Food Fight: Battle BLT
I hate to call the BLT something so cliché as a "simple classic," but that's exactly what it is: a sandwich so timeless and straightforward, it's just as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. Unfussy, uncomplicated, undemanding... and undeniably delicious. A timeless classic, indeed.
Although the sandwich was served in Victorian tearooms, it wasn't actually called a BLT until much later. Before written recipes were popular, people needed an easy way to remember the ingredients. My grandmother, for example, used to make a 1-2-3-4 cake, which included 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, and 4 eggs. Not surprisingly, the BLT moniker evolved from basic deli slang as a simple mnemonic device for remembering a favorite combination. And even though it's a pretty standard order these days, I still [occasionally] wonder if any sandwich maker ever tried to challenge expectations and serve a different kind of BLT... Baloney-Lard-Tangerine, perhaps? Beet-Lemon-Turmeric? Hehehe.
I solicited suggestions for Battle BLT via Twitter, and a majority of responders suggested the Shrimp BLT at Paulie's. Okay, fine -- but because that one adds the decidedly nontraditional shrimp, I needed to include another sandwich that's a little bit off-center. Many places make a BLTA, adding avocado, but that might skew the results. After all, if avocado were a man, I would bear his children. Thus, I settled on the unique B.E.L.T. at Carter & Cooley, which adds a layer of egg salad to the classic recipe.
Paulie's is a casual counter-service restaurant on Westheimer in Montrose. The place fills up at lunchtime with folks looking for tasty sandwiches, huge bowls of pasta, and massive salads, all made with unique combinations and fresh ingredients. Natural light, portobello sandwiches, and beautifully decorated sugar cookies all spring to mind when thinking of Paulie's. Unfortunately, so does terse service.
Paulie's Shrimp BLT ($8.95) is a kicked-up version of the classic. Bacon lines the bottom bun, covered by sloppy chunks of ruby tomatoes and muted Romaine lettuce. If this sandwich were graded on veggies alone, it would be mediocre. But it's also overflowing with grilled Gulf shrimp, which makes it both gloriously tasty and supremely messy. Yes, this puppy take two hands, for sure, and still the B, L, T, S, and Mayonnaise all sort of drip-drop out the sides. The bacon is crisp -- a definite plus -- but the shrimp is a bit overpowering. That means the dish's simplicity is lost; it is more of a shrimp sandwich with bacon, lettuce, and tomato than a BLT with shrimp.
Carter & Cooley is an endearing little deli that's been a Houston mainstay for 20 years. The outgoing staff claims that they craft every sandwich "as though it were the only sandwich we were going to make," and methinks it shows. Sandwiches are large, packed with fresh-sliced meat and accoutrements. They may be a little pricey, but each comes with a pickle and a mound of potato salad... And on top of the good eats, you get good seats -- in the loveliest of historic buildings on 19th Street in the Heights.
Carter & Cooley's B.E.L.T. ($8.25) on whole wheat toast looks more like the famous sandwich, yet includes a thick layer of egg salad just below the B, L, and T. While the shrimp at Paulie's muscled up the dish a bit much, I found that the egg salad was a deliciously interesting complement to the sandwich. Yes, I wish the egg salad was a little creamier (since there was no mayonnaise included), but the flavors waltzed as if they'd been created to do just that. Crispy-to-the-max bacon combined with emerald lettuce and large slices of tender tomato. This sandwich was as tasty as it was beautiful, though still far from traditional.
Carter & Cooley. While I had no trouble finishing the sandwich from Paulie's, the shrimp eventually did it in, overpowering the flavors and making it a messy blur. In the end, I prefer the simplicity and, actually, the old-school toast from Carter & Cooley. Next time, however, I'll go the traditional route and stick with a plain ole' BLT. As a side note, I usually don't care for potato salad, but both of these restaurants serve great ones alongside their sandwiches. Neither is heavy on the mayonnaise, which plagues too many versions around town. The potato salad at Paulie's is filled with herbs and fiery flavors, while the version at Carter & Cooley is extra mustardy. I truly enjoyed both.