How Is That Sandwich Behind the Glass?

A perilous journey into the world of the prewrapped lunch.

Sometimes it takes just the smallest question to make a man realize he's a worse latte-drinking liberal than even he imagined. I was talking over possible review ideas with my editor a few weeks ago, and he asked, "What about prewrapped sandwiches you pick up at the grocery store?" And I had to confess: I wasn't sure I'd ever eaten one. In fact, the thought made me kind of queasy, in the same way that gas-station fried chicken and all-you-can-eat crab legs do. Does it really cost more to go to a sandwich shop, or at least stock your fridge with sliced sopressata and a few mostardas?So I began an unlikely journey into the realm of the business district's refrigerated cases, a microuniverse of plastic film and ingredient labels, sell-by dates and "wraps," a term that should never be spelled without quote marks. This world is populated with many species of sandwich, some perhaps as exotic as the clams with blood sausage I ate the night before I embarked upon my quest.The Nondescript GourmetScientific name: Pastrami and provolone sandwich.Source: Kress Supermarket, 1427 Third Ave., 749-9500.Price: $6.49Extras: Tomato, lettuce, mustard, mayo.Pros: Stored on the easy-access public side of the deli counter, Kress' sandwiches are clearly made that day and artisanally wrapped (or at least by human hands). Lined up, their contents in plain sight, were corned beef and provolone on light rye, veggie with vegan cheese, and the ubiquitous ham 'n' cheese. I picked the pastrami-provolone because it had the most syllables in its name, always a sign of artisanship, and also because it came on chocolate-colored pumpernickel. The bread was quite fresh—a little sweet, still soft—and the condiments didn't gloop out all over and overwhelm the meat.Cons: The problem was there wasn't much to overwhelm. Even mid-bite I kept forgetting what I was chewing. Was that pastrami? Hunh, I guess it was.Related species: Turkey club with roasted tomatoes and an alarmingly long ingredient list ($5.79) at Starbucks; "Arrosto di Manzo," aka roast beef with gorgonzola sauce, caramelized arugula, and onion focaccia ($6.99) at Il Fornaio in Pacific Place, which sounds more compelling than it tasted.The Internationally HealthfulScientific name: North African Neato Burrito, made by The Lime Green Grocer.Source: Whole Foods, 2210 Westlake Ave., 621-9700.Price: $3.99Contents: Whole-wheat tortilla, tabouli (bulgur wheat, herbs, vegetables), brown rice, hummus.Pros: At least one day's serving of whole grains. Also, much better than Sunrice's vegan whole-wheat "kimpap" (Korean sushi), which I tried side by side with it. If I'm forced to write one more nice thing about this "wrap," perhaps it would be that the tortilla stayed pliable. Pliable is always a good thing to be, right?Cons: Starch wrapped around starch plus starch, with a few flecks of green (parsley, green onion) and red (tomato) added for color and way too much garlic. Refrigerator-temp brown rice is not a texture I relish.Alternative: Though I'm not a big fan of fruit with fish either, Whole Foods' house-made roll-up with tuna salad, dried cranberries, and lettuce ($5.99) tasted much fresher and better prepared, if decadent by comparison.Related species: A paradoxically spiced-up yet bland Moveable Feast "Super Thai" wrap ($4.99) purchased from Ralph's Market.The Internationally BizarreScientific name: Yakisoba sandwich.Source: Uwajimaya, 600 Fifth Ave. S., 624-6248.Price: $2.69Contents: Noodles stir-fried with a couple shreds of cabbage, as well as mayo and hot-pink pickled ginger.Alternatives: The Waj has a small selection of dubiously Vietnamese "banh mi," or sandwiches on French rolls, lined up under the main deli counter. Other selections, potentially more healthful, include tuna salad, teriyaki chicken, and meatloaf.Pros: The still-warm sandwich was packed with noodles and strangely appealing, at least for the first half. To relieve some of the guilt of eating a fiber-free meal, I picked up a $3 burdock salad.Cons: Talk about carb on carb. I took a 20-minute nap in the middle of writing this sentence.The Nondescript VegetarianScientific name: Caprese Tomato-Mozzarella Sandwich.Source: Organic to Go, lobby, 1001 Fourth Ave.Price: $7.29Contents: Tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, pesto, spinach leaves, red onion, olive tapenade. The sandwich was USDA-certified organic, which perhaps justified the fact that this was the most expensive prewrapped sandwich I purchased.Pros: Packaged in a triangular box, OTG's sandwiches won't get smooshed by your co-workers' plastic containers if you need to store them in the fridge before lunch. The tapenade and pesto, judiciously smeared across the bread, did a good job of making the sandwich flavorful.Cons: The downside to prewrapped sandwiches is often texture; baked goods get stale fast in the cold. Offsetting that requires some seriously nonorganic product engineering, a step OTG did not take. In the case, the focaccia softened to Wonder Bread pablum and the fresh spinach leaves wilted. You can also get a freshly made—albeit nonorganic—tomato-mozzarella sandwich at Specialty's for four cents less just a block down the hill.Omnivore alternatives: Organic to Go stocks a number of gourmet-sounding sandwiches for pickup, from roast turkey with dill havarti to mango-curry chicken. They also sell snack-size wraps called "bites" ($3.99), though the egg salad in the Cobb bite I tried had such an off flavor—not spoiled, just sort of sweaty and plastic-wrapped—that I spit it out and gargled with Diet Coke.The Predictably AwfulScientific Name: Northwest Market Fresh Ham & Cheese Sandwich, manufactured by Inderbitzen.Source: Walgreen's, 222 Pike St., 903-8354.Price: $3.79Contents: Ham and American cheese on white "bread," with a packet of mustard on the side.Taster's notes: The expiration date was 25 days from the day I bought it. Need I say more?The Predictably DeliciousScientific Name: Eggplant Parmesan Sandwich.Source: Dahlia Bakery, 2001 Fourth Ave., 441-4540.Price: $6.95Contents: Eggplant, fresh mozzarella, tomato-caper relish, fresh basil leaves.Related Species: Acorn squash, tomato, Mahon cheese, and pine nut pesto sandwich from Macrina ($6.95) that tasted like late summer, flickeringly sharp and sweet.Pros: One of the last sandwiches I tried, this freakin' fantastic eggplant Parm proved a theory that emerged over the course of my weeks of lunching out/in: The closer the sandwich to its source, the better it tasted. The Dahlia Bakery sells a rotating menu of three or four different prepackaged sandwiches every day, and though they sit in a chilled case until pickup, they're clearly fresh and designed to taste just-assembled. For bread, the bakers chose a (consciously) soft, light French roll. The breaded eggplant slices stayed crisp around the edges and didn't taste dredged through fryer sludge. The chunky tomato relish, a stewed-down marinara sauce, packed enough flavor to complement two perilously bland ingredients, eggplant and mozzarella, without saturating the bread.Cons: It takes five to 10 minutes to make it through the line, somewhat eliminating the convenience of picking up a premade sandwich to go. Also, tack $2 onto the cost of any sandwich for an overpriced cookie. You know you won't be able to

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