Time For My Weird Sandwich

The commercials that air during NFL broadcasts tend to celebrate action, which I appreciate. It is not always clear what these actions are about—why all that broken concrete is splashing heavily into the bed of a pickup truck whose grille is designed to like the face of a glowering policeman, why the people in commercials for various pharmaceuticals are so happy to be showing up at the party they just showed up at. But given that these ads are made to be viewed by people who are not doing anything, or not doing anything other than sitting in the sort of slumped and undignified positions most commonly associated with elder dogs, it’s still a nice gesture. “This seems like your sort of thing,” the ads say to viewers who will discover, one hour later, that a pristine tortilla chip has been resting on their upper abdomen for some unknown amount of time. “Yes,” I think, sitting perfectly still as the sun goes down outside, watching dusty men clap each other on the back and use their trucks to tow stuff, “that is indeed pretty much my shit right there.”

Add enough of this sort of thing up over the course of a day and it can’t help but have an effect. And so it was, after an afternoon in the Sunday blog chair, that I realized it was time to celebrate my own action, and to act. I did this not by dance-laughing at a wedding while someone recited a list of increasingly alarming side effects in voiceover or driving a truck to the very edge of a butte, but by going across the street to the deli that makes my strangest and most favorite special occasion sandwich.

This is a special occasion sandwich for me not because it is expensive, which it is not; the samosa sandwich at Punjabi Junction costs $8, and can be upgraded to a hero roll for an additional dollar. It is also not a special occasion sandwich because it is especially indulgent. I do not know how many calories it has, but it is not as obviously and deliriously irresponsible in that regard as some of the large-format Italian sandwiches available in my neighborhood. It’s special to me because I like the bright, heavy, frankly confusing way that it tastes, but also because it just seems like the sort of thing that a person shouldn’t eat all the time. Which is tough, as it happens, because I would absolutely eat it for lunch every day if I could change the way that I think about it. If such a sandwich had existed twenty years ago, when I did not think about this kind of thing at all and did that kind of thing all the time, I probably would have. But it hadn’t been invented yet. This is not the sort of thing that can be rushed; the universe provides it at the appropriate time, and no sooner.

“I know of only one other in the city,” Eater critic Robert Sietsema mentioned in an approving write-up of the sandwich back in August of last year. By that time, Punjabi Junction had been open for a couple of years, and I had figured out my order; I do not know where Sietsema’s other samosa sandwich is, but I feel good about the one I’ve got. The other stuff at Punjabi Junction is also good; the steam trays of Indian specialties that are heated up to order were fine by me, and I am not ashamed to report that seeing a dry-erase board with “It’s Biryani Sunday” written on it easily, effortlessly moved me to buy and consume a bunch of their biryani, being as it was Biryani Sunday and all. But the quietly avant-garde sandwiches were and remain the standout for me. Everything about them will be familiar to a person who has gotten a standard-issue sandwich from a deli or eaten Indian food, although as someone who has done a lot of both it had never really occurred to me that such a sandwich could be made with, say, a griddled square of paneer cheese standing in for the familiar deli cold cuts.

I resisted the samosa sandwich for longer than seems possible, not because it wasn’t something that I wanted to eat—I love sandwiches, and I love samosas—but because I struggled to imagine how it would work. It was like reading the words “dumpling burger,” or “pastrami calzone.” These are things that I like, but not in an order that I can quite understand. The salivary impulses triggered by my associations with those words fire even as the persnicketty higher-order parts of my brain begin editorializing about how “impractical” or “perverse and faintly British” it seemed to put what is more or less a savory pie into/onto a sandwich. I asked, and was told what it was—a sandwich, with some squashed up samosas on it, and also “everything,” which is everything that could go on a sandwich, subject to how much of everything is currently behind the counter. This helped, and it didn’t; at any rate, I made the decision, and now mostly try not to make it three or more times per week.

Here is what it is. A deli roll, utterly familiar, gets run through the toaster. That bun is then topped with whatever similarly familiar deli sandwich condiment/topping stuff is behind the counter—the sandwich is often, maybe always, slightly different than I remembered. Sometimes it has yellow deli mustard on it, generally it does not. Sometimes there are pickles. Sometimes they give you a little refrigerated pouch of green chutney with it, and those are good days.

None of that really matters all that much; these supporting players hang around in the corners or lurk in the dunker’s spot, sometimes clapping their hands more assertively than others, while the rest of the sandwich goes to work. The bucket-getting is done by the stuff that gets cooked on the grill. These are the samosas, which are squashed onto the flat-top, marked on both sides, and then put on the sandwich and topped with a few shakes of spicy masala. These are also strips of green pepper, onion, and little rounds of small, hot green chili, which are put on top of that. It has more structural integrity than you’d expect, as much textural contrast as you could dare dream—there is pastry, and potato, and some rogue green peas, and that appealingly papery deli shredded lettuce—and retains the capacity to confound and delight long after the initial novelty fades.

Some of that is because it is never quite the same, and some of it is because it refuses to get any closer to any other type of sandwich that I’ve had anywhere else. It is reliable, but there is something reliably unstable about it. This, I think, is a fine way for a sandwich to be—good enough to call you back, stubborn enough not to ever give you quite what it gave you before. After a long day on the job site, or a rainy Sunday spent debating whether or not I really had to write about Zach Wilson throwing for 300 yards, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather eat.

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