by John Ryan
My Club Conundrum
This past month I've been having problems with club sandwiches. I can't find a good one. and that's a problem, because the club sandwich is the quintessential restaurant sandwich.
Sure, you can make a club sandwich at home, but it's impractical. Club sandwiches, like eggs benedict, are ideally suited to restaurants because restaurants can have fresh turkey, bacon, bread, delivered daily.
A month or so ago I developed a taste for club sandwiches and started ordering them. and each time it was radically different. At one upscale brew pub I received the usual suspects—turkey, bacon, lettuce and tomato—but they were all wrapped in a flour tortilla. Another business lunch spot served its club in a more traditional fashion: between three slices of toast. But each slab of bread was three quarters of an inch thick. and instead of sliced turkey, the kitchen used a grilled chicken breast. It was impossible to eat as a sandwich. I ended up carving it with a knife and fork.
At another white-tablecloth lunch spot, I was served a club in the tradition of my dad's hamburgers. (My dad used to make burgers by compacting a fistful of meat into something you could use in a baseball game. Then he'd flatten it ever so slightly and grill it. This was his secret way of keeping burgers from falling apart on the grill. The result was a charred burger that was raw and barely warm inside.)
In my fourth club sandwich, all the sliced turkey was piled in the center of the sandwich. The result was about four inches high. Does anyone in the kitchen eat this sandwich? I mean, my dentist is the only person who gets my mouth open that wide.
Compared to rolling blackouts and the price of gas, my club issues are no big deal. But two things occurred to me. First, I seriously doubt that the owner, chef, or cooks really eat their own food. I was paying my money for concept food. For instance, the concept of wrapping food in a flour tortilla is pretty appealing, except that in reality cold, slightly damp flour tortillas are disgusting. (Slightly damp is what happens when these sandwiches are made in advance, wrapped in plastic and refrigerated.) The other sandwiches must have been developed by chefs who grew up on Mighty Morphing Power Rangers because when you remove the toothpick, the sandwich transforms itself into a salad of toast, turkey, bacon, lettuce and tomato. Nifty trick, but a lousy sandwich.
I remember going through this with hamburgers. For a while every restaurant felt compelled to put its stamp of genius on the Hamburger. At one place the house burger would be served on an English muffin. At another, a croissant. The house burger might also come with chili or sliced mushrooms (tasty, but impossible to eat like a sandwich). Eventually, even in restaurants, burgers became burgers. The bells and whistles were extra.
On the one hand, maybe this is how 'Cuisines' grow up. During a Cuisine's adolescence (or perhaps a particular dish's adolescence) chefs experiment heavily along the fringes of culinary fashion. Eventually, if the dish survives this abuse, it takes on a more or less uniform national identity.
On the other hand, I also thought that restaurants have this bad habit of taking something simple and making it complicated. That's what's happening with Caesar salad.
Despite the misguided efforts of restaurant chains and bored chefs, the best sandwiches are incredibly simple. So simple, in fact, that you can't order them in restaurants. This month I'd like to share my favorite summertime sandwiches: my tomato sandwich and my grilled vegetable sandwich. While you may find a grilled vegetable sandwich on a menu, it'll inevitably be served on tomato-goat cheese-focaccia and built up impossibly high. It's so much better with slices from a simple, crusty loaf of white bread. and tomato sandwiches...I don't think there is a restaurant in the country that buys good tomatoes. So the only place to get a good tomato sandwich is at home during late summer.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page modified June 2001