In 18th-century England, the Earl of Sandwich liked to eat thin cuts of meat cushioned between slices of bread. The idea was to keep grease off His Excellency's fingers while he played cards. If only the earl's chefs had slathered the bread with a spicy sauce and slapped the sandwich on a fiery grill. His card game might have gotten a little messy, but his taste buds would have celebrated a culinary royal flush.
Hot sandwiches are an expression of the world's regional cuisines, whether toasted, grilled or fried. They are also one the perks of living in the 21st century: Hungry aristocrats and commoners alike can get a taste of these influences pretty much any time.
For example, at Sonny's Diner in west Fort Worth, there's a delectable concoction known as a banh mi, a hot sandwich with Asian flavors that pays tribute to the French-colonial culinary influence in Vietnam.
Want to try what many consider the best Cuban press sandwich this side of Miami? Take a quick drive to North Richland Hills, where inside a bright-pink building, the daughter of a Cuban refugee carries on her family's culinary tradition.
Ah, and then there's Lili's Bistro on Magnolia Avenue in Fort Worth, where the grilled Italian sandwich is slathered with marinara and bedecked with sliced pepperoncini that'll slap your sinuses silly -- and leave you begging for more.
As the weather cooled down in Tarrant County, my mission was to eat my way through panini, croque-monsieurs, Monte Cristos and other such creations (no tacos or pitas, please), to find some of the best examples of hot sandwiches of the world. And what I found would make the Earl of Sandwich proud -- and hungry.
The Cuban at Cuco's
6650 Glenview Drive, North Richland Hills
What's hot: Cuban press sandwiches -- long sub-style rolls filled 2 inches thick with ham, pork, salami, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard, then smashed mercilessly to less than an inch thick by an industrial-looking and steam-belching metal pressing machine -- have been a smash hit here since 1991. Founder Julio Neira opened the place and proudly served classic fare from his native island until his 2007 death; today, other family members keep the place open in his memory.
I visited on a Saturday afternoon with my wife, 15-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. The four of us shared two 12-inch deluxe sandwiches ($7.69 each), which included the usual Cuban press ingredients plus lettuce, tomatoes and onions. Sandwiches were cut diagonally, and served in paper-lined baskets. It was plenty of food for four people, and we each washed it down with one of the best canned drinks ever created, a 12-ounce Tropi Coco Coconut Water ($1.09 each). Lunch for four came to a bargain $21.
What else: Cuco's is in a stand-alone pink building surrounded by well-trimmed hedges in the older part of North Richland Hills. A word of warning: Bring cash or a check. Cuco's doesn't accept credit cards.
Bánh Mì at Sonny's Diner
6220 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth
What's hot: It turns out that a toasted French roll is just the vehicle to deliver a load of Asian flavors to your mouth. A bánh mì is a Vietnamese baguette sandwich, and at Sonny's Diner, these gems are served with the customer's choice of tofu or marinated meats -- chicken, pork, beef steak, beef tenderloin or shrimp. I chose the tenderloin sandwich, which arrived at the table on a white, square plate. The baguette is nearly 8 inches long, and there are a minimum 20 cubes of steaming meat stuffed in there. The sandwich is also topped with shredded carrots, cucumber coins, several large cuts of fresh (and pretty darn hot!) jalapeño slices, a cilantro sprig and a homemade mayonnaise infused with ginger and other Asian spices.
What else: A cup of mushroom soup is a palate-cleansing side item for only $1. Also, I couldn't resist ordering a jasmine milk boba tea -- a fun drink featured in many Asian restaurants that often includes a heaping pile of tapioca balls in the bottom of the cup (and an oversized straw to suck them out). The sandwich, soup, boba tea, tax and tip came to $14.
More: 817-732-7754; www.sonnydiner.com
Ultimate Grilled Cheese at Olenjack's Grille
770 Road to Six Flags E., Arlington
What's hot: The ultimate grilled cheese sandwich, $8, is an exercise in simplicity, really. I took a seat at the bar on a recent weekday afternoon and ordered the sandwich ($8) and a Diet Pepsi ($2.25). The bartender offered a side salad instead of fries, and I gladly accepted. About 10 minutes later, the sandwich arrived on a square white plate, with the salad in a stainless-steel bowl.
There isn't much to the sandwich, and that's a compliment. Two pieces of white bread were medium-toasted. Between them was a quartet of cheeses -- Gruyere, white cheddar, fontina and Cotija -- each of which brought a different level of pungency, firmness and texture to the party. I was especially interested in the Cotija, a hard Mexican artisan cheese that I don't think I'd ever had before. I'm not sure, but I think the Cotija gave the cheese blend saltiness, and its hard character probably helped keep the ingredients together during heating.
What else: Lunch for one was $14, including a generous tip for a friendly and helpful barman. The side salad was tasty, too, and featured greens bathed in a tomato vinaigrette and speckled with candied pecans -- love that little touch!
