Tuna Steak – Ramsi’s Cafe, Bardstown Road, Louisville, KY

The tuna steak sandwich at Ramsi's Cafe in Louisville
Click for close-up

Ramsi’s Cafe on the World takes their extended name seriously, if their sandwich menu is to be believed. The options span a wide world: Bison steak, Jamaican seitan, chicken tandoori, falafel, chicken parmesan and more. They all looked tasty but the tuna sandwich sang a siren song I could not resist. Tuna is a fine, fine meat and some day when our grandchildren ask us what it was like I think it will be our great shame to tell them that most of the tuna we ate was dry, coming out of a can only to be drowned in mayonnaise, gussied up into fully moldable slop. But not so at Ramsi’s! Understanding the heights that tuna can reach, they instead go with a six ounce filet of tuna fish on homemade cuban bread, topped with pickled mangoes and a sesame ginger dressing. Fruit and meat is a delicate combination, one that can yield stellar results or go south in a hurry. The tuna and mango are the former here, coming together in one of the finest sandwiches I’ve had in a long time.

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Mad Maple Baked Turkey – Joe Davola’s, Barret Ave, Louisville, KY

The Mad Maple Roasted Turkey Sandwich at Joe Davola's in Louisville

The sandwiches at Joe Davola’s all have kitschy names, the Treacherous Tarragon Chicken Salad, the Disgruntled Grilled Pork Tenderloin, the Violent Veggie “Meat” Loaf, and of course the Mad Maple Baked Turkey. It strikes me as unnecessary. When I sit down for a sandwich, I’m not looking for an adventure. I’m looking to be sated, not entertained, and “wacky” is the last adjective I’m looking to use. But I don’t let a name prejudice me against a sandwich. Serve me the Baron’s Bad-Ass Bodacious BLT, if it’s done right I’ll be happy to enjoy it. So it wasn’t the name that left me disappointed at Joe Davola’s, but the sandwich. It seems good in concept, baked turkey, apricot aioli, swiss cheese, lettuce, and tomato. But someone had a tremendously heavy hand with the apricot aioli, and the whole sandwich was lost. I’ve had tasty jam sandwiches, but never with swiss cheese and tomato. The Disgruntled Grilled Pork Tenderloin at Davola’s (with cranberry-apple compote and caramelized onions) is a fine sandwich, leading me to conclude that the one I had that day was a simple swing and a miss, rather than an indictment of the entire establishment. The Mad Maple Baked Turkey lived up to the name, but it a rather unfortunate way.

Southern Fried Chicken Sandwich – Flanagan’s Ale House, Baxter Ave Louisville, KY

Recently I was discussing sandwiches with a fellow enthusiast, and the conversation turned to what might be the worst possible sandwich. We both flexed our imaginations and plumbed the depths of our worst nightmares, coming up with a number of horrors. He suggested that the worst possible sandwich was some unholy combination involving white bread, bologna, individually wrapped slices of cheese (or possibly cheeze) and, if you can believe it, ranch dressing, ketchup, and yellow mustard. My position, though, was that when considering the worst sandwich while it might be fun to consider the worst possible sandwich, what is truly ghastly is to consider the worst sandwich that actually exists. While I’m not sure exactly what that sandwich is, I know that a strong argument can be made that it is currently sitting under a heat lamp.

As discerning sandwich consumers, I think we sometimes forget they exist. I think we get so lost in our own world that we forget that millions of times every day, for millions of people, a sandwich is ordered by number and comes wrapped in paper. Let me give you a specific example: I once found myself in a Jack in the Box near a cattle ranch in Coalinga, California. As is fitting in such a location, I was…I was in a bad way. And so I found myself sitting at a table, suffering the competing waves of screeching children being shouted down, staring at what the teenager behind the counter had called a Fish Sandwich.

The Fish Sandwich. A bun, roughly comparable to cotton in both taste and texture. A lonely leaf of iceberg lettuce. An inappropriate amount of mayonnaise. And finally, in the starring role, a piece of fish so thin you’d think it had been taken from an honest fillet with a woodworker’s plane. With a ratio of breading to fish of at least 3:1, this little pile just wasn’t worthy of the title sandwich.

But what does all of that have to do with the above? The Jack in the Box Chicken Sandwich might be the lowest of the low, but the high-end of that scale isn’t far off. Many people enjoy a particular brand of fast food sandwich, and I don’t mean to begrudge them that enjoyment. Chick-Fil-A, for example, has inspired fanaticism in fans of their simple chicken sandwiches. But even the best fast food sandwiches can barely be considered pedestrian. Take a moment to consider the above, and you see how easily such a thing is bested with a little effort. There’s nothing fancy about the fried chicken sandwich from Flangan’s Ale House. A chicken breast, breaded and freshly fried. A bit of lettuce, tomato, and onion, and the signature touch of pickles. Nothing fancy, but all of it well executed. And that, my friends, is the ultimate indictment of Jack and his ilk. You can forgive someone who aims high and falls short. It is easy to imagine someone without the means to do their best. But to see someone with such means and opportunity aim so low is truly despicable. The margin between simply being the best of a bad lot and being legitimately good is not so wide, and it is a shame more large-scale establishments do not try harder at crossing. Thankfully, we have establishments like Flanagan’s Ale House. There I found a fine sandwich, freshly fried, well seasoned, and tasty as could be.