“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.

Purple Parma – Melt Bar & Grilled, Detroit Ave., Lakewood, OH

Purple Parma, Melt Bar & Grilled, Cleveland OH

Cleveland’s Melt Bar & Grilled masks decadence with the trappings of comfort food, offering a homestyle grilled cheese sandwich with the works and delivering a grease-filled monstrosity of dripping goop and fried-to-a-crisp everythings.  However, this is not Melt’s condemnation, but its greatest success.  It is unique in the truest sense of the word, and a beer-bathed beacon of hope in Cleveland’s sparse culinary landscape.  With the Hard Rock Cafe and House of Blues ranking as two of the city’s top ten restaurants, Matt Fish’s entrepreneurial gem has set fire to more than the Cuyahoga River.

The “Purple Parma” is the eatery’s vegan melt of choice.  Hand breaded eggplant, grilled tomato, sun-dried tomato pesto and provolone cheese, easily replaced with a choice of vegan cheddar or mozzarella, smashed hard between two buttery slices, served with crispy fires and coleslaw.  In the four years I spent as a resident of the Metropolis of the Western Reserve, sandwiches never came close to equaling this.  Melt expects you to wait – I never personally waited less than 45 minutes for a table, even as the restaurant was opening – but the payoff, from the presentation of the “alternative” style waitstaff to the somehow happy feeling of a brick in your stomach as you leave, is worth any wait.

Melt Bar & Grilled nearly transcends food reviews, battering me with pleasant sensory memories until I’ve found myself writing hundreds of words that amount to a shill.  The process isn’t perfect, and as my brain matures it may find itself less and less willing to wait up to two hours for a grilled cheese sandwich – but for now the speciality of the specialty is enough.