At best, I was a marginal student at the University of Illinois…..let’s just say “a gentleman’s C.”
But I did make the honor roll for wretched excess….that included eating and beer drinking. And the beer hall of choice was KAM’S at 618 Daniel St. where I could be found on Friday afternoons and frequently into the late evening.
After a few wasted hours of trying, without success, to meet girls (the U of IL ratio at the time was 13 men for every woman), I would give up and nestle into a KAM’S ITALIAN HOT BEEF SANDWICH: a two-fisted, messy concoction boasting a half-pound of thinly sliced beef stuffed into a deliciously soggy, beef broth-ladened hoagie bun.
But that wasn’t all. What made it truly special were the pepperoncini peppers – lots of ‘em. This sandwich didn’t just sop up the remaining alcohol in my stomach, it pickled it.
Now there are a lot of really good Italian beef sandwiches around…..some with cheese….some, like AL’S ITALIAN BEEF in Chicago, with roasted red peppers. But I’ve never seen an Italian hot beef sandwich quite like the ones in Champaign, Illinois, loaded up with Pepperoncini peppers. They barely nudge the SCOVIL HEAT SCALE (about 200). But their juices packed a real punch.
So I got to thinking: Just about every region, city or state has some sort of sandwich that they are known for…..a source of civic pride…a unifying force that binds the populace.
While AL’S is certainly popular, it’s the working-class Chicago Hot Dog – humble, affordable, immigrant-embracing – that truly represents the City of Big Shoulders (and Protruding Paunches).
Just what is a Chicago Hot Dog? Well, it’s made with a fresh-steamed poppy seed bun – piping hot – that’s substantial enough to withstand the onslaught of a Kosher Vienna (and ONLY a Vienna) shiny all-beef hot dog in a casing that SNAPS when you bite it. It’s methodically topped, in correct order, with neon-green sweet pickle relish, a generous squirt of yellow mustard, two bright-red Roma tomato wedges, chopped white onions, a dill pickle spear, sport peppers and celery salt. Never, EVER does ketchup enter the equation. That’s a law.
What’s it called? “Dragged Thru the Garden.”
The Big Apple’s signature sandwich has to be PASTRAMI ON RYE. But not the version you’ll find here in the heartland. A proper Pastrami on Rye – the kind you’d get at the now-defunct CARNEGIE DELI – boasts 14-16 ounces of astonishly flavorful, juicy pastrami, stacked high, not on flimsy white bread, but on Russian Rye.
This is a sandwich too thick to be eaten as a sandwich.
And the final question: “Fat on? Or fat off?” The answer is FAT ON – or we will NEVER BE FRIENDS.
What could it be other than the PHILLY CHEESESTEAK? Famous long-time rivals, GENO’S and PAT’S, are directly across the street from each other in South Philly, a working-class neighborhood largely made up of Italian-Americans. Each claims to be the home of “The Best Cheesesteak in Philly.” But it sure doesn’t seem like this iconic sandwich has much to do with Italy, as both places pack the soul-comforting hoagie bun with juicy, thinly sliced ribeye steak to maximize the juice (aka FAT), along with caramelized onions. The meat and onions are then lavishly adorned with large ladles of KRAFT CHEEZ WIZZ, right out of the can. Yeah: Cheez-Wizz. Having said that, the sandwich is really good. Philly, you can be proud.
This river town, known as the “Pearl of the Mississippi” in reference to its past history as the global center of pearl button manufacturing, is home of the slightly famous MAID-RITE SANDWICH, made right in Muscatine by the Maid-Rite Corporation. Over the years, several restaurants (and copycats) migrated from the area to Illinois and Indiana, and it was in my hometown of Kewanee, Illinois where I devoured these loose-meat delights on a regular basis.
I’ve never eaten the archetypal CAPONE TALL BOY at PRIMANTI BROTHERS in Pittsburgh. However, at 1,040 calories, it’s famous enough to have landed a slot on 60 Minutes a few years ago, maybe in a segment on heart attacks.
This sandwich would have been just the ticket for me during my college years. Sandwiched between two thick-cut slices of soft white Italian bread is a quarter-pound of pastrami, along with another quarter-pound of corned beef, and two slices of Swiss or Provolone cheese. It MUST be slathered with Primanti’s own spicy mustard and one cup of French Fries. Yes, that’s ONE CUP OF FRENCH FRIES. Capone’s Tall Boy is a worthy specimen to represent the brawny Steel City.
Here in the North Country, we have two contenders: The 5-8 CLUB and MATT’S BAR. Both are home to the same burger, with different spellings. The 5-8 Club is known for its “Juicy Lucy” and Matt’s serves up a “Jucy Lucy.” As far as I can tell, there is no difference between the two. Both are wonderful.
How could they not be? Start with a soft butter bun, holding two 3-ounce stuffed burger patties with Kraft American Cheese INSIDE the meat instead of on top. This looks like an ordinary burger, but be very, very careful when you take that first bite because its molten core of cheese will melt your tongue off. On one of his trips to the Twin Cities, President Obama ate here.
The list goes on…..
South Florida’s most iconic offering is probably the CUBAN SANDWICH from VERSAILLES RESTAURANT in Little Havana. This abides by a strict formula of ham, Swiss Cheese, pickles, and mustard on a buttered Cuban bun. It’s ALWAYS cut in half on the diagonal. Screw that up and you will be deported.
This is a stockyard town, known for BEEF BARBEQUE. The standard-bearder here is ARTHUR BRYANT’S BBQ and its BBQ Brisket “Burnt Ends” on a bun.
