Versus: Two Accounts of Monte Cristos at the Rusty Pelican and 13 Coins

The dish: A Monte Cristo is something of a chameleon. Depending on the region, this turkey, ham, and Swiss cheese sandwich can be either battered in its entirety and deep-fried, or served open-faced with a side of jam or other sweet condiment. There's also a Cumberland Head version which is more savory and dressed with thousand island.In Seattle, it's usually served grilled on batter-dipped bread and topped with powdered sugar. Regardless of the execution, all Monte Cristos are closely identified with their younger sibling, the croque monsieur.We're not sure where the Monte Cristo originated, but it's rumored that its first well-documented appearance was on the menu at the old Monte Cristo Hotel in Everett in the early 1920s. But what we wanted to know is what current menu has the better Monte Cristo: the Rusty Pelican Cafe's or 13 Coins'?The rivals: Rusty Pelican, 1924 N. 45th St., 545-9090. Let's start with the decor: It's reminiscent of a retirement home—lots of fake plants, kitschy signs ("The Best Antiques Are Old Friends"), plastic tablecloths, and green carpeting. Hopes were not high for a satisfying Monte Cristo, but when a basket of fresh and delicious homemade bread arrived at our table, we were excited that this might be a precursor for things to come. We were sort of right. The sandwich was almost too big for its own good, making the tiny side of strawberry jam more a decoration than a useful condiment. This Monte Cristo ($9.75) was supposedly made with cinnamon-swirl bread, but you couldn't tell. It was also a bit sloppy, a little drippy, and the meat (the turkey in particular) didn't taste as fresh as we would have liked. It did, however, come with a generous serving of very tasty fries.13 Coins, 125 Boren Ave. N., 682-2513. After our trip to the Pelican, we had high expectations for 13 Coins' Monte Cristo ($9.95), mainly because we assumed the '60s vintage decor meant they'd nail the recipe for this classic. We were wrong. Made from cinnamon batter–dipped Texas toast, the sandwich looked sad on a big white plate—no sides, just a small dish of strawberry jam. Despite the addition of about an inch more meat, its taste was almost identical to the Pelican's. The meat did taste fresher, however, and the sandwich's size was more manageable. But the grilled French toast wasn't enough to combat the extra savoriness of the additional meat, and the protein quotient was too much for someone who wanted a sugar fix.The champ: A traditionalist will hate what we're about to suggest, but here goes: The sandwiches would have been more enjoyable if there'd been more layers of flavor. Both were overwhelmingly savory without any distinct taste, unless you consider boring a taste. How about putting the jam on the sandwich and offering hot maple syrup as a side for those who want a bit more sweetness? After all, one of the Monte Cristo's charms is that it caters to those craving both savory and sweet. A French-toast base just isn't enough to create that dichotomy. That said, you can't go wrong with either sandwich. Neither are perfect, but both are satisfying. Size and fries make the Pelican's the better value, but 13 Coins' was more visually appealing and a tad fresher, making it the winner of this Versus

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