Holiday observations, particularly those of religious origin, are often periods of abstinence, humility and general restraint. The annual celebration of overindulgence beginning at Thanksgiving and reaching a glorious crescendo in the final weeks of December is not one of these times. Back in November, I wrote a short piece about some of my favorite Thanksgiving sandwiches available in Washington, D.C.; thankfully, the month that followed was no less gluttonous. What follows is an almost daily account of my holiday wanderings, told through the bevy of beautiful sandwiches that defined it. ‘Twas a Happy Christmas, indeed.
Friday, Dec. 21
Holiday break starts with a happy hour rendezvous at Smith Commons on H Street, making an inaugural visit to the Atlas District’s newest sandwich mecca, Taylor Charles Steak & Ice, virtually mandatory. Being that Steak & Ice is the new and appropriately Philly-centric concept from the group behind the burgeoning hoagie empire that is Taylor Gourmet, it should surprise nobody to learn the ingredients, from the crunchy rolls to the lean, perfectly flat-grilled steak, are of top-notch quality and are assembled with the careful expertise we’ve come to expect from these guys. (Eater DC has a great gallery of images for those interested.) There’s no shortage of reasons to hop on the X2 and head out to H Street these days, but Steak & Ice is the kind of place that makes you (or me, anyway) want to call a neighborhood home. The holidays are off to a good start.
Saturday, Dec. 22
After an early departure from D.C. and six hours on the road, my traveling party arrives at lunchtime in Akron, Ohio, the erstwhile Rubber Capital of the World and purely coincidental birthplace of both Alcoholics Anonymous and your humble narrator. I find my parents’ refrigerator stocked with all the condiments and sliced lunch meats of my youth—hard salami, smoked ham, turkey breast—but the bread drawer is full of a bizarre collection of mutant low-carb bread-bun-tortilla hybrids (see here) and miniature hamburger buns. However, although my sandwich is a letdown, Mom and Dad have inexplicably gotten their hands on a six-pack of the delicious Winter Solstice Seasonal Ale from the California microbrewery Anderson Valley Brewing Company, which to my knowledge does not distribute to the Midwest. There is snow on the ground, a fire in the hearth and good beer to be had. All is well.
Sunday, Dec. 23
For a considerable length of time following the decline of the domestic rubber industry and before the rise of The Black Keys and a certain young basketball player who unceremoniously dumped his hometown team for a flashier, cushier and more glamorous job in South Florida, Swensons Drive In restaurants were the unofficial Pride of Akron. That it’s taken me roughly 24 hours before my first Swensons hamburg on this trip is surprising; most displaced Akronites make a pit stop at one of the handful of area locations on their way into town. Today I opt for the signature Galley Boy, a double cheeseburg served with two special sauces on a crispy, buttery, flaky bun. You truly cannot go wrong at Swensons, but if you must have just one sandwich, make it a Galley Boy.
Monday, Dec. 24
It’s lunchtime on Christmas Eve, and I’m back at Swensons. The Swensons burger was named the best in the country by Forbes magazine in 1999 and has been featured on a number of mindless travel/food cable television shows, but for me it was an acquired taste. A typically picky eater as a young child, I ordered a hot dog and fries almost exclusively. Before ultimately graduating to the more complex double hamburgs and Galley Boys, I spent many formative years eating single hamburgs with lettuce, ketchup and mustard. The burger patties at Swensons are subtly cloying (locals will tell you brown sugar is added to the beef), and ordering minimal fixings is perhaps the best way to enjoy this delicious sweetness. Having satisfied my Galley Boy jones yesterday, today I feel like I could eat a hundred of them, but I stop at two.
Tuesday, Dec. 25
Christmas is a travel day for me, and upon arriving in Grosse Pointe, Mich., at the home of my fiancée’s parents, I’m greeted by a counter-top lunch spread that would warm the heart of even the most hardened Scrooge among us. I’ve made many trips to the Detroit area in the past several years (documented here), and each visit has been an opportunity to discover new reasons to love my future in-laws. Today I learn that my soon-to-be mom-in-law’s parents owned a corner butcher shop, and the roast beef that I pile high atop Italian deli bread was prepared on a meat slicer inherited by my fiancée’s aunt from that shop. The beef is tender, flavorful and with a mild horseradish is possibly the best thing I’ve eaten so far this trip. But more importantly, know this: A family whose heirlooms facilitate the preparation of sliced meats is a family worth marrying into.
