As a food fad, grilled sandwiches came on the scene several years ago and, happily, haven't left. There's something irresistible about a sandwich fresh from a hot press, which melts the cheese, warms the meats and veggies, and soaks the condiments into the toasted bread.
Erin Hart understands this magic. "When you heat a sandwich up a little bit, it just takes it to another level," said the Newbury College graduate, who opened Hot off the Press Cafe & Bakery in the Charlestown Navy Yard in 2004 and a second location in Cambridge's Central Square last November.
Both stores are comfortably disheveled, with newspapers strewn about and rolls of paper towels serving as napkins. In canine-loving Charlestown, there's a "Paws of Fame" photo gallery. In crunchy Cambridge, staff-made art adorns the walls and customers are encouraged to compost their food waste.
A few noteworthy differences: The Charlestown location (which is for sale, since Hart wants to lighten her workload so she can have a baby) is cash only; Cambridge takes credit cards. Charlestown closes after lunch, while Cambridge stays open through dinner. Charlestown stops serving breakfast sandwiches ($3.60) at 11 a.m.; Cambridge serves breakfast all day, including scrambled eggs ($4.75-$4.95) and cinnamon French toast ($5.65) inspired by creme brulee (it's made with cream, sugar, vanilla, and egg yolks).
And in one of the best bargains around, the Cambridge store is offering a small coffee (or iced coffee) and an egg-and-cheese muffin for only $1.99, a deal trumpeted on a sidewalk sign that shouts, "You can't afford not to eat here!"
The small menu of about a dozen lunch sandwiches includes a lively Cuban ($6.95) -- pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and tomato -- dubbed "feisty" because it's pepped up with red pepper relish, dill pickles, and mayo spiked with hot sauce. There's a deliciously drippy Reuben ($5.95) on marble rye layered with salty pastrami, tangy sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing, and Swiss cheese; and a Black Forest ham-and-Swiss ($5.55) elevated by sweet honey mustard. Cilantro lime creme fraiche is the knockout ingredient in Baja chicken ($5.95), melding grilled chicken, corn, baby arugula, avocado, tomato, and red onion. Make note: The Baja is sold only in Cambridge for now, but may be coming to Charlestown shortly.
Peanut butter and jelly ($2.95) is ethereal when grilled -- Hart calls it an "adult Pop Tart" -- and soars even higher if you add banana or apple ($1 extra). It's a sweet, creamy mess, but worth every napkin. The best seller, for good reason, is Southwestern turkey ($5.95) with avocado ($1 extra). It gets great depth of taste from smoked turkey, applewood-smoked bacon, and spicy mayo. It's marred only by what looks like pre-grated cheese, the kind that comes in plastic bags.
An oven-roasted vegetable wrap ($5.65) is a constant surprise; I've had it twice and each time the veggies were different -- once a lima bean-okra-carrot mix, later a sweet potato-red onion-curried broccoli combo, both very good. And I admire Hart's dedication to using local products, including breads from Fantini Baking Co. in Haverhill and beverages from companies in Cambridge and Brookline.
My main beef is that too many sandwiches are made with mayonnaise, including the breakfast sandwiches (eggs with mayo?) and tuna melt, which already contains heavily mayonnaised albacore. With all the tapenades, salsas, pestos, mustards, and flavored oils out there, there should be more creative options. And my orders have sometimes been missing ingredients, which Hart admits can happen when every sandwich (except the pre-assembled Cuban) is made to order.
The baked goods are hit or miss. After a bland chocolate chip cookie, a dry brownie, and a cupcake with gritty frosting, my luck changed with a soft, plump blueberry muffin; moist carrot cake speckled with sweet raisins; and a dense white chocolate-raspberry scone.
There's a bonus in Cambridge: a smoothie bar. Start with unsweetened iced tea, orange juice, apple cider, or Thai coconut juice. Then add frozen fruit and ice. A current special is a pi±a colada smoothie of mango, pineapple, and coconut juice. "Oh, my good God -- all it needs is Malibu rum," rhapsodizes Hart.
Alas, Hot off the Press doesn't have a liquor license. You'll just have to add the Bacardi's at home.
Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.