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Toast of the town

A dozen sandwiches with real star quality bring the lunchtime standby into the spotlight

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By Jolyon Helterman
Globe Correspondent / July 28, 2010

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There’s a billboard on Congress Street, positioned strategically at express-lunch ground zero, that depicts a national chain’s chicken sandwich. The towering portrait brings passersby up close and personal with some corporate food stylist’s airbrushed vision of takeout perfection. Symmetrical cubes of grill-marked poultry as white (and bland) as ivory! Controversial veggies, begone! A shmear of aioli to moisten that parched desert of flatbread? Oooh . . . best not offend the mayo-phobes.

Though extreme in its focus-grouped rigor, the ad points up a disturbing shift in the Hub’s handheld-meal terrain: the sandwich as generic commodity. Indeed, local grinder-mongers seem less intent on knocking brown-baggers’ socks off than providing the edible answer to Muzak. Colorful nicknames (Steak Tip O’Neill, anyone?) do little to mask the phoned-in dullness of preshredded iceberg, heat-lamped cutlets, and bread that thanks to the black magic of calcium propionate tastes just as eerily wan and cottony as the day it left the factory. Here’s your module of sustenance, sir. May I help whoever’s next in line?

To which we utter a resounding: No, thank you! There’s better stuff to be had.

As our tour of the city’s sandwich-scape makes clear, there exists a scrappy (if woefully outnumbered) band of purveyors who remain steadfast in their pursuit of portable-repast nirvana; who understand that within the deceptively simple rhyme scheme of filling-between-bread lies the potential to spin gorgeous, intricate poetry as nuanced and sophisticated as the haute-est of haute cuisine.

In the face of an indelicate glut of humdrum hoagies, run-of-the-mill Reubens, and beleaguered BLTs, these stalwarts represent the resistance. To agitate for their cause, we’ve provided a delicious, if necessarily abridged, sampling of the worthiest ’wich-craft around at delis and bakeries, yes, but also hidden away behind no-frills counters and in the margins of upscale menus. So, without further ado (sub roll, please . . .): Presenting the earls of sandwich, the toasts with the most, the greatest Greater Boston things in sliced bread.

TUNA AVOCADO MELT

VICKI LEE’S

105 Trapelo Road, Belmont. 617-489-5007. www.vickilees.com

The longtime darling of the late-night diner circuit, the tuna melt is plagued by a fatal flaw: the three-minute wilt. Blame the double threat of wet filling and greasy surface, which saps the griddle-bolstered crispness about four bites in. In forgoing the buttered exterior, Vicki Lee’s solves this age-old conundrum, recouping lost richness by loading extra-mayonnaisey tuna salad, tangy fontina, and creamy avocado slices between thin swaths of sourdough, which get toasted inside a press. The dry heat halts every wayward cheese ooze right at the seams where it takes on a crunchy (and yummy) frico texture, producing a shatteringly crisp package that keeps all that hot, lovely gooiness inside — where it belongs. ALSO TRY: Steak on Grilled Ciabatta

EGGPLANT SPECIAL

VIRGILIO’S ITALIAN BAKERY & DELI

29 Main St., Gloucester. 978-283-5295

Like Hamersley’s and its famous roast chicken, Virgilio’s is so linked to its signature sub that other gems get neglected. Eavesdrop and, sure enough, one by one, you’ll hear the entire line at this old-school Italian deli go for the Saint Joseph, an amalgam of cold cuts and provolone that’s won breathless praise from countless critics. Enough is enough! It’s a fine sandwich, sure, but this one is even tastier: the Eggplant Special, a piping-hot dream of crisp-battered aubergine, roasted red peppers, fresh mozzarella, olive oil, and fragrant basil, packed into a crusty semolina roll baked hours earlier. ALSO TRY: Well, OK . . . the Saint Joseph.

CHILE RELLENO TORTA

LA VERDAD

1 Lansdowne St., Boston. 617-421-9595. laverdadtaqueria.com

In the marginalia of this taqueria’s busy menu, which trains the spotlight squarely on (duh) the tacos, lurks the sandwich holy grail. Some sleuthing is required. First, pan down past the famous grilled corn, to the left of the Mexican flatbread. See “Torta Plate’’? Good. But the next step is the doozy. Choices of filling are front-loaded with the siren-song likes of chorizo and carnitas. Strength! The seventh (and dead-last) option is the chile relleno. A cheese-stuffed poblano cooked just short of disintegrating, the magnificent mess is deposited onto a griddled roll with extra cheese, beans, avocado, mayo, and smoky-sweet chipotle molasses. ALSO TRY: Chorizo Torta

BLACKENED CATFISH PO’ BOY

HIGHLAND KITCHEN

150 Highland Ave., Somerville. 617-625-1131. www.highlandkitchen.com

Tossed into a red-hot cast-iron skillet, a pristine fillet of catfish is enlivened with a peppery spice blend that, much like a breaded coating, helps keep the flesh steamy-moist. As the skillet enters the oven for the five-minute finish, that’s the cue for the butter-slathered roll to follow suit, ensuring the only thing not sizzling-hot when the plate emerges tableside is the cold, creamy salve of bracing remoulade (and a smattering of crunchy garnish). One bite and you’ll forget the ’80s ever hijacked Cajun cookery and used its powers for evil. ALSO TRY: Cuban Reuben

