looks into my heart and stomps on my soul by telling me to lay off.