In America, sandwiches are like cars. They're everywhere, and such an entrenched part of our culture that they're taken for granted. They perfectly match our on-the-go lifestyle: You can eat them indoors or out, while seated, or while en route. There's really no wrong time of day to eat one, and, like cars, they can be custom-built.
Customizing is one of Americans' favorite things to do, and this penchant is clearly reflected in our eating habits (think salad bars and smoothie stands). So the sandwich might be our most customizable foodstuff. Pick a bread from a selection of seven, pick one of three types of ham, add mayo or mustard, hold the onion, add avocado, toast the bread, but please, no cheese. In many Boston-area delis and sandwich shops, the choices are as wide as the Charles, and consumers like it that way.
The build-your-own school of sandwich assemblage makes us ponder the fate of the classics: the Reuben, the Cuban, the Monte Cristo, or the Club, and the ''initial" sandwiches, BLT and PB&J.
We poked around some of Boston's delis, restaurants, pubs, and sandwich shops in search of this American fare. There is such a thing as a bad Reuben, we discovered, and now we know what makes a successful club (crisp and simple). We identified a PB&J trend on menus across town, found melty Monte Cristos, and renewed our ardor for Cubanos. We heard about mushroom Reubens and clubs made with smoked salmon and brie. We encountered an entire cookbook devoted to variations on the BLT. We finally realized that every sandwich, even those with assigned ingredients, is open for customization.
Gary Mitchell, owner of Cambridge's S & S Restaurant, where sandwiches have an important role, says, ''You can get the club sandwich 16 different ways -- and people do. Hey, let them have what they want."
BLT Bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo on toasted bread. Among the many variations is the crab BLT with a plump softshell. Ideally Two words: crisp and simple. The bacon should be thick and smokey with crisp iceberg, a juicy tomato, and a judicious layer of mayo. And that's it. Avoid Extra ingredients. Too much variation on a classic and it's no longer the same sandwich, which is not to say we don't admire the soft-shell version. Good ones Rachel's Kitchen, 12 Church St., Boston, 617-423-3447. Proprietors Alon Monzer and Rachel Miller-Monzer have a good thing going on their Bay Village luncheonette menu: ''fancy sandwiches" and ''simple sandwiches." The BLT fits the simple bill.
CLUB White meat turkey, on three slices of toasted bread with lettuce, tomato, bacon, and mayo. The late James Beard wrote that whoever invented the sandwich ''should be forced to eat three-deckers three times a day the rest of his life." Obviously, he didn't like them. Ideally Since clubs by definition are high, you sometimes feel like you have to unhinge your jaw to get a bite. A club should be quartered on the diagonal, and secured with toothpicks. The frilly toothpick, says Bill Tuite, chef at the University Club, a private social and athletic club in the Back Bay, ''is part and parcel of the club." Avoid A skewed vegetable-to-bacon ratio. Lettuce should not overwhelm bacon. Good ones S & S Restaurant, 1334 Cambridge St., Inman Square, Cambridge, 617-354-0777. This 1919 landmark sells 500 turkey clubs each week, estimates owner Mitchell. This delightful version comes with crisp toast, a shadow of mayo, good bacon, leafy lettuce, juicy tomato slices, and piles of moist turkey.
CUBAN Roast pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles on Cuban or French bread, pressed until golden. Without a Cuban bakery in Boston, you're destined to get the sandwich on French. Cuban bread, made with lard, has a ''lighter, crispier, fluffier" texture than French, says Nobel Garcia, owner of El Oriental de Cuba in Jamaica Plain. Ideally A firm hand on the sandwich press. This combination triumphs when warm, melted, and crispy. Mustard, pickles, and other fixings should be tucked in at the end. Avoid Overzealous use of condiments. One Cubano we tried was soggy from warm ketchup and mayonnaise. These, as well as lettuce, tomato, and onion, are often found on Cubans around town. ''I always kid with people who say, 'Oh, you're turning this Cuban into a Yankee,' " says Garcia. ''But here people like all their own toppings." Good ones El Oriental de Cuba, 416 Centre St., Jamaica Plain. 617-524-6464. The place sells between 750 and 1,000 each week. Best when eaten at the bustling neighborhood spot.
MONTE CRISTO Ham, turkey, and Swiss cheese on white, dipped in egg batter and pan-fried, like French toast. Often dusted with powdered sugar. Ideally Monte Cristo should be warm and gooey inside, and crisp, with a buttery-sweet outside. A side of jam is often served for dipping, and fruit is also included sometimes (to make the diner feel less guilty?). Avoid Don't eat this sandwich if you don't want to spend the rest of the week atoning. Or, if you can't eat it on the premises. Good ones S & S Restaurant. The right balance of crisp and melty.
PB&J Peanut butter and jelly, the base of many personal food pyramids and the redemption for Wonder Bread. Bananas, honey, and bacon have all stood in for jelly. It's appearing on pub and deli menus all over town. Ideally Creamy PB, good-quality J, and a heartier bread than Wonder. Avoid Extreme variations. This is no place for mayo, pickles, and bacon. Good ones Hot Off the Press, 39 1st Ave., Charlestown Navy Yard, 617-241-7999. Owner Erin Fermoyle spreads peanut butter and strawberry jam on slices of white peasant bread for a kid-friendly pressed sandwich that ''brings you right back home," she says.
REUBEN Corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Thousand Island dressing on rye, grilled. Turkey and pastrami are often substituted for corned beef. Ideally ''Too much of anything and it gets kind of smothered," S & S's Mitchell says. Look for savory, tender, juicy corned beef, with a ripple of fat at the edges, fresh kraut, mild melted cheese, and tangy dressing. Avoid Nuclear dressing. (You'll know it when you see it.) The bread should not be flimsy and the dressing should be a suggestion. Good ones Charlestown's Hot Off the Press; and Sam LaGrassa's, 44 Province St., Boston, 617-357-6861. This family operation has the Reuben formula down pat. Their own corned beef, which was the best we tasted, ''comes out of the water every day at 11:00 am," says co-owner Ritchie LaGrassa.