Friday, Dec. 28
To reiterate: I love my fiancée’s family. However, by this morning I am ready to do some exploring outside the confines of her ancestral home. With the help of Yelp! I locate Avalon International Breads, a socially-conscious bakery and cafe located just north of the Detroit city center and a block off Woodward Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare. It’s an extremely handsome, industrial reuse-type space, and it’s obvious upon walking in the door that the folks at Avalon take their bread very seriously; this is never a bad thing as it pertains to quality sandwichmaking. Having schlepped all the way into the city and not satisfied with sampling just one of the selections (and with my usual dining companion telecommuting back at the homestead), I pull the fat-kid move and order myself two sandwiches. The Charlevoix is Black Forest ham, brie, sliced pears and scrambled egg on a brioche bun, and the Palmer Park is gruyere, spinach, pickled red onion, scrambled egg and peppered walnut cream on Avalon’s signature Pain Aux Noix walnut sourdough. I spent a month scouring the diners and coffee shops of Washington, D.C., for the best breakfast sandwiches in the city and found not a single example as creative or surprising as these two. I didn’t need any more reason to love the Motor City, but there it is.
Friday, Dec. 30
This family loves its beef. The last sandwich I ate in Michigan before returning to D.C. was a succulent beef tenderloin slider with homemade giardiniera and mustard. It was the last of several festive family gatherings and though I’ll be happy to be home, leaving was bittersweet. Today I will be in a car. All. Day. Long. And although I will sleep in my own bed for the first time in what will feel like months, there are no sandwiches to be had today. I will make up for it tomorrow. Until next time, Motown!
Monday, Dec. 31
New Year’s Eve has never been my favorite holiday (amateur hour), but I’m back in D.C., I’m hungry and I’m determined to end the year with a bang. My better half has been cruelly called back into the office, so for lunch I venture to the recently-opened second location of Pho 14, conveniently around the corner from our apartment. Having already traversed the better part of Pho 14’s báhn mì menu, I elect to sample for the first time the Bi Thit Nuong, which is served with grilled pork (my choice), chicken or beef and pork skin with the usual fixings of pickled vegetable, cilantro, cucumber, jalapeno slices and mayo. I’ve quite honestly never met a báhn mì I didn’t like, but the Bi Thit Nuong is exceptional: all the fresh spiciness I expect from a báhn mì with a satisfying crunch and salty fattiness. It’s a damn near perfect sandwich, and although my year is about over, my day has only just begun. Dinner finds us at Maple, a quaint, no-frills bar and restaurant along Columbia Heights’s burgeoning 11th Street strip. Though I enjoyed a pretty spectacular dinner here in September, I’ve yet to sample the well-reputed panini menu. Tonight’s the night. I had hoped my final sandwich of 2012 would be one to remember, and Maple’s short-rib panini more than fits the bill. I struggle to try to contemplate the total number of sandwiches I’ve consumed since this blog was launched this summer, let alone since the beginning of the year, but this I know for sure: I’ve enjoyed them all.
Tuesday, Jan. 1
I’m unsure whether this is a German thing or a Midwestern thing or both, but it’s long been the tradition in my family to eat pork for good luck in a new year. And though I haven’t mentioned any the great swag I acquired this season, both as Christmas presents and bridal shower gifts (score!), three of these new acquisitions contribute hugely to the creation of my first sandwich of 2013: 1.) Chef Michael Symon’s excellent new cookbook “Carnivore” lends a great recipe for pork tenderloin (a protein he apparently doesn’t think of very highly). 2.) I deploy for the first time a brand-new leave-in meat thermometer to ensure the tenderloin, roasted whole, is brought to the FDA’s recommended internal temperature. 3.) The tenderloin is sliced thin and tucked into a fluffy bolillo roll with pickles, provolone and deli mustard, and the sandwich is tossed onto our shiny new panini press, an item I’m almost ashamed I’ve not owned until now. The Cubano comes out hot and perfectly crispy, the grill looks as clean as it did coming out of the box, and, if superstition is to be believed, a prosperous start to the new year is assured for all.