DINING OUT Below the BLT

Why is America’s simplest sandwich so hard to make good?

If it’s present at all, it crouches near the bottom of the menu, in small type. It is usually the lowest-priced entree in a restaurant’s repertoire. If you ask for it, the waitress will produce that slight curl of the upper lip which suggests that if you can’t afford a Reuben, you have no business at her station.

It’s the bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich, which, among its other distinctions, is the only American food familiar enough to be known by its initials. What a pity that familiarity, in this case, breeds contempt.

The BLT’s seeming simplicity is deceptive. This is an extremely difficult dish to pull off: The ideal BLT is a complex blend of textures, temperatures, and flavors. Its success depends on first-rate ingredients and careful construction. Bacon should be crisp and warm; it should be flavorful and copious enough to assert itself among the other ingredients. Tomato slices should be firm, cold, not too thick, and at least suggestive of tomato flavor. High-quality mayonnaise (not, God help us, salad dressing, with its intrusive sharpness) should be spread thinly on both slices of toast. Lettuce should be evenly applied, unshredded, unchopped, and unwilted. Toast should be warm, and it should be crisp enough so that the bottom slice doesn’t flop open when you pick up the. sandwich.

Opinions vary on whether the cut should be diagonal or orthogonal. The former is easier to get into the mouth, but the latter holds together better. Restaurants appear to come down firmly on the side of the diagonal. The indicated garnishes are potato chips and one quarter of a good dill pickle – not crinkle-cut pickle slices.

We tested eight restaurants’ BLT’s according to the following criteria: crispness, color, and warmth of toast; crispness and arrangement of lettuce; flavor, freshness, and thickness of tomato slices; flavor and crispness of bacon; use of mayonnaise as opposed to salad dressing; garnish; structural integrity; and overall balance. The results were not encouraging. We turned up one superior sandwich, a handful of mediocrities; a lot of places that don’t serve BLT’s at all, and a few that shouldn’t.

El Cafetal, 53 points. The cheerful coffee shop in the downtown Hilton was recommended by an editor’s mother, who deserves the blessings of a grateful city. Toast was crisp, mayonnaise was excellent, and integrity was unequalled. Points were lost for lettuce past its prime and for overripe (but flavorful) tomato. Still, a sterling performance. (In the Dallas Hilton, 1914 Commerce. Mon-Sat 6:30 am-9 pm; Sun 7 am-9 pm.)

Tin Lizzie, 48 points. This restaurant in Turtle Creek Village can lay claim to a respectable BLT. Toast and tomato were good; bacon was crisp, though scanty; overall balance was fine; and the toast was warm, a rarity. Tin Lizzie did, however, lose points for integrity: Lettuce wasn’t carefully arranged, and chunks of it kept falling out; bacon slopped over the edge. Tin Lizzie’s pseudo-elegance is incompatible with the straightforwardness of its BLT, but the antique-motorcar theme is fascinating to those who are fascinated by antique motorcars. (199 Turtle Creek Village, Oak Lawn at Blackburn. Sun-Thurs 7 am-10:30 pm; Fri, Sat till midnight.)

The Brasserie, 47 points. Fussiness was the Fairmont’s undoing. Since this is a class joint, mayonnaise is served on the side. A fine idea, except that the purist is then obliged to spread the stuff on the top triangles of toast, then turn the sandwich over and spread the bottom triangles, probably spilling the insides in the process. Furthermore, in the interest of attractive presentation, the pickle (a very good BEN JAMES dill) was placed on the top of the sandwich, so that part of the toast became sodden with pickle juice. Tomato was good and fresh, but there was too much of it. Lettuce was not of the quality one expects of the Fairmont. Toast was excellent, bacon just okay. Loud canned music is a barrier to the enjoyment of the city’s juiciest eavesdropping, in the wee hours. (In the Fairmont Hotel, Ross at Akard. Open 24 hours daily.)

Denny’s, 42 points. We have long favored this national chain’s legendary patty melt, so we couldn’t resist trying its BLT. Alas, only the toast and mayo were superior. Lettuce was limp, tomato was overripe and flavorless, bacon was under-cooked, and the sandwich was served with insipid potato salad and crinkle-cut pickle slices. (4400 North Central Expressway. Open 24 hours daily.)

The Patio, 42 points. This open-air restaurant at Fitzhugh and Travis is a pleasant spot for a late-night snack. The BLT was, however, only mediocre. Lettuce was crisp but not well arranged. Bacon was flavorful but undercooked. Points were lost for balance and integrity: too much mayonnaise and tomato, and everything kept falling out because the toast was limp. The sandwich was served with cottage fries and a slice of spiced apple, unorthodox but good. (3333 N. Fitzhugh. Mon-Fri 10 am-2 pm, Mon-Sat 7 pm-4 am.)

The Waffle House, 41 points. Now we’re getting into the hard core, those all-night neighborhood places where the prices are low and the clientele is interesting. The world would be a poorer place without them, but their virtues are too often social rather than culinary. The Waffle House does, however, make a good BLT. Toast and bacon were both above average, integrity was very good, lettuce was carefully arranged, if a bit limp. Tomato was only fair, and the spread was salad dressing rather than mayo. The sandwich was served solo. (Were it not for an eccentricity of our scoring procedure, which awards as many as five points for garnish, the Waffle House would have landed a good deal higher in the rankings. That’s the way the bacon crumbles.) We had a side order of very good French fries, an enormous mound for 65 cents. (6317 Gaston. Open 24 hours.)

Metro Waffle Shop, 37 points. The toast was the proper color and the lettuce was nicely arranged. That’s about all that can be said for our BLT here. The spread was salad dressing. Bacon was under-cooked and tough, the kind that ends up dangling from your mouth when you try to bite off a piece. Since it would be ungracious to tear off the free end and put it back in the sandwich, you’re left with no bacon in the remaining bites. The sandwich was served with two pickle slices. (3101 Oak Lawn. Open 24 hours.)

Lucas B&B, 30 points. On the positive side, Lucas has excellent biscuits, all-night service, and archetypal pro waitresses who call you Honey. On the negative side is the food. The BLT scored points for good lettuce, but it fell behind in every other category. Toast was limp, bacon was chewy, tomato was overripe and tasteless. The sandwich was served with two and one half crinkle-cut pickle slices. (3520 Oak Lawn. Open 24 hours.)

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