Super Bowl sandwich smackdown: A meaty behemoth beats a veggie-packed crust

This video will make you hungry. See how Washington Post Food editor Joe Yonan, inspired by chef Roberto Donna and a favorite sandwich shop, turns pizza dough into a panino and stuffs it with cauliflower, romesco sauce and more. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

How is the Super Bowl like a sandwich?

Many consider the game’s meaty halftime entertainment more interesting than the hard, crusty halves that enclose it.

Then again, Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVIII — America’s annual celebration of football, simulated warfare and corporate advertising — may force even the haters to pay attention. After all, the game pits the NFL’s No. 1 offense (the Denver Broncos’ juggernaut, with its pinball-machine ability to rack up points) against the league’s No. 1 defense (the Seattle Seahawks’ D, which stops more drives than a snowstorm in Washington).

But the sandwich-Super Bowl analogy is appropriate on another level: Those who understand the totality of both know that the center would be meaningless without the halves to hold it together. A Super Bowl halftime would be just another bloated spectacle of ego and wardrobe malfunctions without the over­hyped contest surrounding it. And the fillings of your favorite sandwich would be just a pile of meat (well, unless you’re Joe, but that’s another story) and garnishes without bread to give it form, texture and flavor.

If you can’t already tell, for this year’s Super Bowl Smackdown, our eighth annual, Joe and Tim are focused on sandwiches. From the outset, Tim couldn’t help but feel he had the upper hand: He understands both football and sandwiches. Although Joe thinks he has something of a facility with sandwiches, he regards watching football on TV as a brutish, regressive addiction best treated with asparagus enchiladas and a cool and spicy mango smoothie. And his idea of ideal televised competition is more along the lines of “Project Runway.” (In the smack-talking run-up to this year’s face-off, his refrain was, “Make it work, Tim.”)

Here’s the thing that Tim understands: Unlike, perhaps, Lifetime and Bravo fans, people who really want to watch the game don’t want to worry about baking their own bread, no matter how much better their sandwiches will be with a homemade loaf compared with the store-bought options. So Tim’s sandwich embraces quality but compromise: fresh bakery-sourced baguettes with a multi-layered filling guaranteed to load that bread with flavor, crumb to crust.

Tim briefly considered building a sandwich on homemade biscuits, based on intel supplied by deputy Food editor Bonnie S. Benwick, whom Joe had dubbed the smackdown’s mentor. She practically guaranteed that Tim would crush the boss with a variation on the brisket-and-tomato-jam biscuit she’d sampled from Blacksauce Kitchen in Baltimore. But the more Tim thought about such a sandwich, the more he imagined angry Seattleites cursing The Washington Post when their biscuits crumbled, spilling pink tomato jam on their brand-new Richard Sherman jerseys. No thanks. Tim has zero interest in playing the Michael Crabtree role in some post-game rant.

So Tim opted to make a sandwich from chef-restaurateur Tom Colicchio’s excellent “ ’Wichcraft” cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 2009). One of the ingredients in Colicchio’s — pause here, take a long breath before proceeding — Beer-Braised Beef Short Ribs With Pickled Vegetables, Aged Cheddar and Horseradish is listed, simply, as “baguette.” Safe to say, Tim thought, this is the most loaded ingredient in the entire recipe. Maybe in the history of recipes. You could, after all, braise any old meat-case short ribs into a pile of rich, greasy goodness. But a baguette? Buy a grocery-store torpedo, and you’ll sink the entire sandwich.

Where to buy a good baguette, then, for Colicchio’s stellar, over-the-top, drunken-sailor-on-a-weekend-pass sandwich? Tim opted for loaves from a kindred spirit: Woodward Takeout Food, chef Jeffrey Buben’s more-is-more carryout operation in downtown D.C. If you give the kitchen a 15-minute heads-up, WTF will bake ’em fresh for you at $3.50 a pop. Even knuckle-draggers can appreciate the quality of this bread. A backup option, should WTF be a trip too far: Lyon Bakery baguettes, which can be found at Union Market and Cork Market, to name a few outlets.