Maine, Boston, take your pick – each is known for the LOBSTER ROLL. Note, these sandwiches are as EXPENSIVE as they are GLORIOUS. A few short years back, one would set you back $20 – quite a bit for a sandwich – but these days, you can expect to pay twice that. Some friends just returned from Provincetown, Massachusetts, where a lobster roll runs a whopping $45!
In its defense, a lobster roll’s filling is pretty much ALL lobster, held together with a little mayo and a touch of lemon. Make note: The iconic lobster roll bun is a brown-crusted Pepperidge Farm roll.
A word about lobster: It was once available in such abundance that the upper classes considered it junk seafood. The state bought it in bulk to feed prisoners. Pet owners fed it to their cats. (Back in the day, canned beans cost more than canned lobster). Things changed, however, in the early 20th century when transportation routes opened up new markets for lobster. Populations that had no association whatsoever with the food tried it and – big surprise – fell in love with it, creating a surge in demand that, essentially, has never subsided.
All hail the HOT BROWN. Created by the BROWN HOTEL as a midnight hangover alternative to bacon & eggs, it’s an INDULGENT MESS made up of turkey, crisp bacon, and tomatoes, topped with creamy Mornay sauce (white sauce with cheese) and served on a slice of toasted white bread. It’s what’s known as a “knife and fork” sandwich. I have a somewhat “fuzzy” memory or downing a Hot Brown in the hotel after getting myself smashed on Kentucky’s own Maker’s Mark Bourbon (for more info on that debauched adventure, see my posting of May 26, 2016 – “Blackout at the Brown.”)
The “Hot Capital of the World” loudly and proudly proclaims the glory of the “Manhole-sized Deep Fried Pork Tenderloin on a Bun” served up at the local A&W Root Beer Stand. It’s not world-famous – and maybe not even Illinois-famous, or for that matter North Central Illinois-famous. But it IS highly acclaimed in South Kewanee, and that’s not nothing.
Near and dear to my heart is, of course, THE MUFFULETTA. Joanne and I discovered this New Orleans classic while strolling down Decatur Street in the French Quarter 40+ years ago. The Sicilian creation consists of marinated olive salad, provolone cheese, ham, salami and mortadella. You know the rest.
The town of Peubla is where the TORTA was born, but Mexico City made it the country’s national sandwich. And justly so: It’s cheap to make, easy to carry and scrumptious to eat. There are infinite iterations of the Torta. Some are meat, some veggie, but almost every version will include tomatoes, lettuce, onion, jalapeno, beans, chipotle, pepper, avocado and mayo. Its history is a bit clouded. Some claim its creation was influenced by the French occupation of Mexico in the 1860’s.
Speaking of the French, Catholic missionaries from France were in Vietnam as long ago as the 17th century trying to convert the VieCnamese to Catholicism. The country eventually became known as French Indo-china and was under French colonial rule until the Vietnamese finally kicked ‘em out in the 1950s. But the French impact on the cuisine remained. Shortly after they exited, the BANH MI SANDWICH surfaced.
It’s a fusion of French and Vietnamese goodies. From Vietnam: Cucumbers, chiles, pork, soy sauce, pickled vegetables, daikon, cilantro and lemongrass. From the French: baguette, pork liver pâté and buttery mayo. The Banh Mi delivers a flavor profile of salty, sour, savory, sweet and aromatic – all at once.
England is known for Fish & Chips, but it’s not a sandwich. Still, most any “chippy” (fish and chips restaurant) serves up a CHIP BUTTY: a batch of French Fries between two slices of white bread slathered with a wincing amount of butter and lashings of ketchup, mayo or H.P. Brown Sauce, and sometimes Heinz Malt Vinegar. A football chant called “The Greasy Chip Butty Song” (sung to the tune of John Denver’s “Annie’s Song”) is the fight song of the Sheffield United Football Club. It’s just about as working class as a song can get. Oh, by the way, Burger King in England tried adding a Chip Butty to its menu. Social media erupted. “Burger King is guilty of cultural misappropriation!” The Butty was banished.
In Florence, the nighttime street food of choice is a PORCHETTA PANINI, laden with the fatty, savory, moist whole suckling pig that’s roasted on a wood fire or on a rotisserie. The salty rind, or crackling, is always eaten and is INSANELY FLAVORFUL. And salty is good, because the Florentine bread in a panini contains no salt whatsoever and is thus flavorless. The go-to place in Florence for a porchetta panini is the MERCATO CENTRALE in the heart of the city. And the go-to place within the Mercato is NERBONE’S, a stand-up corner stall (#292 on the first floor) where the sandwiches are made to order, hand-carved, and loaded with roast pork, dripping with juice. NO CONDIMENTS ARE SERVED, but you may ask for extra cracklings.
Ever heard of the ALL SQUARE CAFÉ? This is a craft grilled cheese shop at 4047 Minnehaha Avenue, sporting a unique array of ramped-up adult grilled cheese sandwiches of all stripes – sweet, savory, three cheeses, bacon, avocado…you get the idea. NO KRAFT SINGLES HERE. Even the Kids Grilled Cheese gets real cheddar. And for the grownups? How about fontina with hot and sweet peppers…or prosciutto with brie, crushed almonds and onion jam…or mozzarella and provolone with basil pesto…or rotisserie chicken with Swiss, provolone and guava jam? OH, NO…NOT THAT AGAIN! These are the best grilled cheeses I’ve ever had.
And on the topic of GRILLED CHEESE, I have a question. A grilled cheese sandwich that would put a smile on every face….a hot, melty, sweaty, arousing, runny, drippy, lubricious, creamy, steamy, ooey-gooey lusty grilled cheese sandwich….shared by three people.
Would that be called….A FROMAGE À TROIS?
I was just wondering.