Chicken Aïoli – Wolfgang Puck Bistro, Logan International Airport, Boston, MA

There’s always a question of how much context is relevant to the overall sandwich, as I relate it to you. No sandwich exists in a vacuum, and try as we might there are things that have an impact on how we feel about a sandwich that are not the sandwich itself. Price, restaurant quality and cleanliness, reputation, all of these and more influence expectations, which in turn influence how a sandwich is received. The reason I raise this point now is that I’m uncertain whether this was a good sandwich, or a good sandwich for an airport. I wasn’t in the best of ways when I ate this, I was in the middle of a journey home, the sky was a uniformly dull grey, I was worn out after a fruitful vacation, and possessed with the irritability developed by any sensible person who finds themselves in an airport. So it seems reasonable to me that I might get a halfway decent sandwich in an airport and be so soothed that I rate it much higher than it deserves. At the same time, I don’t want to hand this sandwich an unfair discount. It’s a tough call, but I think I can say with some degree of certainty that this was a good sandwich, full stop. Moist chicken, flavorful bread, fresh romaine, tomatoes, red onion and cheese. The cilantro aioli gave things a smooth cilantro flavor, neither overpowering nor being overpowered. It was certainly the best sandwich I’ve had in an airport, and one I think  I would be pleased to have on a warm afternoon in a more pleasing environment.

Croissant Sandwiches – Le Boulanger & Manley’s Donuts, San Jose, CA

Scrambled eggs, chopped bacon, and cheddar cheese on a croissant. It’s simple, and it would be far too easy to simply inhale one early in the morning and never think twice about it. There’s a lot going on there, though. A tender, flaky croissant. Fluffy eggs. Crispy bacon.  Cheese. The risk of this negligence of attention seems highest at breakfast, I think. The breakfast sandwich is one that is rarely a respite from something else; when one sits down for lunch or supper one is often trying to unwind, taking a short solace in simple pleasures. At breakfast your’re gearing up, considering the day that lies ahead, and as a result your sandwich may get scant attention. In this case, I was at the airport, taking in an early sandwich before I started an extended vacation. I can’t honestly tell you that I gave this sandwich what it was due.

That sort of mindless eating is unfortunate, but the alternative can be even worse. Such was the case with the similar sandwich I got from Manley’s Donuts, also scrambled eggs and bacon on a croissant. My mind may have started to drift, but this sandwich wasn’t having it. The labor required to dispatch tough, chewy bacon functioned as a sort of preliminary roadblock, and the dense, greasy croissant only slowed things further. This compounds the earlier sin, I suppose. The good sandwiches run the risk of passing hardly noticed, but the bad ones refuse to be ignored. In both cases, a sort of lack of effort undermines the whole thing; either you drift away or else you are put upon. I put it to you that true enthusiasm, sandwich or otherwise, requires effort. It requires a certain focus. Don’t we owe that to ourselves? Don’t we owe that to our sandwiches? In instances such as the sandwich from Le Boulanger, such effort pays off in the experience of a very good sandwich. In instances such as Manley’s Donuts, well…take it as a learning experience. The next time I approach the heights of some fine sandwich, I’ll take a brief moment to remember the greasy depths of Manley’s Donuts. There’s no reason to seek out bad sandwiches, but there’s also no reason to let one go to waste.

“The Big Nasty” — McAlister’s Deli, Cleveland International Airport, Cleveland, OH

There are many cities in the United States that have a signature sandwich, or claim to. My goal is to one day try them all. For some reason, when I recently had a layover in Cleveland, I was convinced that Cleveland’s claim to sandwich fame was the “Hot Brown.” It wasn’t until I returned home and looked up the history of the Hot Brown for a refresher that I was reminded it is actually Kentucky’s signature sandwich, not Cleveland’s. Nevertheless, I was able to find a type of Hot Brown represented at Cleveland International, and adopted a “when in Rome” attitude toward the endeavor.

A bit of background info on the “Hot Brown”: traditionally, this is an open-faced sandwich with turkey and bacon, covered in a bechamel cheese sauce and broiled until the sauce is browned. Leaving aside the obvious fact that an open-faced sandwich is not a sandwich, the “Big Nasty” on offer at McAlister’s Deli is a Hot Brown in spirit only, similar to how a Twinkie could be viewed as a type of eclair.