Meanwhile, Joe was also pondering the bread question and came up with a convenient option of his own: fashioning store-bought pizza dough into a crusty, puffy thing perfect for stuffing. He got the idea from a 1992 episode of “In Julia’s Kitchen With Master Chefs,” in which a then-thirtysomething Roberto Donna showed Julia Child how to make Neapolitan pizza and later whipped up a nifty thing he called “panino di pizza.” It would be a party-ready conversation piece.

But what to put inside that could compete with whatever gooey, beefy concoction Tim was coming up with? Those knuckle-dragging football fans surely don’t include many vegetarians. Joe wasn’t about to foist tofu or tempeh on them, and he briefly considered going in the other direction and stuffing the thing with so many runny eggs and rich cheeses that it might possibly clog more arteries than red meat. Then he remembered one of his favorite sandwiches in town, the cauliflower with romesco at Mike Isabella’s G sandwich shop. Joe views romesco, that rich and nutty and sometimes even spicy Spanish condiment, as something not even a burger-loving Super Bowl fan could possibly resist. Add a little arugula for extra bite and some shaved pecorino for sharpness, and who could call it anything but hearty?

(What’s more, he can’t resist pointing out that his sandwich — including baking that pizza dough — comes together in an hour, tops. Compare that with Tim’s requirement that, although you can buy the baguettes, you spend upwards of three hours preparing the meat.)

Like Tim, Joe rebuffed one of Bonnie’s Tim-Gunnesque suggestions: to divide the crust into four or eight pieces before baking, to create individual sandwiches. She swears it was to make them easier to eat, but Joe suspected an aesthetic motivation given Bonnie’s food-styling duties, and he didn’t want to go for something so cute.

The judges for this year’s smackdown included two of the best sandwichmakers in the city: chef Stephan Boillon, who first established himself with El Floridano, his international sandwich shop on wheels, and who has since opened a bricks-and-mortar offshoot, Mothership, in Park View. The other judge was Alex McCoy, the young chef behind Duke’s Grocery on the 17th Street strip.

The chefs called the contest a draw. Stephan gave the nod to Joe by one point (sample comment: “well balanced overall, good spice & seasoning”), and Alex favored Tim’s sandwich by the same margin (sample comment: “meat is perfect, wonderful texture and flavor”).

The chefs found the role reversal harder to swallow than the sandwiches. They indicated that as critics du jour they were in an awkward position: Pick a winner between The Post’s cheap-eats critic and the man who supervises him, and they might find their restaurants are the real losers. (Not that Joe or Tim ever implied that — much. Kidding!)

So it was left to Bonnie to break the tie. She found flaws in both contenders, while rating them generally higher than the chefs had. She didn’t think Tim’s baguette was as killer as he did (“I found it too much of a tough chew/mouthful to get through”), while she viewed Joe’s offering as too ephemeral (“Doesn’t seem like the pizza crust stays warm very long, so I’m wondering about the second half/after halftime”).

In the end, Bonnie sided with Tim’s beer-braised short rib sammie. “The edge goes to this sandwich because of the interplay of textures and sweet/sourness: crunch of vegetables, beery softness of the meat, tang of the cheese and horseradish sauce,” she wrote.

Joe took his second consecutive defeat to Tim with dignity and calm, certainly more dignity and calm than after last year’s smackdown. (Although he’s kicking himself that in the rush to play both competitor and organizer, he neglected to make ease of preparation — the very thing that sank him last year but might have helped him this time — part of the official judging criteria.)

Perhaps McCoy struck the right note for this year’s smackdown. After the judging was finished and the chef was getting ready to leave, so he could prepare his own sandwiches for the evening, he turned to Joe and Tim and said, “The real winners will be whoever’s coming over to you guys’ houses for the Super Bowl.”

Joe stifled a laugh. What Super Bowl? He’ll be serving his sandwich at an Oscars party.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
Joe Yonan is the Food and Dining editor of The Washington Post and the author of "Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook." He writes the Food section's Weeknight Vegetarian column.
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