From May 22 to May 31, I traveled across country, from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, California. Here's a snippet from that week.

20080616-muffsz.jpg

Left: Frank's, the muffuletta imposter. Right: Central Grocery's original muffuletta, the superior of the two, even if they look eerily similar here.

Nobody warned me to avoid New Orleans on a Monday. So after miles of building up the city's sandwich staple, the muffuletta, only to find the mother source Central Grocery closed on Mondays, I felt cheated.

Granted, it was Memorial Day Monday, but that didn't matter. Central Grocery is always closed on Mondays. Outside the shop, a herd of us victims huddled, as if awaiting an aproned man with the golden key from inside who would exclusively prepare for us the beautiful stack of ham, Genoa salami, mortadella, provolone and chopped olives on olive oil-drenched, sesame seedy Italian bread. When he never came, I placed an emergency call to New Orleans Times-Picuyane restaurant critic Brett Anderson who revealed, not too surprisingly, that no good alternative exists in the walkable French Quarter.

But we were desperate. On the same block, Frank's, a sit-down restaurant, sadly not a charming Italian market like Central Grocery, had one so we sucked it up, and tried it for comparison purposes. The results, after the jump.

What separated Frank's decent muffuletta from a famously great one? Definitely the bread. The cold cut quality wasn't notably different, though Frank's skimped a bit. And the olives offered the same olivey punch either way. We concluded that, as with most sandwiches, bread is huge.

"It comes from the same bakery," our Frank's waitress claimed. Huh? Dry and thick, Frank's bread had nothing on the more compact, olive oiled-up bread next door at Central Grocery, as we discovered Tuesday. This woman must have been brainwashed, but according to muffuletta master Anderson, both breads are in fact from Leidenheimer bakery.

Different in flavor and design, the bread disparity is confusing, but could be due to Central Grocery's history with the Leidenheimer business. As the story goes, the sandwich was first invented in 1906 at Central Grocery (not Frank's or any other restaurant). When other muffuletta makers wanted to jump on board, they requested the same great bread. Whether or not they got, or are getting, the original Central Grocery recipe, the bakers will not confirm.

If you have to be in New Orleans on a Monday, Frank's will hold you over until Tuesday, but Anderson suggests other options like Cafe Freret, DiMartino's Muffulettas, Ignatius, Liuzza's and Mike Serio's Po-boys & Deli, as he mentioned in this piece from October of 2006.

Central Grocery

923 Decatur Street, New Orleans LA 7011 (map)
504-523-1620
wikipedia.org/Central_Grocery

Frank's

933 Decatur Street, New Orleans LA 70116 (map)
504-525-1602
franksrestaurantneworleans.com

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