moist pieces of smoked brisket, silky cheddar cheese, pickled onions, moderately spicy chili jam, tangy aioli, and bright cilantro, all on a parisi loaf–such are the components of fatty ‘cue’s list-topper ‘wich. unlike ‘cue’s sloppily tasty smoked pork shoulder banh mi (#17 on this here list), the smoked brisket ‘wich is composed, confident in the interplay of its textures and the harmoniousness of its asian-slash-southern-bbq flavors, and certain of its undeniable deliciousness. unlike most of the ‘wiches on the list, the smoked brisket gives off an aroma–deep, rich, nostalgia-inducing–and demands savoring, the taking of time to enjoy every bite. savor i did, appreciating the ‘wich on a cold and rainy spring day in williamsburg, lost in ruminations of a challenge completed and a pledge kept. is the smoked brisket truly the best ‘wich on the list? is it my favorite? ultimately, those questions matter little. the journey was the joy, not the signposts along the way.
bad news bears, friends. the pane e panelle–a fried chickpea italian ‘wich that is the number two ‘wich on the list–is no longer served at bar stuzzichini. i found that out just before i stepped into the restaurant. needless to say, i was crushed. stumbling away from stuzzichini in a bit of a daze, i searched for a sign of sanity in my suddenly shaken world–and then i saw eataly. eataly, my friends, is a massive flatiron district retail space that is stuffed to the rafters with imported italian products and graced by gelato bars, coffee stands, fish restaurants, pasta tastings, and a rosticceria that churns out roast meat specials daily. (one day, pork arista. another day, brisket bollito. a third day, porchetta–yummo.) naturally, i gravitated to that particular corner, drawn by the pungent aroma of roasted meats–only to find the motherlode: a prime rib panini. a pound’s worth of freshly roasted prime rib slices + olive oil + salt + foot-long crusty loaf = a perfect way to forget all about the pane e panelle. welcome to the list, prime rib panini. you’re right where you belong.
what do you get when you pluck an english chef from london, drop her in the west village, have her start an italian gastropub, and let her loose on a classic hispanic concoction? you get chef april bloomfield’s cubano sandwich at the spotted pig, and Lord, is it out-of-this-world good. the key to any good cubano–traditionally a toasted ham, pork, and cheese ‘wich– is the subtle contrast of textures, and in chef bloomfield’s take, those textures play off each other in an unprecedented manner. bloomfield’s cubano lovingly offers tender pork shoulder that is slow-roasted, brined, and cooked in duck and pork fat (!!!!); top-notch prosciutto di parma; pickled jalapeno peppers for heat and cutting acid; and super-gooey (and distinctively funky-smelling) aged and melted gruyere cheese, all served between a sturdy toasted roll. that melange of flavors and textures is the stuff of culinary dreams, a porcine specter destined to haunt my thoughts for a long time. this, my friends, is one of the most delicious things i’ve ever tasted (‘wich or otherwise), right up there with dad’s short ribs and mom’s potato salad–and it’s only #3 on the list! my tummy quivers with satisfaction and anticipation.
balance. in grub, as in life, pleasure comes from balance. meals should be harmonic symphonies, no matter how elegant the setting or how simple the ingredients. the pâté thit nguôi from ba xuyen is one such symphony, playing out every day in a modest vietnamese restaurant in brooklyn. an abundance of pork products–smoky pate, ham, bbq pressed sausage, pork roll, head cheese (which tastes far better than it sounds), and white roast pork–move in harmony with a generous heap of pickled veggies. a crispy, foot-long baguette provides the overture, while a spicy mayo-based sauce beats a delicious tempo, tying all the ingredients together in a symphonic whole. my first hesitant bite led to another, and then another, and another, until, finally, the experience crescendoed with my last crunchy, pickly, porky, sweet, spicy bite. costing only four bucks, this classic champ is tastier than many ‘wiches four times its price tag. can there be balance in addiction? only if there is resistance–and resist i must, or else i will play this symphony over and over again until the lights go out and the audience leaves me to my gastrointestinal fate.
the gals and guys from mile end delicatessen (whose extraordinary smoked meat ‘wich is #11 on this list) are at it again, this time with a bit of culinary metamorphosis. when is salami more than its already awesome self? when it is made of premium brisket and short ribs, smoked, and then fried like a doomed egg during sunday brunch. when is a salami sandwich more than its already excellent self? when its meaty contents are smeared with mustard and squished inside a robust onion roll. (onions!!! in roll form!!! prayers ARE answered!!! why am i using so many exclamation marks?!!!) when is a sunny day in brooklyn more than its already beautiful self? when i have the company of ms. ruth wilensky, a surprisingly delicate marriage of flavors and textures, and a heckuva tango partner. it takes two, after all.
the ocean’s essence
salty and bright, warm and raw
i know my last meal
something happened on the way to giving the earl his comeuppance: a lifelong meat-lover developed a hankering for fresh veggies in his ‘wiches, and in his daily cuisine. how significant is that development? let’s put it this way: as a kid, i had a ninja-like ability to “dispose” of veggies behind the kitchen fridge in the middle of mealtimes, often right in front of my distracted parents. (my sister did the distracting sometimes. we were a formidable anti-veggie tag team.) i hated veggies with a passion. that distaste remained with me well into early adulthood, until i learned to douse veggies with dressings to mask their flavors on the rare occasions when i absolutely had to consume them. the earl’s challenge has thrown a bevy of veggie ‘wiches at me–abraxco’s, northern spy food company’s, mumbai xpress’s, etc.–and much to my initial astonishment, i’ve grown to appreciate the meat-light (and–gasp!–meat-less) options. anyone can carve up steaming roasts of meat and pile the slices onto two rudimentary pieces of bread, and get ooohs and aaahs from a meat-obsessed public, but it takes great skill to elicit the same sort of response with veggies. enter the ooh-and-aah-worthy scuttlebutt, a focaccia ‘wich that is festooned with an amazing medley of raw veggies–mesclun greens, capers, olives, radishes, pickles, and red onions (!!!)–complemented by a spicy garlic aioli and sharpened by a smattering of feta cheese. as a sop to the carnivores among us, the scuttlebutt also features slices of hard-boiled egg, but the veggies reign supreme in this ‘wich. what did the colorful concoction taste like? spring, dear friends, vibrant, assertive, bright, fresh spring. my ninja days are over. this is the spring of my contentment.