Veggie BBQ Sandwich – Mr. Natural, East Cesar Chavez St, Austin, TX

Mr. Natural's Veggie BBQ Sandwich

Living throughout the country during my lifetime has allowed me to keep a shifting expectation for food. Although I was born in southern Virginia, where hot dogs can have mayonnaise and “gourmet cooking” usually constitutes stew cooked communally in the backyard, I’ve spent time in locations as diverse as south Florida, suburban Ohio, and now Texas. I do not go into a BBQ sandwich expecting one definition of barbecue — I am able to adapt with my surroundings and judge the dish on its own merits, outside of preconception. This is an enlightened view of food; I did not develop it by choice.

Mr. Natural is a 100% vegetarian, 100% natural eatery located in the outskirts of downtown Austin, staffed with smiling faces and a humorous expression of language. The Veggie BBQ Sandwich, for example, is advertised as “wheat protein sauteed in barbecuse sauce.” The sandwich itself is a disasterous masterpiece, falling out from within itself before you’ve even taken a bite, requiring a steady hand to finish without incident. At Mr. Natural, barbecue comes with lettuce and tomatoes, sprouts, and pickle chips. It is by no feasible definition a “barbecue.” Even the name of the sauce is merely an approximation. However, taken without preconception, the unusually sweet flavor and crisp, fresh vegetables add up to a delightful sum.

Should I find myself in another region of the country, I will surely find a vegan barbecue option that surpasses Mr. Natural’s efforts, but I will not forget the uniqueness of the effort, nor its degree of difficulty.

Old Fashion Chicken Salad Sandwich, The Oinkster, Colorado Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

Chicken Salad sandwich from the Oinkster. A chicken salad sandwich sliced into two triangles, piled with nearly equal portions of chicken salad and pickles.The Oinkster is an eatery of moderate fame in the north end of Los Angeles proper, in the Eagle Rock area. It is famous for its pastrami sandwiches and its peanut butter-and-jelly cupcakes. I have a particular affinity for neither of these items. I visit The Oinkster frequently, but my “regular” item of purchase is their pulled-pork sandwich, which my esteemed colleague has written about, at length, but which I find more than agreeable.

I felt that my first foray for On Sandwiches should not be a well-traveled road, so I selected the “Old Fashion” Chicken Salad Sandwich. Chicken salad is a very interesting sandwich star: underrepresented, little thought-of (at least on the West Coast, and among those under 40), and potentially pleasing under ideal conditions and when in a particular mood. In my mind, chicken salad has two defining characteristics: the first is that it is the classier older brother of tuna salad; the second is that it is the very definition of the “Oh, ______ sounds good” menu item. An item you see on a menu that you hadn’t considered before sitting down, but darn if that doesn’t sound tasty on a fine Spring afternoon.

So it was with the thought of giving time to the neglected Chicken Salad that I ordered. As is customary for On Sandwiches, I ordered the item as presented on the menu. The only item that gave me pause was the inclusion of pickles. I am traditionally averse to pickles, but pressed ahead, eager to file my first column. My eagerness turned to dread when confronted with the sandwich itself, which, as you can see in the above photo, was fairly inundated with pickle.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must relay the following information: on the menu board at The Oinkster, the ingredients were listed as follows: “pulled roast chicken, housemade (bread and butter pickle), mayonnaise, tomato and onion on focaccia bread.” I had never before encountered the term “bread-and-butter pickle,” so the wording of the sandwich ingredients was beyond baffling to me, particularly when the placement of parentheses were considered. What was housemade? The pulled roast chicken? The bread? Some sort of “butter pickle?” Perhaps it’s my West Coast location, perhaps my picky eating as a child, or maybe due to my unfamiliarity with pickled cucumbers and their briny ilk, but the term had passed me by. All I knew was that it was a chicken salad sandwich, and pickles were involved.

I hefted the sandwich and took a bite, expecting an overwhelming burst of briny, acidic pickle dwarfing everything else. It was at this moment I learned that “bread-and-butter” pickles are sweet, rather than the salty tang of your standard dill. And this element, ladies and gentlemen, is truly what made the entire sandwich sing. I can only imagine how my eyes must have lit up upon that first bite. What an experience! The creamy, savory chicken salad was the yin to the sweet pickles’ yang. Joining the two as a splendid accent was the crisp bite of the onion, which was administered with skilled hand in just the perfect amount. The focaccia bread was, in a word, the perfect vessel, a spectacular firmness without being hard or crunchy, and without soaking up the moistness of the components within. If there was a fault to be found with this sandwich, it was the inclusion of tomato, which truly added nothing to the experience. It has been written about on this blog before, but it has come to the point that the watery fruit is, more often than not, added to a sandwich out of a perceived necessity than paying attention to the needs of the individual sandwich. “Making a sandwich, eh?” the unwashed masses must say to one another, “Better make sure you throw some tomato on there.”

I can scarcely remember a time I have so enjoyed a new sandwich. This experience serves as an excellent reminder to not only myself, but to all of us, that you never know which run-of-the-mill sandwich base  may allow an architect to create something around it that will truly knock your socks off.