Tempeh Club – Royal Tavern, East Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia, PA

Tempeh Club, Royal Tavern, Philadelphia PA

I’ve been to the Royal Tavern several times, each time very late at night. The eatery remains open until the wee hours of the morning, and as my sojourns in Philadelphia are filled with deeply-scheduled and often raucous adventures, late night vegan dining is a necessity. The Tavern, located on a cross-section of barely parkable inner city streets, boasts a wide selection of cakes and desserts, but after my attendance at a downtown sporting exhibition, I found myself figuratively dying for a sandwich.

The Royal Tavern’s recommendation, clearly marked as vegan with a double asterisk, was the Tempeh Club. A different animal than Spiral Diner’s epic The Mitch, Royal Tavern’s club piled grilled tempeh high with vegan bacon, keeping accoutrements with lettuce and tomato. The sandwich requires a great amount of trust — the buttery nature of the bread may be thanks to Earth Balance or some sort of butter substitute, although it is not specified. The dressing, basil aioli, also rose suspicions. I ended up eating my sandwich dry, and while that seems a less than ideal situation, I found myself enjoying the textures, soaked slightly from the piled-high fries paired in the takeaway box.

The sandwich is not as tasty as The Mitch, but seemed more filling. Ability to fill is something a vegan sometimes forgets when building a sandwich. The tempeh was copious — the lettuce and tomato topped high enough to make a statement. All in all I found it a beautifully constructed sandwich, and were I to find myself in the Tavern with the sun up, lead by a knowledgeable food server, it might become a favorite.

The Mitch – Spiral Diner & Bakery, West Magnolia Avenue, Ft. Worth, TX

The Mitch vegan club, Spiral Diner, Ft. Worth, TX

If I had been lucky enough to be a part of the “On Sandwiches” endeavor when it was first set upon, I may have had more influence on the “finest sandwich I have ever eaten” link at the top of the page.  My contemporary has a refined, almost ethereal sense of taste; however, differing opinions on the consumption of meat occasionally lead to creative conflict.  This being said, I hope not to question the finest sandwich in America, but to raise up Spiral Diner’s “The Mitch” alongside it as the finest sandwich I have ever eaten.  At the very least it is the finest meatless sandwich in America, and no vegetarian or vegan in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area worth their salt should miss it.

Named in honor of the irreverent humor of late comedian Mitch Hedberg (“I order the club sandwich all the time, but I’m not even a member, man. I don’t know how I get away with it.”), Ft. Worth’s Spiral Diner & Bakery adheres to the tropes of the classic club while reconstructing and enhancing it for a vegan palate.  Grilled tofu is topped with lettuce, tomato and surprisingly effective bacon bits both above and below the sandwich’s “special extra piece of bread.”  Served with an impeccable potato salad, preferable to chips, The Mitch is actually so good that it detracts from the remainder of Spiral’s challenging and adventurous menu — more times than not, my peers are dissuaded from a tasty vegan meatball sub or the avocado-laden “Simpleton” not because of the sandwiches themselves, but because they would so miss the taste and experience of Spiral’s Mitch.

The only negative to The Mitch could be the Texas area’s over-reliance on chipotle mayo for vegetarian sandwiches when a mustard or standard, eggless mayo would suffice.  It is a valid criticism — vegan variety is sometimes taken for granted in the cultural oasis of Central Texas — but one can only imagine that those sandwiches bear a similar taste in an attempt to draw glory from The Mitch.  They do not succeed.

I have learned the rule the hard way.  Order The Mitch, or spend your afternoon chewing through diced seitan, wishing you had.

Turkey Club, Stages Deli, 7th Ave, New York, NY

Stages Deli is a New York institution and they are quick to remind you of this. The newspaper clippings and photos of famous people who have stopped in for a knish show the full range of time that Stages has been serving classic delicatessen meals in midtown Manhattan. For 70 years Stages Deli has been urging all comers to try the stuffed sandwich.

I remember as a young boy discarding section after section of the newspaper, ignoring all matters of politics and finance. My only interest lay in Dagwood Bumstead and his latest act of grandeur. Dagwood was something of a mythical figure from my formative years, and in the excess and experimentation of my adolescence I tortured myself with two questions: ‘Can this be built higher?’ and ‘Why didn’t this work?’ It did not occur to me for some years that it was the scale that was bringing ruin to my creations.

While Stages is not guilty of piling on ingredient after ingredient the sandwich is no less ostentatious for its limited number of ingredients. I regret that the photo I have included is of such poor quality, dear reader I have seen a great number of sandwiches but the size of this beast was enough to take me aback. Almost as tall as the water glass there has to be four solid portions of turkey, more than a half dozen slices of bacon, 3 or 4 slices of tomato, and a fair amount of iceberg lettuce. The toothpick you can barely see is buried to the hilt and still did not touch the bottom third of this sandwich. I thought I understood the motivation. This had to be a sandwich made by someone who believes in Sandwiches, believes in America, believes in God, and moreover that God loves America, that God loves sandwiches, that he would bless such a towering effort.

When I first saw this sandwich I marveled at the size and thought silently to myself about all of those failed attempts. Maybe I was just too young and too foolish, and some master craftsman toiling away in a noted deli had discovered what I had not. Maybe this sandwich was the magnificent creation I had dreamed of but never realized. It was not. From the first bite it became clear that this was not a divinely inspired attempt at greatness, but a callous stack of sub-par ingredients designed to flabbergast tourists. The turkey was dry and flavorless, seemingly roasted plain. The bland and mushy typical out of season tomatoes had lost whatever flavor they once had to the refrigerator they were stored in. Iceberg lettuce has its place but deployed by default it is the calling card of a hack and with one bite of this sandwich I realized I should have known. Maybe this sandwich was something some day. Maybe in the heady post-war days someone put a little more care into things and it all came together. Maybe back then something grand was possible. Now, though, now it is late afternoon in America and this is just a bad sandwich.