The Date: August 19th, 2012, 6:42 AM
The Location: United Terminal, LaGuardia Airport, New York City
The Situation: Dire. My stomach is growling like a lion in a Cambodian midget fight and I have an hour to wait before I get to board my flight, which means that a handful of salty peanuts and lukewarm cola are still at least two hours away. I'm not a breakfast eater, but there's something about airports and travel that makes me hungry. Perhaps my body is anticipating a Lost-like scenario in the near future.
Down at this end of the terminal, there are two choices: yogurt or sandwiches from the terminal outpost of one of the country's major soup-and-sandwich franchises. How bad could a place whose name means good bread be for breakfast? Turns out, very. What I got was not so much breakfast as it was a psychological study in the effects of how heroic struggle can alter your perception of reward.
The "Sausage Egg and Cheese on a Bagel" that I opted for started out promisingly enough. It was only after I opened the hot foil pouch I'd just paid seven-bucks-minus-a-nickel for that things started to turn ugly. My working theory is that the bottom half of the bagel somehow managed to steal all the moisture from the top half, because while the top was rock hard, the bottom was a pile of soft bagel-mush. Both were so scaldingly hot that I burnt the roof of my mouth and my tongue several times before even managing my first bite. Surely anything this difficult to eat must be worth it, right, or was it purposely burning the taste buds off my tongue, knowing what was to come?
Perhaps the blazing heat was an early warning system meant to discourage would-be-predators, like a colorful tree frog loudly declaring "nothing good wlll come of consuming me!" I should have heeded the warning. Instead, I bit in. After fighting my way through the bagel and a sausage patty so bland it may as well have not existed, I was met in the center with a rubber disk of egg that was not just overcooked, but sulphurously so. As the aroma wafted around the terminal, I was forced to give my best "it wasn't me" shrug as people surreptitiously glanced in my direction.
Despite nicely melted cheese (how could it not be at that temperature?), the sandwich was a total, inedible bust. Worst $7 I've spent in a long time, and certainly the worst airport meal I've had. I was forced to fly all the way to O'Hare hungry as hell. That's where things took a distinct turn for the better:
Oh, thank goodness for Rick Bayless.
I knew things here were different the moment I stepped up to the register at Tortas Frontera, the sandwich-based off-shoot of Bayless' deservedly legendary Frontera Grill. Fresh ingredients waiting to be assembled. Bread being toasted to order. People doing actual cooking on premises!
Yes, my chorizo and egg breakfast torta cost $2 more than the bagel monstrosity at LaGuardia, but let's see what I get for those extra bucks.
First off, it's a big sandwich. Big enough for two. Indeed, I finished one half and brought the other half on the plane and ate it for lunch a few hours later. Inside, you've got freshly cooked scrambled eggs that are moist and tender, along with a scoop of well-seasoned house-made crumbled chorizo. On top of that, strips of smoky roasted peppers along with a slice of creamy avocado and a gooey layer of melted Oaxaca cheese. All of this is packed onto a fresh torta roll that is toasted until perfectly crisp, and just hot enough inside, then served with a fresh roasted tomatillo salsa, just in case there wasn't enough flavor for 'ya.
Not only was this the finest bit of food I've had at an airport, it sits proudly in the upper echelon of breakfast tortas I've had anywhere. I'll have to remember to book more flights through O'Hare in the future.
So my question is: what is it about airports that breeds bad food? Is is a lack of resources? A captive audience? And the more important questions, if Rick Bayless can serve great airport food, why can't everyone else?
The best and worst airport meal in a single day should average out to a normal airport day, but in this case, the torta was so good it made me actually look forward to my return trip back home.
What's the worst and best airport food you've ever had?
Related: Airport Food That Doesn't Suck
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.