Sandwiches weren't made to love.
They were made to transport. Their bread is wrapper, napkin, and utensil all rolled into one. They are the Samsonite of foods. And if they sometimes make us notice them, it is a luxury, a novelty, and not because they must.
Yet a mobile society buys sandwiches in droves. Downtown Berkeley — which is hardly a metropolis — sports twelve restaurants whose raison d'etre is cold substances between hunks of bread and where to-go orders outnumber eat-ins. Given such a glut, how to choose?
With a taste-test.
Which must also be a weight-test, because sandwiches vary widely in size if not in price.
For example, an avocado-cream-cheese sandwich made at People's Deli, served on fresh but thinly sliced sourdough bread and melt-in-your-mouthily soft, was barely big enough at ten ounces to satisfy a standard just-walked-two-miles appetite. Its avocado-cream-cheese counterpart at nearby Lee's was even slighter at nine ounces. First sandwich commandment: Strategize. Eggs are cheaper than cheese and avocados. Thus egg-salad sandwiches can be comparatively big. The olive-egg-salad at Lee's weighed fifteen ounces. Its sunny, spoonworthy mustard-infused egg exploded over a stratum of chopped black olives, the canned kind, plus an iceberg of iceberg. Its rye slices, dull bordering on day-old, were reminders that picking popular breads (e.g. sourdough, ciabatta, baguette) ensures getting fresher bread: High turnover, you know. Rye is always an oddball.
Hot pickled peppers intrude harshly on the mellow glamour of a Swiss-cheese thirteen-ouncer at Grub-N-Go, its chewy sourdough roll dripping with oil and vinegar. Closed on weekends and popular with students, GNG serves hot sandwiches, too. These, such as the lofty, melty, rich, thirteen-ounce "Mushroom Mozzarella" and colossal eighteen-ounce "Vegetarian" — bursting with roasted eggplant, roasted mushrooms, roasted peppers, cheese, handfuls of spinach, and three different mustards — qualify as three-course meals.
Ordering can be confusing at the Sandwich Zone: Grab a form at the counter; fill it out. But whatever you ask for will come fast. This is rare. The dirty secret about deli sandwiches these days is that most are neither cheap nor quick. At home, you whip one up in seconds. Out, paying about the same as for a Chinese lunch, you wait and wait and wonder why. Not at the Sandwich Zone, where our thirteen-ounce Deluxe Veggie arrived in a blink. Heaped with lettuce, tomato, sprouts, pepper, cheese, and onion, it was basically a salad in a French roll, uninspired but crisp and quick. An eleven-ounce avocado-veggie was just as fast, just as refreshing, just as workaday.
Around the corner at Addison Annex (here, too, use an order form), brie joins spinach and sun-dried tomatoes for an elegant nine-ounce surprise whose intensely sweet/sharp/creamy contrast compensates for its small size. AA's eleven-ounce artichoke-feta combo demonstrates again what ingenuity can bring to sandwiches.
But do we want it to? Does sandwiches' allure, if it exists, lie in their comforting predictability — or in the realm of possibility? Bread is a blank slate, after all. Or are we marooned in the past? The sandwich is the emblem of a Western childhood. In our school lunchboxes, sandwiches were plaintive souvenirs of Mom. That jelly, that bologna ran deep. What are sandwiches to us? What are they for? If all dishes were rendered suddenly the same in crucial ways — equally quick to make, equally portable, priced equally — how many of us would buy sandwiches?
Quietly, humbly, they are arguably the most-eaten food in the United States. Yet they're also the least-considered. Who thinks about sandwiches? And sure, sometimes we dress them up — the sauerkraut-corned-beef thing, the chutney-prawn — but what other food can be made with such disinterest and distaste? We picture sandwiches limp, damp, fingernail-high: white slices smeared with jam or separated by a single cold cut, shoved on trays through slots in prison doors. Punishment food, to force confessions.
That said, what do we deserve to demand from a sandwich? What is it when it is at its best? The answer lies at E-Z Stop.
Sandwich Zone is the fastest, and one of the cheapest. Addison Annex is creative, Grub-N-Go exuberant. Viceroy Cafe, adjoining the Viceroy Indian restaurant, is the newest and hands-down cheapest, with triple-decker made-to-order sandwiches starting at $1.99 and with a $2.99 sandwich/drink/chips deal. Viceroy's fare is nostalgic not just in price but in practice: crustless light wheat slices layered with shredded lettuce, American-style cheese, tomato, and oodles of mayo, served in triangles speared with frill-topped toothpicks. The tender tandoori-chicken version is irresistible. People's Cafe ties the ambience contest — its interior is one of Downtown's best, sporting celestial murals, mosaics, and bookshelves amply stocked — with Lee's, which moved last month into the former premises of Alohana Hawaiian Grill and kept the tikis. (Lee's also kept Alohana's menu, and serves double-Spam musubi.) E-Z Stop, meanwhile, builds towers tall and solid, on sourdough rolls so fresh that I would gladly eat them plain. At E-Z Stop, the authenticity of this roll and the volume of its contents evoke times of yore, that gentle generosity of delis in the eon before Subway, when confident countermen asked gently, "All the trimmings, miss?" and sliced onions with bravura and seemed to care. Our fourteen-ounce avocado-and-Swiss is a can't-fit-your-mouth-around-it block comprising an entire avocado, several thick slices of cheese, and fistfuls of raw produce. A seventeen-ounce egg-salad sandwich, black-pepper bits spiking its silky smoothness, soars four inches tall. These are master-class sandwiches: plainly exquisite, exquisitely plain.