The sandwich has both moral turpitude and spiritual strength in its legendary origins. It was named for John Montagu (1718-1792), the fourth Earl of Sandwich and member of the infamous cabal of whoring, hammered, pseudo-satanic noblemen known as “The Friars of Saint Francis of Wycombe,” but better known as “The Hellfire Club.” Montagu, who had a fondness of deflowering virgins, was also fond of eating cold roast beef between bread so he could continue gambling at cribbage without getting the cards greasy. The treat itself, however, can be traced back to the Jewish Rabbi Hillel the Elder, who lived in Jerusalem in the time of King Herod and is said to have placed Passover lamb between matzos as a reminder of the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt. At this point, though, they’re pretty damned international. And that’s what this piece is about: a bringing together of world’s disparate peoples through the common enjoyment of meat between bread. Of course, there are meat-free sandwiches as well, but my olive branch only extends so far. (Duncan Davidson)
In honor of Hillel the Elder, and his noble matzo-munchies of the Pre-Sandwich Era, I’ll start with a classically Jewish sandwich: the hot pastrami. A favorite nosh in New York, the HP, like tattoo work, is one of those “get what you pay for” items. At Katz’s Deli in the Lower East Side, they go for $13.45, with the following rejoinder written on the menu: “Ask for mayo at your own peril.” What is pastrami? It’s a beef brisket, cured with salt and spices in a brine (i.e. corned beef), then smoked. Some fancier pastrami-makers skip the brine and employ a dry salt cure followed by smoking. For the layman, you need only know the following about pastrami: it’s magic.
Max’s Opera Café
Max’s napkins have “Eat here, save the airfare” printed on them. They also say “Critics not welcome,” an edict that is played out by owner Dennis Berkowitz’s hilarious, if obsessive, rejoinders to food critics and finicky customers framed and mounted by in the anteroom to the head. I’ve got to say, though, I’m not a critic: I’m a fan. The meat is lean, but not too lean – as it’s the fat that makes pastrami taste so good. (If you’re a wuss, you can get the super lean “peppered turkey,” which used to be called the “turkey pastrami,” until someone with good sense realized that pastrami is made of beef, and you can’t get “turkey pastrami” any more than you can have “turkey steak” or “turkey bacon.” C’mon, people, please.) The sandwich has half a pound of thinly sliced meat, which means it’s piled higher than the average person’s mouth. I’ve got a bigger maw than most folks, however, so I get the added quarter pound option for an extra two bucks, putting the whole thing at $13.50, a nickel more than Katz’s. The waiter suggested I mix the Beaver Brand deli mustard with the sweet mustard, but I’m a purist: a pastrami sandwich is always served on rye bread with no condiment other than yellow mustard. You can melt some Swiss on there if you like, or even throw on onions, but if you’re driving a Ferrari, do you really need to paint on pinstripes?
601 Van Ness, SF. (415) 771-7300, www.maxsworld.com
The Joynt, aside from being the place where Jason Newsted was hazed into Metallica after the death of Cliff Burton, has been serving a menagerie of beautiful meats since 1947. I can’t think of anything this good that’s been going on continuously for 60 years except, I dunno…titties. The pastrami is sliced a little thicker, as it’s hand carved by those same two Mexican dudes who always seem to be behind the counter no matter when you come in. They pile it on and serve it up with that characteristic decanter of au jus that comes with all TJ’s sliced meats. The rye may be somewhat flaccid and undistinguished, but this is more than made up for by the presence of Tommy’s stuffing and gravy as a side option, which easily annihilates anything your mother may have shoved up a turkey.
1101 Geary, SF. (415) 775-2216, www.tommysjoynt.com
The Italian sausage sammy is another NYC--Little Italy, to be precise--classic. I imagine it’s a classic in the mother country too, but I haven’t been there. It’s definitely a classic in this town, as Molinari’s has been open since 1896. They make their own sausage and salame, and there’s even a photo of a little Molinari handing John Paul II a salame on the home page of their website. With a hundred and one years to perfect the recipe, it’s no wonder this sandwich kicks so much ass. The sausage is sweet with a little kick, and the right amount of fennel seeds give it the licorice undertone that makes true Italian sausage sing. The sautéed onions and red and green bell peppers are a touch salty, which helps cut the grease, and the melted provolone ties the whole thing together like a Christmas ribbon. Keep in mind that there are ordering traditions at Molinari’s: you grab a number, then pick your section of crusty Italian bread from an enormous tank. Be ready, or you’ll get swooped. My advice is to show up around 1:30 or 2pm, after the lunch rush, when you have a chance of getting a seat at one of the two tables out front. Then head to Trieste up the street -- nothing chases this sandwich better than a double cappuccino.
373 Columbus, SF. (415) 421-2337, www.molinarisalame.com
There are people in New Orleans who would weep that I even thought of including a corporate muffaletta, while the rest of the world most likely has no idea what one is. Invented by Sicilian immigrant Salvatore Lupo, the muff is served on an enormous circular loaf of Sicilian muffaletta bread, with alternating layers of salami, ham, and provolone, which is then topped off with an olive tapenade. The original sandwich is still offered its birthplace, Central Grocery on Decatur in the French Quarter, and a whole one feeds two, maybe three people. So, yeah, Houston-based chain deli in the JP Morgan building is a far cry from the Big Easy. Murphy’s bread, while purported to be muffaletta loaf, is closer to foccacia, and the fillings aren’t nearly as stacked as they should be. That said, a half muff at Murph’s is still plenty of sandwich, and if you’re stuck in the halls of capitalism, you could do worse than munching one while staring at the suits as they frantically manipulate their Blackberries with greasy fingertips. If you’ve been to New Orleans in the last five years, however, it might be advisable to hold your fire and wait until you return.
JP Morgan Building, 560 Mission, SF. (415) 978-9681
Located in the Marina, which is pretty much the diametrical opposite of any and all things Philadelphia, both geographically and spiritually, Jake’s still serves a mean steak. It was started by a Philly native (though an options trader, according to the website, which may be the reason for the yuppie locale) and is packed full of Eagles and Sixers memorabilia. If they could just throw a burned out Caprice Classic up on some cinderblocks out front, it’d help the vibe. I went with the authentic Whiz option, with onions of course, (also known as the “Whiz with.”) There was so much cheesy meat packed into that foot long Amoroso roll (imported from Philly, sucka!) I could’ve fed a family of five. Instead, I packed my fat face. Damn was it good.
3301 Buchanan, SF. (415) 922-2211, www.jakessteaks.net
The Cheesesteak Shop
The Cheesteak Shop broke my cheesesteak hymen even before I’d stepped in Rocky’s bronze Converse in Philly, so it’s kind of special for me. It’s a chain, or a franchise, or some such, but it’s local to the Bay Area and doesn’t have that canned feel, especially at the Divis location, which is the original and has pictures of Geno’s, Pat’s, and Jim’s from the old country on the wall. Also served on an Amoroso roll, the sandwiches are available in 7, 10, or a whopping 15 inches (for you size queens). They’re not so stuffed as Jake’s, but they’re well balanced, and the meat is seasoned just right, with a touch of salt and pepper. I know it might make classicists cringe, but my favorite is the bacon cheesesteak. Bacon: it’s nature’s candy.
1716 Divisadero, SF. (415) 346-3712, www.cheesesteakshop.com