“The Big Nasty” is roast beef and cheese piled atop a quartered foot-long baguette, and the diner is presented with a tub of gravy to pour on top, and a knife and fork with which to consume the beast. I could have attempted to assemble the bread quarters into a couple of makeshift “gravy-dip” sandwiches, but that is not what we do here. It is our business to consume menu items as presented, and as intended, be they sandwich or merely masquerading as one. I am pleased to report that, although far from being a sandwich (and looking like a horror show), “The Big Nasty” — as is the case with many truly indulgent foods — tasted miles better than it looked. The baguette was fresh and withstood the dampness of the endeavor, the roast beef was tasty and plentiful, and the gravy was wonderful and tied everything together. Not a sandwich, not a Hot Brown, and not in the correct city, but I feel I made the right choice.

Vegetable Sandwich – Le Petite Bistro, Philadelphia International Airport, Philadelphia, PA

“Le Petite Bistro” barely exists. If I had to wager it, I would say “Le Petite Bistro” is the most common and least creative name for a restaurant in the world. Information about the eatery online is sketchy; some say “Petit”, some say “Petite”, some add an “Express”. Regardless, sandwiched between a wall of windows and a Dunkin’ Donuts in Philadelphia International Airport’s D Concourse is Le Petite Bistro, and when you are vegan in a restaurant, it is a blessing.

I’ve never been as uncomfortably hungry as a vegan as I have in airports. Charlotte’s airport has a California-style burrito place in their foot court, which is nice. Usually I am limited to Alternative Baking Company cookies and classic Lay’s. The Bistro provided a strange, reclusive jump away from that feeling while never quite removing it, presenting fresh vegetables and crisp, wet lettuce from behind a glass cafeteria case, served to me by people wearing rubber gloves. The vegetable sandwich (which was known both as “roasted” and “grilled” depending on the sign) was what airport food almost always is — exceedingly “all right”, pushed up to “tasty” by virtue of it being there in your hands.

The bread was unremarkable. The vegetables were fine, but tasted as though they could’ve been squirted from a Del Monte can moments before. The only vegan side dish offered was a banana, and it is not a far jump to think this fruit had lived a previous life in a wax bowl. Unfettered, I scarfed it down. I cannot remember how my stomach felt on the following plane ride. That may be the theme for this sandwich, and Le Petite Bistro. I’m happy it was there, but thinking back I can only truly remember how badly I wanted it.

The Piaf – Klein’s Deli, San Francisco Airport, San Francisco, CA

"The Piaf" sandwich from Klein's Deli.  Features roast beef, cream cheese, horseradish, dill pickle, and tomatoes on light rye. One’s options for food in airports might charitably be called “woeful.” Fast food, overpriced, overcooked hamburgers in pseudo-sportsbars, it just isn’t a friendly scene for your average sandwich enthusiast. I was surprised, then, to happen upon Klein’s Deli. Formerly a standby in the Portero Hill section of San Francisco, Klein’s has apparently taken up residence in two locations inside San Francisco airport. With their roster of sandwiches named after notable women of the 20th century, I thought I might finally happen upon a good airport sandwich. I ordered the Piaf, the legendary singer transmogrified into roast beef, cream cheese, horseradish, dill pickle and tomatoes on light rye. There will come a day when I bring you a report of an amazing airport sandwich. That is not today. The Piaf is a decent sandwich. It’s a fine concept; roast beef, cream cheese and horseradish would nicely compliment each other if deployed in the right proportion. That’s the issue, though, isn’t it? Cream cheese isn’t bold in flavor but it is perfectly capable of drowning out other notes, and there simply wasn’t enough horseradish here to stand up to it. The few thin slices of pickles also weren’t up to the task at hand. This could have been a really great sandwich, in a perfect world you’d see tender, in-house roasted beef, and enough horseradish to let you know it was there. But this isn’t a perfect world, and the sandwich I got, while tasty enough, just wasn’t that great.