AYVALIK TOSTU PANINI

SUBS AND MORE

1609 Concord St., Framingham. 508-202-4688

Like scores of ethnic eateries, this Turkish takeout joint toes a line between authenticity and familiarity. While the sucuk sausage comes from the motherland, the landlubber-friendly hit parade of pizza, gyros, quesadillas, and chicken-parm subs hails, rather loosely, from the Mediterranean and, uh, Mayan coasts. Ecumenical pragmatism, it turns out, can yield rich rewards. Indeed, sucuk and Antalyan potato salad are a winsome combo wrapped in traditional lavash. But clad in Italian garb as a crispy rosemary-focaccia panini with salami and provolone, these humble Thracian staples become a melting-pot masterpiece as addictive as it is hypernational. ALSO TRY: Saksuka Wrap

GRILLED BANANA SANDWICH

MIKE & PATTY’S

12 Church St., Boston. 617-423-3447. www.mikeandpattys.com

To shed some perspective: A typical batch of cinnamon toast uses a single teaspoon of the spice. Cinnamon cookies (about a tablespoon) and cinnamon rolls (roughly twice that) contain a good bit more. For the ludicrously amped-up cinnamon-honey spread that gets ladled across the top, bottom, and middle of this sandwich — a hybrid delight that fuses the dreamiest aspects of French toast, grilled cheese, and bananas Foster — Mike Fitzhenry dispenses a whopping half-cup (eight tablespoons!) of roasty Saigon prime per pound of butter. The resultant mess is chalky, pitch-black, and fiery. Which, in this case, is a good thing. ALSO TRY: Green Madame

SWEET POTATO SANDWICH

ULA CAFE

284 Armory St., Jamaica Plain. 617-524-7890. www.ulacafe.com

This crunchy J.P. haunt is bringing sexy back to flesh-free, proving there’s more to veggie-sandwich construction than doubling up on “garnish,’’ and that lumbering loaves of multigrain (riddled with seeds the size of multivitamins) aren’t de rigueur. The key to this glorious garden-fest is the thick slab of sugary tuber: Transformed through dry-heat roasting, it plays a sweet, caramelized counterpoint against savory notes of Jack cheese, red onion, and tangy yogurt-tahini, and provides ballast that herbivore foodstuffs typically lack. ALSO TRY: “Summer Guest’’ Sandwich (currently: pimiento cheese and bacon)

SAUSAGE-STUFFED FLATBREAD

SOFRA BAKERY & CAFE

1 Belmont St., Cambridge. 617-661-3161. www.sofrabakery.com

Being bread is thankless work. You do your job right, and what’s inside gets all the praise. But one false move too stale, too dense, too “bready,’’ and epithets fly. Not so at this bakery, where traditional power politics get turned on their head. To wit: A heady mix of cumin- and orange-perfumed sausage, feta, and olives makes a potent, savory filling. Yet it’s the hot, fresh-baked flatbread, so light and airy and flaky it’ll bring tears, that steals the show and, ultimately, the glory. ALSO TRY: Lamb Shawarma

ITALIAN GRINDER

COPPA

253 Shawmut Ave., Boston. 617-391-0902. www.coppaboston.com

Jamie Bissonnette needs another fawning valentine like he needs a hole in his head. But here goes: His salumi grinder at Coppa sets the standard to which the Hub’s glut of uninspired cold-cuts subs should aspire. In the end, it comes down to curatorial chops. The ciabatta comes from Cambridge (Iggy’s); the provolone, from Vermont. Salami and olive tapenade get crafted in-house just in time to join the mortadella, prosciutto, and cherry peppers, all on a multicultural caravan that ends up on your plate. ALSO TRY: Sea Urchin Panini

GRILLED PORK BANH MI

PHO VIET

1095 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton. 17-562-8828

There’s this know-it-all local food writer — let’s just call him “the author’’ — who spent years shrugging off breathless tales of banh mi excellence in Brighton. “Sounds amazing!’’ he’d lie, suspecting secretly that whatever bumped Pho Viet’s baguettes beyond the rank-and-file was incremental at best. Boy, was he mistaken. Marinated in a sugary paste of lemongrass and garlic, the fatty pork is grilled, then fried (to char the edges), before being shoved, piping-hot, into a toasty roll with mayo, jalapeno, and pickled veggies. It not only blows Chinatown’s workaday versions out of the water but, as it turns out, pairs beautifully with a side of crow. ALSO TRY: Grilled Beef Banh Mi

ATOMIC MEATLOAF MELTDOWN

ALL STAR SANDWICH BAR

1245 Cambridge St., Cambridge. 617-868-3065. www.allstarsandwichbar.com

Sometimes sandwich craftsmanship is a delicate dance: a nimble interplay of crisp and pillowy, cool against fiery, salty versus sweet, bracing high notes that burst through dark, umami rumbling like a clarion obbligato played by celestial violins. Then there’s the Atomic Meatloaf Meltdown, which laughs in the face of nuance, before stealing its lunch. The bully of the sandwich schoolyard, this graceless oaf trades 100 percent on full-throttle intensity, an unrelenting assault of unctuous grilled meatloaf, tangy Jack, and gobs of hot sauce so caustic even chili-heads emit a whimper. Bring beverages. ALSO TRY: Beef on Weck

CREAMY EGG SANDWICH

TOSCANINI’S

899 Main St., Cambridge. 617-491-5877. www.tosci.com

With the sole possible exception of the chicken-Caesar wrap, the lowly breakfast sandwich is the last place you’d expect to find transcendence. Variations in quality mostly come down to accessorizing a bacon strip here, an aioli blob there, a brioche roll baked to order while the cookery remains constant. Leave it to an iconic ice-cream shop, which tackles the morning meal only once a week (Saturday), to explode the genre. Wielding low heat and good old-fashioned patience, the chef coaxes scrambled eggs into a savory stovetop custard, gently maximizing their creamy, heavenly potential. Oh, yeah: The fluffy toasted ciabatta is pretty dreamy, too. ALSO TRY: No, don’t.

Jolyon Helterman can be reached at jhelterman@gmail.com.