If Kansas City has a signature sandwich, it's surely beef brisket, thickly stacked on cheap, doughy white bread. But humankind cannot exist on barbecue alone — or Wonder bread, for that matter — and any city with cosmopolitan ambitions salutes sandwiches from different regions of the United States. You might not see such interstate creations in abundance, but if you look hard enough, you can find just about anything.
Even here, for instance, it's not impossible to order that mainstay of Maine restaurants, the lobster roll, a cold sandwich made with very few ingredients — chilled lobster, a bit of mayonnaise, a sprinkle of pepper and salt — in a recipe not to be tinkered with. Massachusetts-born chef Hope Dillon of the Vivilore Restaurant (10815 East Winner Road, Independence, 816-836-2222) does tinker, just a smidgen, with tradition, adding tarragon and chopped cucumber. And who's going to argue when Vivilore is one of the few spots where anyone in KC has ever seen this dish?
The New Orleans muffaletta is also hard to find in Kansas City, though Pandolfi's Deli (538 Campbell, in Columbus Park, 816-569-3663) just sold its 10,000th muffaletta last month.
Other regional sandwiches are less renowned, though. Maybe that's how I grew up in Indianapolis without somehow knowing that it had a signature sandwich. Not until recently did I discover that it's not just my hometown that's supposedly famous for breaded and fried pork-tenderloin sandwiches — the whole state of Indiana claims the honor.
To be fair, Des Moines, Iowa, also has bragging rights to that concoction, which complicates an already confusing provenance. But no matter who claims to have invented the thing — a tenderloin of pork hammered flat, dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and, usually, deep-fried — it's actually based on the Viennese favorite Wiener schnitzel, a sautéed and breadcrumb-coated veal sandwich. It originated in France.
I vaguely remember eating an Indiana pork-tenderloin sandwich as a child (or, more likely, sharing one; it has always been a sandwich judged by its size) and thinking it was pretty good. But when you're 10, anything fried tastes good. I haven't eaten many local versions lately — you know, that cholesterol thing — but I daydream about the most iconic version of the pork tenderloin in the metro, a bun stacked with golden pork slices that have been washed in an airy, tempuralike batter. It's at Kitty's Café (810-1/2 East 31st Street, 816-753-9711), a local standard of perfection since 1951.
There's also a very large, hand-pounded and hand-breaded tenderloin at the recently opened Milbourn's Food & Drink Co. (6409 North Cosby Avenue, 816-382-3850) in the Northland. That sandwich is a traditional, country-style spin on the standard. The pork isn't pounded too flat, and it's tender, but the thick, peppery breading (cornmeal-based) should be crunchier. Maybe cracker crumbs?
And it isn't hard to crave the breaded-pork sandwich served at the combination diner-nightclub known as Woodsweather II (2510 Northeast Vivion Road, 816-452-2606). Just know that co-owner John Cuezze would be offended if you called it a pork tenderloin. At his place, it's an Italian steak sandwich — and that's exactly what it would be, if it were made of beef. Cuezze's "steak" is a center-cut pork loin, double-dipped in breadcrumbs and Italian seasonings and then grilled on the flattop with a little olive oil. He serves it the way an Italian steak sandwich is supposed to be served: with melted mozzarella and a generous ladling of marinara.
Now's a good moment to mention that there's a world of difference between the Italian steak sandwich — the popular beef version — and the more region-specific iteration known as the Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich. The former, a fried-beefsteak sandwich, is easy to find locally. But the Chicago-style variation? Not so much. That's a pity because it's basically the Sicilian-American version of a French dip — it calls for an inexpensive cut of beef, sliced nearly paper-thin and then left to soak in the roasting pan's juices — and it makes the best cheap sandwich in the world when it's done right. (A true Italian beef sandwich must be made with real Italian bread and topped with the distinctively vinegary, crunchy vegetable relish called giardiniera.) The only local restaurateur I know of making a serious Chicago-style beef sandwich is Mike Klaersch, who runs Lenexa's Pizza Man pizzeria (10212 Pflumm, 913-492-2116). He slices his roast beef very thin, uses a tangy giardiniera and even imports his bread from the Gonnella bakery in the Windy City.
Speaking of the French dip: It's easier to find one of those in Kansas City. The most succulent might be at the Majestic Restaurant (931 Broadway, 816-221-1888). Prime rib from the previous evening is allowed to soak up the pan's juices overnight and then is thinly shaved before it's piled on a hard roll from Roma Bakery. It's served with a cup of hearty au jus (and horseradish sauce).
A different kind of steak-based sandwich, the Philly cheesesteak — the signature hand-held dish from the City of Brotherly Love — is visible around here but mostly in not-very-authentic incarnations. It's nearly impossible to find one made with Cheez Whiz, a key ingredient at Pat's King of Steaks in Philadelphia. But that's easily forgotten when you're eating chef Alex Pope's version. Pope, who has installed a food truck called Pigwich outside his butcher shop, the Local Pig (2618 Guinotte Avenue, 816-200-1639), began serving his cheesesteak in late March. It's smooth and rich, with grilled beef on a crusty baguette from North Kansas City's Le Monde Bakery, swiped with a bit of Dijon mustard and topped with grilled onions, mushrooms and poblano peppers, and smoked provolone. "It's a cheesy cheesesteak," Pope says, "but in a good way." A very good way.
Only one kind of cheese is acceptable on the favored sandwich of Miami and Key West: the swiss that adorns an authentic Cubano. It's a hot pressed sandwich that squeezes together slices of ham, roast pork and swiss with thinly sliced dill pickles and a swath of yellow mustard (the cheap kind). That's what you get from Venezuelan-born Jose Garcia, of El Portón Café (4671 Indian Creek Parkway, Overland Park, 913-381-8060), who is a stickler for authenticity (even if the yeasty Cuban-style roll he uses comes from a corporate, commercial food-service company). His roasted pork is tender, the cheese is hot and bubbly, and the pickle slices aren't too puckery.
The rest of the Eastern Seaboard isn't necessarily so wise about its sandwiches. Massachusetts, for example, has been toying with the idea of making the Fluffernutter — peanut butter and marshmallow creme on white bread — its official state sandwich. I don't know where to find one of those in the Kansas City area. And I'd just as soon you didn't tell me.