Strange Brouhaha

Monday, June 05, 2006

A tale of two sandwiches

For something that's so simple ("Two pieces of bread with stuff in the middle," as I think Alton Brown once said), making a great sandwich is surprisingly difficult. Oh, it's easy to make an adequate sandwich, but "great" is another thing entirely.

A great sandwich is all about balance. Everything has to be exactly right: the ratio of bread to filling, the relationsip between the texture of the bread and the texture of the filling, even the way the flavor of the bread mixes with the flavor of the filling. If one of those things isn't right, you've left any hope of greatness behind. It's a strange thing; your individual ingredients can be great, but put them together and it's just a mess.

I had a flawed masterpiece this weekend, the chicken salad sandwich at Hubbard Ave Diner in Middleton, just down the road from my house. It put me in mind of the best chicken salad sandwich ever, from the late Urban Market, and made me miss it even more.

There is a sandwich-making axiom: soft fillings, soft bread. Tuna, chicken salad, even peanut butter and jelly, shouldn't go on a hard roll. The filling just spills out the sides of the bread, all over your hands. I don't even like to make those kinds of sandwiches on soft bread with a hard crust (the way Atlanta Bread Company does it). Urban Market had a nice, soft wheat bread that was perfect for their chicken salad. Hubbard Ave had a great-tasting bread, but they toasted it. In itself, that's not a problem.

The problem comes with the reason they toast the bread: they put a HUGE amount of chicken salad on the sandwich, and toasting the bread makes it firm enough to absorb some of the liquid of the salad and still hold together. The chicken salad itself was excellent--grapes, walnuts, chicken and mayo, with pepper and something else that I couldn't quite taste. But there was just too much of it. (Urban Market, of course, had a perfect balance between filling and bread. That lady was a genius.)

This was by all means a good sandwich. I'd eat it again. It was restrained from greatness, though, by the tendency that restaurants have to overdo everything. They need to take some lessons on "less is more".


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