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Sandwich Queen 

A paean to an easy summer pleasure

Wednesday, Aug 6 2003
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There's a lovely little list-as-essay by Bruce Cole titled "A summer manifesto -- sorta ...," a reminder to enjoy the foods of this season while they're in season, on his useful food-besotted Web site, www.sautewednesday.com. There are the expected foods (corn on the cob, tomatoes) and ones less so (green beans, radishes, both to be enjoyed as salads). There are king salmon, grilled steaks, and peaches and nectarines -- also grilled, to be served with vanilla ice cream (no surprise) and vintage balsamic vinegar (surprise!).

But after I read through this evocative list, I found myself missing something (even though he comes close when he writes, "Eat lots of hamburgers and hot dogs, because that's what Americans do in the summer. Potato salad, too. Lots of potato salad, on limp paper plates ..."): sandwiches. Sandwiches, the perfect summer food, because you can slap them together without heating up the already hot kitchen. Sandwiches, the perfect summer food, because you can wrap them up and they become transportable, to the park or the beach (where you'll never become hungry, because of the sand which is there) or the cool forest up near the top of the mountain, where maybe you'll catch a breeze. (A lot of sandwiches improve during the jaunt, the flavors of the salami or mortadella released as they warm up, the butter melding with the mustard and the pickles and the cheese ....)

I am a Sandwich Queen. I can eat one several times a week, at home or elsewhere. I like standards: tuna, egg salad, BLTs. I like panini. I like Cubanos and Reubens and muffalettas. I like fancy, elaborate, odd inventions (I read yesterday about foie gras with fig jam. Bring it on! My father's breakfast improvisation, leftover Chinese pork-and-string-beans pancaked with eggs on a roll? I'm your girl!).

I remember with a blush a time, years ago, when the waitress at the deli near the office (where I repaired maybe once a week to recover from the elaborate business lunches that were part of the job) asked me, "The regular?" when I didn't even know that I had a regular. It turned out to be pure white: turkey on white bread, extra mayo, with a glass of milk. Still, I am thoroughly perplexed to read that Gov. Gray Davis eats a turkey sandwich for lunch every day. This is supposed to be an example of his discipline; I see it as a woeful lack of imagination. Or maybe fear of fun.

The current Earl of Sandwich (the 11th in the line; it was No. 4 who famously ordered that roast meat between two hunks of bread be brought to him at the gaming table so as not to interrupt his play) has bowed to the inevitable and now sells neatly packaged varieties, emblazoned with the family crest, in British supermarkets. There is talk of opening an eponymous cafe at Disney World in Florida ("in a décor that mimics that of the earl's own home," per the New York Times).

Until such a happy day dawns, I content myself with sandwiches at a simulacrum considerably closer to home. The family-owned-and-operated St. Francis Fountain dispensed sandwiches and soda fountain treats from its cozy corner spot in the Mission continuously from 1918 until May 2002, when it gave up the ghost. But the ghost didn't give it up, exactly; restaurateurs from the neighborhood took over the lease, cleaned the place up, pasted new prices on the vintage painted signs of sundaes and burgers, and opened the doors for connoisseurs of (slightly tweaked) hash house fare.

I have a hazy memory of my grandma taking me there for an egg salad san and a chocolate malt after a Disney movie at the York right down the street (no longer a neighborhood circuit house nor the repertory film haven it was for years, but now spiffed up into the Brava Theater). It's a rosy memory, anyway, for in those days the place was painted in what is invariably described as Pepto-Bismol pink. Today its walls are vanilla cream, and the dingy booths are refinished and shiny and happily plentiful, and the lunch-counter stools are perky and sturdy. (The Fountain no longer makes its own ice cream or candies; its specialties are made with ice cream from the estimable Mitchell's, and there's a kitschy candy counter stocked with nostalgic confections.) There are a few contempo surprises tucked among the BLTs and burgers (pesto on the Italian club, rosemary on the home fries, herbs sprinkled on the tuna melt), and caramel and coconut show up on the long list of possibilities for milkshakes and malts.

But on the whole you're getting honest, slightly upscaled but still decently priced versions of classic sandwiches (well, I thought club sandwiches were required to have three slices of bread by law and to be cut in quarters; here you'll get two slices, cut in half, but I won't quibble. Much). For your $6.50, $7, or $7.50, a choice of homemade soup, french fries, home fries, mac and cheese, or potato salad is included. And there's the extra frisson of breakfast anytime (which always inspires wacky stand-up Steven Wright to order "French toast during the Renaissance"), though that's slightly outside our sandwichy purview. (Not, however, on the day I order a fried-egg sandwich. Perfectly OK. I try to lush it up with mustard and mayo. I probably should have asked for some red onion on the side.)

I find myself so inflamed by my sandwich lunch that 24 hours later I am convincing Suzanne to join me in a sandwich run to North Beach. Why not nosh on focaccia before the debut of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? (She is currently kitchenless, I am currently TV-less, and it seems a fair exchange. Will Bring Sandwiches for TV Viewing Privileges.)

We sip cool white wine while sitting at the counter at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store Cafe, as the kitchen heats up our meatball, grilled chicken, eggplant, and sausage sandwiches (no, not all together, silly -- I'm talking about a number of different sandwiches). Today the place is more cafe than cigar store, though still fairly bohemian. (Sandwiches run $6.95 to $7.95, or you can have a half for $4.75.)

And then we cross the street to the tiny, crowded L'Osteria del Forno, where, Joyce informed me during a discussion of our favorite sandwiches while eating some at the St. Francis, there is a superior roasted pork sandwich. I also throw in an order for one built with speck (a chewy smoked, salt-cured, air-dried ham), fresh mozzarella, and sautéed porcini mushrooms, plus a slice of ricotta cheesecake and an order of chocolate salami. Surely we'll want something sweet.

The sandwiches are still warm when we get home to Stan, Sam, and the television. The stars are the lusty meatball sandwiches from Mario's -- dressed with Swiss cheese (I was expecting provolone), onions, and lashings of homemade marinara -- and the slightly more austere sandwich of thin-sliced pork from L'Osteria, which is delicate yet still satisfyingly piggy. Almost as good are Mario's sliced sausage sandwich, with the same adornments as the meatball one, and L'Osteria's almost dainty sandwich of speck, which tastes quite Germanic (in a good way!). The two vegetarian offerings (a half of eggplant parmigiana, cheese, and marinated red bell peppers and another half layering grilled eggplant with similar stuff) don't survive the trip as well as their meaty brethren: They're soggy. I might prefer them with less of the sweet marinara that somewhat obscures the flavor of the vegetables.

It's a perfect summer meal (Suzanne opens a lovely bottle of rosé), and we pick at the remnants during the unexpectedly charming Queer Eye. Its five experts (clothes, grooming, food & wine, "culture," and interior design -- big surprise) actually seem to care for the big lugs they make over with astonishing speed, and the big lugs, in their turn, are grateful for their new and improved selves. We laugh, we cry. It's destination television! My friend Jeff Weinstein, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, loves the show, too, but points out that "Gay guys need makeovers. Need them as much as the next guy. Sometimes more than the next guy. I know, because I dated every one of 'em." (He proposes a show in which schlumpy queer boys are made over by a team of those urbane gay-appearing straights written about in the New York Times Magazine as "metrosexual" -- but I prefer Jeff's coinage, "faux-mosexual." I'll set the TiVo.)

As I leave, Sam asks what I'll be bringing over for next week's episode. I'm thinking sandwiches.

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Meredith Brody

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