Honor Roll: Oysters, sausage, and sublime bread make Firefly?s po? boy a top choice.
Honor Roll: Oysters, sausage, and sublime bread make Firefly?s po? boy a top choice. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The menu at Roy’s Place in Gaithersburg lists page after page of sandwiches, more than 200 of them, most of which have little ™ symbols next to their names. Maybe they all do. I don’t know. To be honest, I got tired of reading about sammies like the Sigmund Freud (three fried oysters, Swiss, baked ham, coleslaw), the Marsupial (roast beef with four fried oysters), and the Joel T. Siegel (lobster salad, brisket, “golden sauce,” Swiss, lettuce, and tomatoes).

If you dig sandwiches, Roy’s is your mecca in Montgomery County. Founder Roy Passin is a master at endlessly recycling a limited number of pantry ingredients; he’s also a master gasbag. It makes for a clattering time capsule of a restaurant, the kind of beer-soaked, classic-rock joint that covers up its midgrade fare with high camp and humor. (Sample: “If you’ll stop stealing our menus, we’ll stop slashing your tires.”) It’s the place your chatterbox of an uncle would have opened, if only the war hadn’t fucked up his head so badly. Yep, I really like the vibe here.

I want to like the sandwiches at Roy’s, too, but my Southern Discomfort (five fried oysters, thick bacon, slaw, tartar sauce on a French roll) is a mess. The sammie has spilled its sweet coleslaw guts all over the plate; the “thick” bacon is really a few strips of fried pork belly clinging for life on the side of the roll; the fried oysters are fishy, squishy specimens. My friend’s sandwich, the Callipygous (beef brisket in Chablis, chicken liver pâté, horseradish mayo) is a step up, but it still leaves a dry, chalky aftertaste. These plates are confirmation of something I’ve known since childhood: I hate sandwiches.

Actually, I hate the idea of sandwiches. The mere thought of ordering one at lunch—or, God forbid, dinner—bores me to tears. I think I pulled one too many red rings from my Oscar Mayer bologna as a kid. I mean, I still remember the thrill of discovering the watery crunch that iceberg lettuce adds to sandwiches. That’s how boring my original white-bread wonders were. Those memories stick with you.

But enough’s enough. The world is full of interesting sandwiches, and I’m determined to find a few. My first stop at Breadline on Pennsylvania Avenue NW was not promising, perhaps because I entered under a false pretense. I had hoped to bite into a bread bomb that would obliterate my remembrances of bolognas past. The mortadella piadine, unfortunately, just added another layer of frustration. Mortadella is bologna’s fat Italian father. Breadline acted as if the meat were more precious than Dover sole. Two waif-thin slices of mortadella were folded inside a grilled pita to give the impression of genuine meatiness. Inside the fold, the staff had stuffed an overdressed salad of arugula, diced tomatoes, cucumbers, and chopped green onions. The last thing I tasted was mortadella.

I immediately sought refuge at Chinatown’s PS 7’s, that unexpected temple of sandwich-making. Chef Peter Smith was in the middle of revamping his spring menu; he gave me a preview of one of his latest creations, a fine-dining take on the gyro. It’s an open-faced, homemade pita layered with braised spring-lamb shoulder (the braising liquid includes wine, garlic, and olive oil), roasted garlic and tomatoes, feta, and fried artichoke chips. Smith stood there as I took the first bite. I had to resist the temptation to gush, which is never a flattering trait, particularly in critics. I told Smith it could use a hit or two of acid to balance the rich, unctuous flavors, but what I really wanted to say was this: You could sell this stuff on street corners for $100 an ounce. The sandwich is now on the menu at PS 7’s.

Smith’s upmarket take on the gyro is, by no means, unique in the D.C. area. Name any ethnic or American sandwich, and you know some clever toque somewhere has already tried to perfume it for the conspicuous-consumption set. Le Pain Quotidien in Georgetown sells an organic egg salad sandwich—oh, excuse me, an egg salad tartine—that comes with wild capers and anchovies. It’d be a lot better with toasted bread and a touch more creaminess in the salad. Far more successful is the Irish BLT at Restaurant Eve in Old Town, in which chef Cathal Armstrong substitutes thick slabs of cured pork loin for bacon; the crunch for his excellent sandwich is provided by the crackling, glistening, house-made bread, not the standard strips of bacon.

Firefly chef Daniel Bortnick, on the other hand, has created a whole new sandwich for his lunch menu, one inspired by…well, a Kimpton Hotel-sponsored trip to the Hog Island Oyster Farm in Northern California. Short of an unauthorized excursion to an Amsterdam hash bar, Bortnick’s Hog Roll may be the best thing to ever come out of a business trip. The sandwich features fried Chincoteague oysters, still smacking of the sea, along with a sweet, anise-scented Italian sausage, peppers, and onions on a mayo-slathered baguette. It’s an oyster po’ boy by way of Sicily. The key is the mini-baguette, made by Uptown Bakers, which is light and airy with an exquisitely crunchy crust.

A sandwich “is an entire meal in one handful,” Bortnick says, “and it begins and ends with bread.”

Bortnick said a mouthful there. Hard, chewy bread will ruin even the most thoughtfully composed sandwich, which is why, I think, it’s so hard to find a good Italian sub. Biting into one around here—and I’m including the overrated Italian Store in Arlington—requires the jaw strength of a pit bull. So when I recently bought a panino at Marchones, a take-out joint in Wheaton, I asked owner Filippo Leo if he made his own sub rolls. No, he said, he buys them from a bakery in Philadelphia. Which one?, I wondered.

“How many bakeries you know in Philly?” he shot back, a feisty grin on his face. I told him I knew of only one: Amoroso’s, producer of the famed Philly cheesesteak rolls. That’s when Leo suggested that I follow him to the back of the shop.

Leo led me past the sandwich-making counter and into a dark, narrow corridor. He opened the door of a giant walk-in freezer; inside were two massive boxes of Amoroso’s rolls. Marchones receives shipments twice a week from Amoroso’s, which bakes the loaves and immediately freezes them to preserve flavor and freshness.

Later, as I sat in my vehicle, devouring the fully loaded, three-meat panino, Leo walked out the door and approached my window.

He wanted an immediate verdict on his sandwich. I told him the truth: It’s the best damn Italian sub I’ve ever had. It was an awkward moment for me. I was gushing over a sandwich.