In Which a Sandwich Causes me to Completely Lose the Plot

I need to switch things up a little bit.

In terms of this blog I’m in Mississippi, with the amazing food of New Orleans, Cajun country, West Texas, New Mexico, and California’s central valley still ahead of me.

Meanwhile as I'm writing about all of that, I’m having just incredible new food experiences: I spent three hours at Swan’s Oyster Depot shoveling so much in that I think I swallowed a shell, had my mind blown apart by a plantain I ate on the beach in Far Rockaway—served in a tin foil packet covered in farmer’s cheese and guava jelly it was basically a food hallucination—ate too much herring on the roof of New York’s old Russian baths, hosted an informal turkey sandwich competition between the bodegas in my neighborhood, discovered definitively the best gummi candy there is, and  confirmed once again that the #5 at Barney Greengrass is the best sandwich, full stop.

So, I’m going to start breaking things up a little. When I tire of the open road, I’m going to throw in a quick post about my eating-life now. And, I’m going to start today with that sandwich.

Barney Greengrass: The Sturgeon King is justifiably famous. This is no secret off-the-beaten-path-snack. I’d been wanting to eat there for decades before I ever got the chance. In fact, Barney Greengrass (and the Wu-Tang Clan) played a big role in my choosing to attend college in New York over sunnier schools on the west coast.

Like too many great old-school immigrant cuisines, the kind of fare they serve at Barney Greengrass is disappearing. Technically Barney Greengrass is an appetizing store.

Appetizing stores, or appetizing tables, are pretty much the best stores ever. In the interest of keeping kosher, Jewish immigrants were careful to keep their fish and dairy separate from their meats. For the meat, there was the deli—just so my wishes are clear, I would like my ashes scattered in a deli—and for the fish and dairy, there was the appetizing table. That connubio perfetto, a bagel with lox and cream cheese was born in the appetizing store; they are magical places.

 The chopped herring. Better than ice cream.

The chopped herring. Better than ice cream.

Fish of all kinds, creamed, cured, pickled, smoked, and salted, along with caviar and assorted roes, and baked goods, blintzes, bagels, bialeys, and latkes all come together at the appetizing table.

Sadly, despite food writers talking about the “appetizing trend” for the last few years, true appetizing stores are few and far between, and unless you live in New York or a few other Jewish enclaves in North America, pretty much nonexistent. Ask most casual foodies where to get good appetizing and they’ll probably only be able to name two places: Russ and Daughters on the Lower East Side, and Barney Greengrass on the Upper West. And, Barney Greengrass isn’t really an appetizing store at all.

BG is what I call an outlaw appetizing store. At some point since its opening in 1908 someone there made the inspired—albeit heretical—decision to cater to gentile tastes and serve deli alongside the traditional dairy and parve (neither dairy nor meat) offerings, which means you can get chopped herring with a side of pastrami on rye, and which makes Barney Greengrass my favorite place in New York City and the sturgeon king of my heart.

Every time I sit down at Barney Greengrass I order a plain toasted bialy, a serving of home made chopped herring—so sweet and fresh you could put it on a cupcake—at least five unsweetened iced teas, and the #5.

The number five. Don’t miss it. Hidden deep in the menu under “Triple Deckers”, a bargain at $15.75, the number five is more than a sandwich. It is three sandwiches singing in perfect harmony, a fresco of a sandwich, the number five is a masterpiece.

A lesson for Americans. When it comes to food, sometimes over-the-top is good, sometimes it is bad. Going by yourself to a restaurant and ordering three dozen oysters and a magnum of Muscadet is good, using grilled cheese sandwiches—or donuts, or pieces of fried chicken—as hamburger buns is bad. Serving bone marrow and parsley on toast after dessert (with ice cold shots of schnapps) is good, competitive eating of all stripes is bad. The #5 triple decker from Barney Greengrass is much better than good.

Roast Beef. Chicken Fat. Chicken Liver. Turkey. Cole Slaw. Russian Dressing. All between three thin slices of pungent rye bread. Just take a moment and think about that.

 The. Number. Five.

The. Number. Five.

The Roast beef: flaky, iron rich and redolent of the oven, draped over a thick velvety swipe of schmaltz which coats your mouth and fills your nose with the slick, dripping memory of a cramped, steamy Eastern European kitchen, and holds up the beef, saving it like an exhausted swimmer bobbing on a warm and salty sea.

Then, even more. Even richer, even fattier, the liver meets the fat like the river meets the ocean and mingles there, the liver pushing the fat deeper, the liver lifting the fat into the light.  Then, briefly, the gulped breath of the bread, the merciful just-in-time cut of caraway, a welcome but half-hearted palate cleanse, like smoking a cigar in a barnyard.

Then, the turkey, cut thin, roasted dry, and piled high. Savory, and gamey, the turkey is delicious, but I would argue more vital as structure: the teeth cleave through the stacked slices of meat, sheering the flaky bird until, slowing all the while, they meet the cole slaw just right, and ease in to the electric crunch of the cabbage, the cool cream, the light punch of the vinegar.

Then, finally, the Russian dressing, with its fat to coat your mouth, and piquant hum to finally wipe the palate clean. Ready again for another bite.

This is a sandwich that eats itself.