A Layered Essay

The Critic's Notebook: The Perfect Sandwich

On the hunt for a just-right lunch.

By Alice Levitt September 15, 2017

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If you're from Louisiana, Sleepy's Po' Boys may be just the ticket. But I'm not.

Image: Alice Levitt

Is there anything more elusive than a just-right sandwich? There is no reason that this should be the case. It's a meal comprised solely of bread, condiments and thinly sliced, stackable foods. If this is rocket science, the folks at NASA have competition at Subway (or maybe not). Yet I can't remember how long it's been since I've eaten a sandwich that I found wholly soul satisfying, and chances are, you feel the same way.

But the difference is, we're not talking about the same sandwich. The perfect sandwich is not only highly regional, but deeply personal. For me as a New Yorker, that can only mean a deli sandwich on a hard roll. A Google search of those words and "Houston" turns up mostly references to Maine-ly Sandwiches' lobster roll, clear proof that there are major subtleties, both linguistic and culinary, that the search engine is missing. According to some definitions, kaiser rolls and hard rolls are interchangeable. In my experience, this is only sometimes true. Both are shaped with lobes on top that loosely resemble a crown, but kaiser rolls are sometimes crusty—a vast departure from the thin-skinned but airy-centered hard roll. Other times, they're identical, or the poor kaiser is adulterated beyond recognition by fast food chains' interpretations thereof.

So I'll have to be a bit flexible when it comes to the roll. What about the filling? Did we all start out thinking turkey was the best of all possible sandwiches, or is this a plain, boring Northern phenomenon. Maybe you grew up where liverwurst was the ne plus ultra or mac-and-cheese loaf the archetypal elementary school meal (I pity you). But I have fond memories of attending day camp at my local Audubon and opening my lunch bag to find thinly sliced roasted turkey on whole-grain bread—the puffy, loose supermarket kind, not the real, dense kind—lightly spread with mayonnaise, which I'd just discovered at the age of six. I don't remember what the hell else I did all day at Audubon camp, but the feeling of that sandwich on my tongue will never die.

With the passing years, I became more (or less?) sophisticated. The first sandwich I ever made myself boasted a center of sliced bananas and Slim Jims. Salumi not purchased at a gas station entered the picture not long after. There were basic Bologna sandwiches, yes, but that quickly evolved into turkey with Genoa (and only Genoa) salami. Then, I combined them. By the time I'd hit middle school, my go-to order was turkey, salami, Bologna and roast beef with mayo on a hard roll. No vegetables, ever. This remained the case for many years, until I became depressed in high school and became reliant on my mom's turkey sandwiches again, now served on tiny, homemade challah rolls. I ate them for lunch every school day for two years.

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The pit beef sandwich at Pinkerton's.

Image: Alice Levitt

My sandwich history becomes blurrier after that, as I ate more widely. My banh mi awakening, at some Vietnamese bakery or other in Montréal's Chinatown, was significant. So were the similarly French-inflected sandwiches at Moroccan Boucherie An-Nasr in that city's Marché Jean-Talon. When my brother Volodia opened a market and café in Vermont, his panini (a sandwich suddenly all the rage in the early aughts) were pretty perfect, especially the brie-and-pear one that I had with grilled chicken instead of ham. And just before I left the Green Mountain State, a real, New York-style deli opened a couple of blocks away from my office. I kept things simple with only one meat, basil mayo and the addition of grown-up vegetables.

When I moved to Houston, my native sandwich, the one I crave, wasn't really an option, but my world widened significantly all the same. There's no avoiding a discussion of Pinkerton's Barbecue's chopped beef sandwich, the best damn barbecue sammie I—and likely anyone—has ever eaten. There's the bomb-tastic schnitzel sandwich at Heights Bier Garten, bathed in A-1 gravy. And oh, my, yes, there's the spot-on sweet-and-salty medianoche at Flor de Cuba

So I guess the moral of the story is that even if you can't find the sandwich you love, it's pretty easy to love the one(s) you're with.

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