From the Smallest State, the Biggest Sandwich
I’ve known great sandwiches. I used to thrill to the cheese steaks they served at Buzzy’s in Boston, next to the Charles Street Jail. They wept with fat and flavor, an amalgam of bread and cheese and salty meat. I still marvel at the hot pastrami on rye at Langer’s in Los Angeles, which Nora Ephron called the finest hot pastrami sandwich in the world. I’ve devoured heroes at Lioni in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn: capicola, prosciutto, olive loaf, fresh mozzarella, chopped tomatoes, a little drizzle of balsamic. That’s “a well-trained hero,” according to the restaurant’s menu. The owners call it the Angelo Dundee. I love a Nicky Special at Defonte’s in Red Hook, heavy on the fried eggplant, extra hot salad on top. Also a porchetta sandwich at Salumi, in Seattle, and a roast beef po’ boy at Parkway in New Orleans. New Jersey sloppy joes! Iowa tenderloins! Pit beef on a hard roll! Fried grouper on a soft one! All my friends.
These sandwiches are mostly, as Ephron once wrote of pastrami, “not something anyone’s mother whips up and serves at home.” I’ve tried to make the porchetta from Salumi, for instance, and put myself in the position of an amateur lead guitarist in a White Stripes cover band that doesn’t get a second gig. But there are times when you can try, and be rewarded, if only you choose the right target.
Take the Rhode Island chorizo sandwich with kale and provolone that the chef Matthew Hyland serves occasionally at the Emily and Emmy Squared restaurants he owns and runs with Emily Hyland, his wife, in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Nashville. Matthew, who is 37, is known for making exemplary pizza and hamburgers, luscious and big-flavored, tied to no particular culinary lineage except his own tastes and interests. His sandwich game is also strong, though, and his chorizo number is extraordinary: sweet and salty with a little bit of fire and a lash of acidity, bright and earthy at once, addictive beneath a spray of celery seeds. I didn’t want to eat that sandwich occasionally. I wanted to eat it all the time.
The Rhode Island is a sandwich Hyland has been working on practically since his college days in the state, when he worked the deli counter at Clements’ Marketplace in Portsmouth, across the bridge from his room at Roger Williams University, in Bristol. The job took him a long way from his life as a prep-school kid from Greenwich, Conn., and from his academic work as an information-science major. It was a little unfamiliar, and totally thrilling. “There was this kind of Bolognese sauce they made there,” he told me, served on seeded rolls: crumbled Portuguese chouriço sausage with tomato and green pepper. Hyland had been to a lot of restaurants as a kid. His grandfather had money in Nippon, the groundbreaking Japanese restaurant on 52nd Street. The family ate there often, indeed probably ate restaurant food more than any other sort. “But I’d never tasted anything like that sandwich before,” he said. He ate it and then went back to slicing cold cuts for customers, packets of roast beef and turkey, Cheddar, white American, Swiss. He knew then he wanted to be a chef.
This sandwich pays tribute to those early days. It is a sloppy joe of sorts, built on a base of crumbled sausage, tomato sauce, green peppers. In an accounting of the recipe in the forthcoming “Emily: The Cookbook,” out in the fall, Hyland said he suggests using chorizo because you can’t regularly find chouriço in stores outside the coastal New England cities where Portuguese communities have thrived since at least the late 19th century. Mexican chorizo is similarly spiced, if a little less fatty: garlicky, red-brown with paprika, more fiery than the Portuguese version. You can use the sausages almost interchangeably, but when I can find chouriço in the markets I haunt, I prefer it: fatty and rich.
Other times, though, I can’t. And sometimes I can’t find Mexican chorizo either. Then I use Guatemalan chorizo, more pungent than the Portuguese, less spicy than the Mexican. I’ve used a vinegar-bright Salvadoran chorizo too. There are a lot of chorizos. Taste tests suggest you get a great sandwich whichever one you use. I like to pool the sauce on top of the sharp provolone, so that the cheese softens slightly and imparts its bite. Above the sauce, I like a handful of baby kale or spinach leaves, for the texture they provide. And do not stint on the olives, banana peppers or celery seeds that Hyland uses to adorn the greens. The celery seeds especially, a nod to the celery salt traditionally shaken on hot dogs in Rhode Island, are a perfect touch, if a surprising combination. Hyland shrugged. “I like to cook ingredients that taste good together,” he said. These do.