Food & Drink

Count the Monte Cristos

Decoding the Rosetta Stone of Sandwiches

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Ellen Forney

The Monte Cristo sandwich has always served as a sort of Rosetta Stone in my explorations of this planet: one common idea, one common truth, one common sandwich, translated through a multitude of local points of view. Even in as demographically white a city as Seattle, there are subcultural variations on the Monte Cristo that could keep an ethnographer busy for months.

The Monte Cristo (it translates literally as "sandwich of Christ") is a sandwich engulfed in controversy. Arising from clouded origins at the beginning of the 20th century (either in Paris as a variation on a croque monsieur, or in Los Angeles at the infamous Brown Derby restaurant) it is now served in thousands of American cities and in thousands of variations, commingling the sweet and the savory. The sandwich itself is a jumble of contradictions. From one angle it could easily be mistaken for a breakfast dish, battered like French toast and served with jam and powdered sugar. From another angle, packed with ham, turkey, pickle and cheese, it's a hearty lunch item. Is it sweet? Is it savory? "Do I contradict myself?" Walt Whitman famously asked. "Very well then, I contradict myself," he also answered. "I am vast; I contain multitudes."

Peso's Kitchen and Lounge

This Mexican Monte Cristo references the sandwich's possible roots in the croque monsieur by substituting a simple fried egg for both the turkey and the sweet middle slice of battered bread common to other Monte Cristos. The whole sandwich is then grilled like a panino, not battered. It leans heavily toward the savory, abandoning the powdered sugar and jam found in more traditional versions. This is a desert sandwich—I don't mean to imply that it's a dry sandwich, but that it's a sandwich that reflects a dry desert environment, that it's at home with the salty, dry tortilla chips and simple, undressed greens on the plate. It's a straightforward sandwich, stripped of the sweet frills that make other Monte Cristos more... lush. And in its own simple way, it's delicious.

Charlie's on Broadway

I have to admit that I don't understand Charlie's. It's a locally owned one-off restaurant, not part of a national chain, but both in its menu and its interior design it emulates the corporate look and feel of Bennigan's and Friday's. The Monte Cristo at Charlie's looks and tastes like it was prepared by a robot—a robot that understands objectively what a Monte Cristo should be but has no personal or emotional connection to the idea of it as food. There is a single slice of ham. A single slice of turkey. A single slice of Swiss cheese. It's a classic white-bread, three-layer sandwich dipped in batter and fried (here cut into diagonal quarters before the dip and fry, increasing the battered and fried surface area by almost 100 percent). Dusted with a generous helping of powdered sugar and served with a bowl of strawberry freezer jam, it leans as heavily toward the sweet as Peso's sandwich does toward the savory. But it's not a good sandwich, in the sense that it's neither enjoyable to eat nor easy to digest.

Bakers Restaurant

Such a petty thing to love, but I love the fact that the ham and turkey in this Monte Cristo exist as chunks arranged casually rather than the flat stack of uniform slices found in many others. It adds volume without adding mass, and it reminds the diner that a human being made this sandwich. It's a classic diner sandwich at a classic diner (flocked wallpaper and all), and of the "traditional" Monte Cristos in this survey, it is far-and-away the best.

The Calcutta Grill at the Golf Club at Newcastle

My guest and I weren't dressed like schlubs; we were dressed like normal people, good-looking normal people who use starch on their shirts and makeup on their faces. But we must not have looked like golfers, because our hostess immediately suggested that we dine in the upstairs bar and not the dining room. Fine. This Monte Cristo substitutes a healthy dose of Dungeness crab for the turkey, and sports a side of luscious homemade orange marmalade. It's a smart sandwich—the crab (naturally both sweet and savory) bridges the flavor gap between ham and powdered sugar, as does the tangy marmalade. Given the inherent heart-attack-on-a-plate-ness of the Monte Cristo, this one is surprisingly light, the sort of thing you could wolf down between the front and back nine. It is a sandwich that reeks of class, ingenuity, and money (at $14, it's the most expensive sandwich in this survey). And I have to say, for all my proletariat political leanings, this is the most intelligently designed, the most intentionally skewed, the most delicately balanced, and the most delicious Monte Cristo of the week.

Rusty Pelican Cafe

Cinnamon-swirled French toast (three layers of it)—that's about the most adventurous thing about this Monte Cristo. Otherwise, it follows a predictable path and conveys no personality, no originality, no interest. I'm trying to remember the dining room at the Rusty Pelican, and for some reason in my memory the entire room—walls, floor, tables, chairs, lamps, poster art, and plastic plants—is washed in a kind of 1980s pastel blue, a sea of chromatic monotony. It's a monotony that spreads to the sandwich, a leaden set of four battered triangles waiting apathetically on the plate for you to eat it, or not; it doesn't care.

Peso's Kitchen and Lounge, 605 Queen Anne Ave N, 283-9353, Daily 11 am–3 am. Charlie's on Broadway, 217 Broadway E, 323-2535, Sun–Thurs 9 am–2 am, Fri–Sat 9 am–2:30 am. Bakers Restaurant, 12534 Lake City Way NE, 365-1888, Mon 8 am–3 pm, Tue­–Thu & Sun 8 am–7 pm, Fri–Sat 8 am–8 pm. The Calcutta Grill at the Golf Club at Newcastle, 15500 Six Penny Lane, Newcastle, Mon–Thurs 11 am–9 pm, Fri–Sat 11 am–10 pm, Sun 10 am–9 pm. Rusty Pelican Cafe, 1924 N 45th St, 545-9090, Sun–Thurs 7:30 am–10 pm, Fri–Sat 7:30 am–11 pm.

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You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me 1
"The Monte Cristo (it translates literally as "sandwich of Christ") is a sandwich engulfed in controversy." -FAIL-

Actually it translates literally as "mount of Christ", but then why get bogged down in detains and facts?
Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me on August 21, 2009 at 4:46 PM · Report this
drewl 2
@1 Thank you.

Also... 'Jesus Christ' apparently was Jewish. So I'm sure glad they put ham in 'his' namesake sandwich. If you make it breakfast style, bacon is a good substitute or addition.
Posted by drewl on August 21, 2009 at 10:37 PM · Report this
3
really, 1 & 2?

really?

for real?
Posted by UberAlles on August 22, 2009 at 3:52 PM · Report this
Matthew Richter 4
whew. thanks 3. my head almost burst.
Posted by Matthew Richter http://www.xomonline.com on August 22, 2009 at 5:58 PM · Report this
drewl 5
@3 What? Ya don't like bacon with yer ham?
Posted by drewl on August 22, 2009 at 11:21 PM · Report this
6
I remember eating Monte Cristos at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle when I was a child. It was battered and DEEP FRIED --- NOT grilled. It was the most delicious thing in the world -- next to a the Frango Mint milkshake at the Paul Bunyan Room at Frederick and Nelson. But you could only have ONE of those treats each week. Thank God you couldn't get them both at one place!
Posted by Baby Doe on August 25, 2009 at 10:42 AM · Report this

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