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July 27, 2006

Jerry's Sandwiches

Dominic Armato
A great sandwich is a thing of beauty.

You get some meat, some vegetables, maybe some cheese or a sauce, slap it all between a couple pieces of bread, and there's your meal. It's a formula that's simple, satisfying and infinitely flexible. I believe it was Heinz who said that to do a common thing uncommonly well brings success. Or at least the back of my ketchup bottle would have me believe so. But in any case, Jerry's Sandwiches understands this formula well, and they've used it to build what is, by a longshot, my favorite Chicago sandwich shop.

Dominic Armato
Jerry's was opened in the west loop about four years ago by a husband and wife team, Mindy and Mark, as a front for their catering business. Though they describe the move as having occurred "mostly on a whim", from the very start their whim turned out better sandwiches than most deliberate enterprises I've encountered. At some point along the line, they seemed to catch on that they had a really good thing going, and they've continually expanded and improved both the space and the menu to make it what it is today... an independent, casual 30-40 seat counter service sandwich shop with a massive menu and a delicious product.

Dominic Armato
The secret to their success, in my estimation, is twofold. First, variety. The daily menu boasts 100 specialty sandwiches, as well as build-your-own options that include no fewer than eight breads, 26 primary fillings, 11 cheeses, 25 condiments and all of the usual suspects when it comes to vegetable accompaniments. This is, of course, to say nothing of the daily specials that rotate constantly and are seemingly endless. Even more importantly, however, is the second half of the secret, which is the quality. Mindy and Mark have brought their chefly instincts to bear on the humble sandwich, and there isn't a meat, vegetable or condiment that goes into their sandwiches that isn't delicious, and many of them are flat-out fantastic. They shoot the gap, making their food exceptional but accessible. When they compose a sandwich, every ingredient sings, and it's almost impossible to go wrong.

Dominic Armato
For seven bucks, you get any sandwich on the menu, including a small cup of one of the day's sides... usually a choice between some kind of potato salad, pasta salad and a mixed fruit cup. There are always other accompaniments, which phase in and out at the chefs' whims. Though they're all tasty, the seasoned grilled corn on the cob is one I have a really hard time passing up. They also offer soups, and though I don't have much experience with them, I'd be shocked if they weren't tasty. All of the menu sandwiches I've tried are delicious, but the daily specials are where they really shine. Sadly, in a rare misstep, they recently removed the counter cooler that allowed them to put the day's specials on full display. I loved walking in and seeing a pile of jerk chicken breasts, a juicy pot roast, a giant whole grilled fish, or a platter of assorted grilled vegetables, and knowing that I could pick one of them out and build a sandwich around it. It was one of the features that made the place special, and I'm sad they removed it. But even though the visual is missing, the flavor hasn't gone anywhere. The specials are sometimes unusual, but usually delicious.

Dominic Armato
When it comes to the regular menu, my old standby is the Uriah H, which includes roast salmon, avocado, cheddar and chipotle chutney. It's the one I have a hard time getting away from, but if you want it, be sure they have the roast salmon. It's flaky and moist, and one of my favorite sandwich bases. But on a couple of occasions when they were out of the roast salmon I ended up with the smoked salmon instead, and while their smoked salmon is quite delicious, it just doesn't work within the context of this sandwich. Other old faves include the Marky B, with skirt steak, grilled onions and blue cheese dressing, and the Gerry F, with blackened chicken, bacon, portabellas and southwest mayo. On last weekend's visit, however, I managed to resist the standards and, with the help of my compatriots, tried a few new sandwiches, pictured here, that were all fabulous.

Dominic Armato
The first was the Diego A, with marinated and grilled skirt steak, avocado, cilantro, cheddar, chipotle chutney and adobo sauce. It wasn't the most unusual combination, but everything was fresh and bold and deliciously aggressive. The steak, in particular, was right on, heavily marinated, spicy and tart, with a fair dose of fat that had started to break down and melted in your mouth. It gave just a bit of fatty richness that was the perfect base for the other more aggressive flavors. Next up was a gentle, sweet and creamy little concoction, the Miles S, which was made with turkey, cranberry sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil. It was a funny combination, one I never would have thought of, and it worked beautifully. My ladylove, looking for pure comfort food, custom ordered a simple chicken salad sandwich, and the first thing that sprang to mind was that Jerry's chicken salad absolutely schooled the chicken salad we had at Southport Grocery & Cafe back in June. Where Southport's chicken salad was one-dimensional and uninteresting, Jerry's was full, nuanced, perfectly balanced and utterly comforting. So now I have to add three more sandwiches to the list of favorites. The problem is that my list of favorites is almost as long as the list of sandwiches I've tried. It's an unbridled bounty for the taste buds, but the decision is always torturous. I'll endure, I suppose. But I'll always curse the fact that my office is tantalizingly close to the edge of their delivery range.

Jerry's Sandwiches
1045 W. Madison St.
Chicago, IL 60607
312-563-1008

Comments

I couldn't agree more on sandwiches. Douglas Adams wrote: "There is an art to the business of making sandwiches which is given to few ever to find the time to explore in depth. It is simple task but the opportunities for satisfaction are many and profound…"

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