A Hamburger Today
All-Star Sandwich Bar in Cambridge, Mass.
"The bread is basically just a barrier between your hands and the massive pile of meat you’re devouring."
When top-notch chefs take on low-brow projects, the results can be hit or miss. Anyone respected for his work in the kitchen should be able to work magic with simpler culinary forms. But too often, those accustomed to higher-end fare might have a hard time learning the language of the pizza, say, or the hot dog, or the burger—turning out over-thought, overpriced dishes that lose the spirit of the original.
What's important is the match between creator and concept. And in that respect, the All-Star Sandwich Bar, on Inman Square in Cambridge, succeeds wildly.
The casual corner sandwich joint opened in 2006 under the direction of noted Boston-area chef Chris Schlesinger and partner Jim Economides. Though an acclaimed chef, Schlesinger was never a particularly fussy one. His flagship restaurant East Coast Grill is the sort of place where Wellfleet oysters, piles of Texas-style brisket and mouth-searing chicken wings sit side-by-side. Far more concerned with flavor than formality, his mentality translates well to sandwiches. And to a friendly, no-frills, sandwich factory with as many diners-in as takers-out.
The restaurant was sold last year, but the menu, space, and kitchen staff are largely unchanged—right down to the jar of free Oreos on the counter. Though Schlesinger has moved on, he left some serious sandwich-making behind him. The beauty shots, after the jump.
Beef On Weck
For a taste of this one, show up early and place your order pronto. One of All-Star’s fastest sellers, the Beef on Weck is a Buffalo-area specialty: a pile of roast beef on a caraway-studded Kummelweck roll, with horseradish for spreading and au jus for dipping.
For all practical purposes, it’s a pile of roast beef. Luckily, it’s good roast beef: thin-sliced, rare, and tender (if not transcendentally so). Horseradish fans will love the Brede's served alongside: it’s bright, fresh, and incredibly pungent. (Others, after a bite, may leave the restaurant in tears.) The Weck is soft and fresh, with an appealing sprinkle of salt and caraway—when you get a bite. The bread is basically just a barrier between your hands and the massive pile of meat you’re devouring. I'm all for meaty sandwiches—but this one nearly strays away from "sandwich" territory.
Atomic Meatloaf Meltdown
Another All-Star trademark. Sourdough bread hugs thick slices of grilled meatloaf with melted jack, and red onion relish. But the Inner Beauty hot sauce, carried over from the East Coast Grill, steals the show. The now-infamous blend of Scotch bonnet, habañero, mustard, and mango annihilates everything else on this sandwich. The result is a tantalizing tension between the all-out blitz of the hot sauce and the otherwise bold flavors—jack cheese, a smoky, sweet onion jam, grilled sourdough, juicy meatloaf—struggling to get through.
On my first try, the Inner Beauty felt unevenly spread, making the sandwich more of a minefield than a meltdown. Some bites actually let the flavor of the meatloaf come through; others had me nearly clawing at my own tongue. Spice lovers, this is undoubtedly the sandwich for you. My lips still tingled an hour later.
Cheesesteak purists should stay away, but this sandwich was fantastic—huge, tender chunks of thick-cut steak, Muenster cheese, baby arugula, applewood-smoked bacon, roasted red peppers, and two fried eggs, served pressed. (Even reading the description is overwhelming.) Unlike many cheesesteaks, where the mushrooms are a little more than extra oil-soaked substance, these portobellos contributed their own, earthy flavor. Though I usually love soft eggs on sandwiches, these were smartly cooked through—runny yolks would have added further to the messiness of this impossibly chaotic sandwich. But even though some flavors (like the greens and peppers) get shouted down, it works.
Straying from the classics, The Funky is a curious stack of Manchego cheese, grilled chicken, Portuguese linguiça sausage, watercress, and a mango-jicama slaw, sandwiched again by grilled sourdough. Don’t even think of ordering this to go: it’s a drippy, vinegary marvel that would probably dissolve within a block or two. When eaten right away, the bright, fruity flavors, tender chicken, and mild linguiça marry beautifully. The cheese, however, gets lost in the shuffle.
Classic Monte Cristo
A tremendous pile of fresh turkey and sliced ham with melted Swiss atop battered white bread. Another excellent, if drippy, sandwich, with particularly tender turkey and a sweet blueberry compote on the side. My favorite part of a Monte Cristo is the French Toast-style bread, and these thin slices are dwarfed under the weight of so much meat. But with turkey this good, it's hard to complain too much.
Sides are tasty but less memorable, like these nicely corny (but slightly dry) hushpuppies. A fresh but unremarkable slaw comes with every sandwich, while fries in all sorts of forms (extra-spicy Hell Fries, Canadian-inspired poutine) can be ordered as sides. Skip the wines by the glass in favor of the six local brews on tap, including Magic Hat No. 9 and Long Trail Ale. And if you're somehow still hungry, grab an Oreo on the way out. Cost, as labeled: $0.
Even under new direction, the All-Stars still know their sandwiches; and from porky to vegan to destructively spicy, there's one for every taste. Sure, some were more perfectly executed than others. But the essentials—strong flavors, reasonable prices, and equal respect for creativity and tradition—are all there. Along with the good, cold beer to wash it down.