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Hot turkey sandwich, $10.30.

Image: Alice Levitt

I did my research before I moved to Houston. I knew about kolaches. I knew that it would be harder to find vegetables at restaurants and that people would drink iced tea and water almost interchangeably. What I didn't know is that open-faced hot turkey sandwiches weren't a thing. I had lived in the Northeast my whole life and it never occurred to me for even a moment that the diner staple was a regional dish. 

As I perused menus I saw the usual suspects such as patty melts and BLTs, as well as the expected southern-inflected grub along the lines of biscuits-and-gravy and chicken-fried steak. But my definitive diner order proved elusive. Bemused, I did a little digging.

According to Wikipedia, the thing I was seeking is called turkey Manhattan. Apparently, the dish I know as hot turkey is so closely identified with New York that once it hit the Midwest (namely Indiana), it took its name. From region to region, the details vary. You'll find a roast beef version most places, and often one with pork. In Vermont, a hamburger replaces the thinly sliced meat in the "hot hamburg." In Canada, it's called a hot turkey (or chicken) or sandwich chaud à la dinde, and is served closed and covered with canned peas.

Finally, I realized that I would have to look to New York-style eateries to get what I was craving. Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen has a small section of its menu, called "Off With Their Breads!," devoted to open-faced turkey, roast beef or brisket. So far, so promising. But when I joined a friend recently at New York Bagels and Coffee Shop, I encountered a version even I'd never seen before. 

There, the chunky, griddle-singed turkey can be served on any flavor of toasted, homemade bagel, replacing the typical white bread. Combined with salty gravy, crispy out-of-a-bag crinkle fries and a pickle spear, it may be the most thoroughly New York dish in Houston. It tasted just like what I remember from the diners of my early childhood, with a fun twist. And a touch of innovation can be even better than truly reliving the past.

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