More: 817-226-2600; www.olenjacksgrille.com
Grilled Italian at Lili's Bistro
1310 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth
What's hot: The grilled Italian sandwich, $9, is a panini-style masterpiece that starts with two pieces of focaccia bread, stuffed with ham, salami, pepperoni, lettuce, tomatoes and pepperoncini (pickled peppers). The house marinara serves as a tangy yet velvety dressing. Everything is put together between the focaccia slices, then slapped onto the same fiery grill that's used for steaks, salmon and other fare.
The sliced pepperoncini give the sandwich a signature, surprising kick. The decision to use that ingredient was purely experimental, Lili's owner Vance Martin said.
"My distributor sent them to me by accident, and I tried to find a use for them," he said. "I tried them on the Italian sandwich, and it just worked."
A co-worker joining me for lunch went with a different sandwich, a grilled corned beef accompanied by a generous portion of fontina cheese, grilled red onion and sauerkraut tucked between grilled rye bread slices. The $9 lunch entree was delicious, my pal proclaimed, although toward the end the bread was soaked with corned-beef juiciness and fell apart.
What else: No matter what you order, treat yourself to a side of waffle fries served under a pile of gorgonzola, an Italian blue cheese ($1.50). The thought of squirting ketchup on this delightful combo of perfectly fried potatoes and crumbly, veiny cheese will never cross your mind. The two of us ate sandwiches with sides and sodas, and including tax and tip, the bill came to $31.
More: 817-877-0700; www.lilisbistro.com
Chef Point Cafe
5901 Watauga Road, Watauga
What's hot: Nigerian-born Franson Nwaeze has mastered the art of comfort food at his near-legendary Chef Point Cafe, situated in a Conoco gas station. But his version of the Monte Cristo sandwich is so huge it can make you downright uncomfortable if you try to eat it all. That's not to say his creation isn't delicious at all levels (it is). Three slices of whole-wheat bread come topped with half-inch-thick layers of medium-sliced turkey, ham, Swiss and American cheeses. The whole thing gets deep-fried, cut into quarters, dusted with powdered sugar and placed on a plate with a bonfire-shaped mound of fries and a cup of berry jam. The whole thing is only $9 -- and it's truly enough food for two adults.
What else: I visited with my wife -- this is her favorite place -- and she ordered a cioppino soup that I couldn't ignore. I talked her into a trade: I gave her a fourth of my sandwich in exchange for just a sample of her Italian fish soup, with its hot tomato broth and big chunks of scallops, mussels and other ocean fare. It was a terrific trade for me, because I was on such a sugar rush from the Monte Cristo and needed something warm and nostril-teasing to settle down.
More: 817-656-0080; www.chefpointcafe.org
Croque-monsieur at Main Street Bread Baking Co.
316 S. Main St., Grapevine
What's hot: A croque-monsieur is the closest the French ever got to embracing fast food. A few slices of ham and Swiss cheese are placed between slices of pugliese bread. Top it off with a brushing of béchamel sauce and more cheese (shredded this time), and you've got a tasty treat. Main Street Bread Baking Co. serves this sandwich for $10, including a bistro side salad that featured greens, feta cheese, grape tomatoes, pine nuts and a perfectly balanced lemon vinaigrette. In a tip of the cap to the hurried American lifestyle, a footnote on the menu warns patrons that the dish takes 10 minutes to prepare.
What else: This place features about a half-dozen seats inside a comfortable little bakery with pleasant salmon- and cream-colored walls, and several seats outside, where you can watch the world go by on Grapevine's historic Main Street. I stopped by at 10:30 a.m. on a Friday, and the people behind the counter were happy to make me an early lunch, even though everyone else (mostly workers from nearby Grapevine businesses) was sipping coffee, eating pastries and working on their laptops.
The croque-monsieur with the salad and coffee, with tax, came to about $14.
More: 817-424-4333; www.themainbakery.com
Lobster Roll at Daddy Jack's
353 Throckmorton St., downtown Fort Worth
What's hot: On a recent weekday, I was walking by this New England-style seafood place in downtown Fort Worth and noticed that a lobster roll was the lunch special. I couldn't stop, but that same evening I paid a visit and asked about the sandwich. The bartender said the lobster roll wasn't on the dinner menu, but the kitchen was happy to make it, so I got comfortable at the bar with a Sam Adams draft beer.
The lobster roll arrived in about five minutes and featured a toasted wheat bun and a generous portion of cold lobster salad with mayo, celery and parsley that gave the whole thing a nice clean taste.
What else: I have to admit my own ignorance here. Not being a Yankee, and having visited New England only once, I envisioned the lobster roll as a hot dish. I later learned that serving the lobster meat hot, usually with a generous splash of clarified butter, is mostly a Connecticut thing -- and in Maine or Massachusetts, a cold lobster salad is the way to go. I'm not complaining. The lobster roll, a delicious cup of New England clam chowder and the beer came to $26, including tax and tip.
More: 817-332-2477; www.daddyjacks.org