Monday, September 6, 2010

The humble sandwich

Consider the humble but versatile sandwich. I'm not talking about Mom's peanut butter and jelly here, but about the kind of sandwich sold in the streets, in cities, delis, diners and luncheonettes all over the world.

A crusty roll or slim loaf of bread, sliced lengthwise and filled with whatever you like. It seems like almost every culture has its own version. The sandwich is a cultural ambassador; it translates every language; it adapts to every locale; it spans the globe.

These were sandwiches for workers - in New England, workers at the naval yards called their submarine sandwiches after their resemblance to the ships they were building. In Philadelphia, the shipyards were located on Hog Island, so the sandwiches were called "hoagies." In New York city, the sandwiches were so big and filled so abundantly someone joked you had to be a hero to finish one. Down in New Orleans, a bit of last night's meat stuffed into a hard roll was an inexpensive lunch for the impoverished unemployed, so the groceries started calling the sandwiches "po' boys." In New England they were called "grinders" because the rolls were so crusty you had to grind them with your teeth.

Local variations sprung up in most industrialized American cities. In Chicago, Italian beef sandwiches. In Philadelphia, in addition to the hoagie, roast beef on a roll with onions and peppers and melted cheese was called a Philly cheese steak.

Italian delis make sandwiches with cold cuts like ham, salami, and bologna, layered with provolone cheese and topped with shredded lettuce, tomato slices, onions and hot peppers. The classic dressing for an Italian sandwich is a drizzle of olive oil and vinegar, sometimes with a shake of oregano. But some places also put mustard and mayo on it.

In Los Angeles, there are lots of places to get Italian sandwiches. The "Godfather" sandwich from Cricca's deli in Woodland Hills, CA includes marinated artichokes and mushrooms with the cold cuts and cheese. A few miles away, Cavaretta's in Canoga Park is a formidable rival.

Another famous Italian deli is Bay Cities in Santa Monica, offering the "Godmother" sandwich. People stand in line a dozen deep, waiting for these. But Bay Cities' hot meatball sandwich is a thing of beauty too. See a picture of one HERE.

Whenever I travel to Tampa I have to have a Cuban sandwich. This sandwich was invented in Ybor City, around 1900, to serve lunch to the workers in the cigar factories and sugar mills. A long slim loaf of Cuban bread sliced lengthwise is brushed with butter, oil, and mustard, then filled with sliced roast pork, ham, swiss cheese and pickles. Then it's pressed in a plancha - a heated grill that toasts and compresses the sandwich.

In France, you can buy a lunchtime baguette at a neighborhood bakery - ham and butter is a common filling. When we traveled to Dijon by the fast train, we grabbed a couple of wrapped sandwiches for lunch on the train. Another night, we had a baguette stuffed with grilled merguez sausage, served by North African vendors in a park in Paris's 18th Arrondisement, while we listened to an African pop band perform.

In the South of France, a variation of a baguette sandwich is pan bagnat, translated as "bathed bread." Partially hollow out a baguette by pulling some of the inside crumb out. Stuff the center with some drained canned tuna, olives, hard-boiled egg slices, tomato slices, lettuce and anchovies to taste. Drizzle it all with a light vinaigrette. Then wrap in foil, press down with a heavy weight and let sit for a couple hours so the flavors can meld.

A Mexican torta is served on a hard-crust bollilo roll, and garnished with lettuce, tomato, guacamole, mayonnaise and salsa. This is a torta milanesa at Tacos Por Favor in Santa Monica. Milanesa is a thin, pounded beef steak, deep fried. The torta is versatile, other popular fillings include chicken, carnitas, ham, roast pork, scrambled eggs. A torta ahogada (or "drowned") is dunked in red chile sauce - messy but delicious.

This is the lamb and feta sandwich served at Papa Christos Greek restaurant and grocery, in LA's Byzantine-Latino Quarter.

LA has some other great lamb-based sandwiches, including the French-dip lamb sandwich at Philippes the Original. Get it with bleu cheese and a glass of good red wine - order some pickled beets on the side. Philippe's claims to have invented the French dip sandwich, although that claim is disputed by Coles, just a few blocks to the south. Which one do you believe? Start your research and go try them both.

The Persian sandwich shop Attari in Westwood serves baguette sandwiches filled with slices of cooked beef tongue, lettuce, tomato, and sour pickles. You can also get fillings of Persian-style chicken salad called "oliveh", fried brains, and Persian hot dogs. My favorite sandwich here is a kind of herbal omelet called "kuku," a bright green eggy sponge, dripping neon-green oil into the soft bread of the baguette. See a picture of it HERE.

Vietnamese immigrants brought the banh mi to America, France by way of Saigon. A vestige of the French colonization of Vietnam, crusty baguettes are filled with cold cuts like head cheese, pate, barbecued pork and ham, and garnished with pickled daikon, carrots and cucumbers. Spiced with cilantro and black pepper, the banh mi is a popular street food, both in Vietnam and wherever Vietnamese people settled. This one came from a catering truck called Nom-Nom that sometimes parks across the street from my office. I love the pickled daikon and carrots tucked inside, along with slices of jalapenos and cilantro sprigs. Vietnamese bakeries use rice flour in their baguettes, for a distinctive crunchy crust texture.

Sandwiches the world over. And so many here in L.A. Which ones do you love best?


Lisa Paul said...

Who would have thought our sandwiches would say so much about us? My British husband counts a Bacon Sarnie as comfort food. With only bread, bacon and ketchup, each ingredient has to be superb. I never liked them until I recently made my own ketchup. Now, I understand.

Shawn said...

Love your blog... came across it searching on Tarpon Springs. If you're ever back this way check out 365 Things to do in Tarpon Springs on Facebook :)

cactus petunia said...

I love the Banh Mi the best! Did you know that Nom Nom competed in the food truck race on the Food Network? I'm betting that they won it, too!


Canter's is a favorite of mine. Do you ever go there? Now I'll go raid the fridge.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

In D.C. they were submarines, in New Haven everyone called them grinders.

I love the classic Italian from a good deli...olive oil and vinegar is the way to go.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Sandwiches the world over. And so many here in L.A. Which ones do you love best?

Why choose? They're all fantastic.


Aunt Snow tends to elicit this reaction regularly.

I live in a narrow part of the world (from the northern Bronx to southern Westchester County) where the big ol' sandwich is called a "wedge".