Special Feature -
Sandwich World Tour - Some people count Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Theresa among their heroes, but for me, it could only be John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. He was the first to have the masterstroke vision of putting meat between two pieces of bread, and ever since then, the world has never recovered. And while some may argue that the light bulb or the telephone have been bigger advances, I say, I'd rather eat a hoagie in the dark not talking to anyone than calling friends with the lights on and being hungry. So to celebrate the two hundred forty-three years since the Earl's innovation, Vince and I set off on our third gastronomic survey, the Sandwich World Tour.
Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop - 174 5th Ave., Flatiron District
Half of a Turkey Pastrami
Our first stop was Eisenberg's, an old-school Jewish luncheonette that's barely changed since its 1929 opening. The spinning stools at the counter are still there, the same New York standards are still on the menu, the service is still as friendly as I imagine it being three-quarters of a century ago. I'd heard the tuna melt was one of Eisenberg's specialities, but Vince, feeling squeamish about fish and cheese at eleven a.m., suggested the turkey pastrami. We split this instead, an enjoyable if not exciting order. The rye bread was grilled and crunchy, the turkey was standard deli turkey, and the Swiss cheese was tastily melted. It was simple and low-key, much like the place itself. I could've used some Russian dressing to give the sandwich more kick but all in all, a pleasant vintage-feeling start to the day. 6/10
Tony Luke's - 576 9th Ave., Midtown West
Half of a Roast Pork Italian, a Mug cream soda
Next, we walked north to check out Tony Luke's, located out by the Port Authority and which, strangely enough, had the decor of a bus depot. Tony Luke's, a recent outpost of the popular Philly sandwich shop, is known for its cheesesteaks but I was more interested in its other star, the Roast Pork Italian. The sandwich was hefty so we split one again, but even half of it would make for a filling lunch. Loaded with a thick stack of pork strips, soft sauteed broccoli rabe, slices of sharp provolone and a generous pour of Italian dressing, the combination was a wonder. Even before finishing my portion, I knew I'd be craving another taste soon, especially after a late-night drinking session or during a Super Bowl party. Even with its remote location and ugly atmosphere, Tony Luke's Roast Pork Italian was well worth the hike. 8/10
5 Ninth - 5 9th Ave., Meatpacking District
Half of a cubano, half of a bahn mi, a Bloody Mary
From the downscale settings of Eisenberg's and Tony Luke's, we traveled down to the decidedly trendier digs of 5 Ninth. An up-and-comer at the foot of the Meatpacking District, its brunch offerings of the cubano and the bahn mi sounded like an intriguing proposition. Would such cheap, casual sandwiches benefit from fancier ingredients and a high-profile kitchen's preparations? I was hopeful when we arrived, wowed by the restaurant's European facade of faded brick and trellises. When we sat out in the garden, I was less optimistic, worried by the usual set of trendsters with their oversized sunglasses and omnipresent cigarettes. Also a semi-bad sign was their Bloody Mary, which they touted as having a top secret recipe. Whatever the recipe was, they won't have to worry about me stealing it. My drink was just average.
It got worse with the arrival of our sandwiches. While they certainly looked attractive enough, they didn't taste any more interesting or creative than the real, ungentrified thing. And besides the gourmet ingredients being hard to detect, the sandwiches didn't even equal their more affordable competition. In the bahn mi, the mayo was watery and weak, and in the cubano, the pork was pretty flavorless. Both of them also used a bread that was tough to chew and not an improvement. The big difference wasn't taste then but price, $12 for a bahn mi that should cost $3 and $15 for a cubano that should cost $5. I won't be suckered again. 4/10
Caracas Arepas Bar - 91 E. 7th St., East Village
Arepa con Perico y Carne Mechada, Choriarepa, a Papelón con Limón ("a refreshing natural blend of sugar loaf and lime"), half of a Camburada (a banana milkshake with a touch of cinnamon)
After trying versions of Jewish, Italian-American, Vietnamese and Cuban sandwiches, our last stop on the Tour was Venezueluan. I realized that I hadn't had an arepa all year, a slight I couldn't go without correcting. It also provided a chance to compare Caracas on 7th to the nearby Flor's Kitchen on 9th, where I had my first rapturous bite of the South American corncake. When we finally reached the East Village around 2:15, I encountered the first major difference. While I've never had to wait for a table at Flor's, getting two seats in the tiny Caracas required a twenty-five minute wait.
While we stood outside, Vince and I read over the menu. For a place so small, it was fairly immense with twenty proposed fillings for the arepas alone. Many of them, including the Cameflor with white cheese, mushrooms and leeks, piqued my curiousity. Soon, we got our table and ordered drinks, another exercise in ingenuity. I went with the oft-praised Papelón con Limón, a tangy and oddly sweet sugarcane juice spiked with lime juice. Vince had the similarly fun chicha, a rice-derived, cinnamon-sprinkled drink that was like a liquid rice pudding, minus the off-puttingly lumpy texture of the grain.
Sandwich-wise, I thought I'd made up my mind, but our waitress then brought over a list of brunch specials. This added another ten arepa opportunities, all but one of them featuring perico, a South American scrambled eggs dotted with red and green peppers. I decided to get one of these with shredded beef, and one with chorizo and cheddar. Because they also encourage you to customize, I added maduros, or fried yellow plantains, in the latter. The wait for our meal bordered on epic, but when we received our baskets with the hot, crunchy corn patties, it was immediately worth it. The choriarepa was great although I wish I'd substituted their white cheese for the shredded yellow cheddar. Even better though was the perico with beef, a novel, addicting, authentic brunch treat. I wolfed mine down, enjoying every bite. In the end, I slightly preferred Caracas to Flor's Kitchen. While it's more cramped and loud, there are many more varieties of fresher arepas to choose from. And if you do brave the waits for tables and food, you'll finally be rewarded with a sandwich fit for a hero. 8/10
From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out
- Name: Lonesome Hero
Sunday, July 24, 2005