For Super Bowl Smackdown X, the subs are in the starting lineup.
Party subs, that is.
For 10 years, members of the Washington Post Food team have squared off in a head-to-head showdown to see who can conceive of and build the superior Super Bowl spread. Last year’s battleground was stuffed potatoes. This year, the stakes are considerably higher. Because we’re building three-foot sandwiches.
It’s the Super Bowl, after all, and nothing about this runner-up to Thanksgiving on the calorie-ingestion scale need be of reasonable size. Not the rucksacks of Doritos nor the seven hours of pregame coverage. Plus, who wants to make a dozen or more regular-size subs to feed a crowd when one massive centerpiece sandwich can do the job with ease?
The Cam Newton and Peyton Manning of Smackdown X are two Post editors.
Alex Baldinger is the digital editor for the Food section and a lover of bread. He tries to live by the wise words of the late, great Warren Zevon: “Enjoy every sandwich.”
Jim Webster is a multiplatform editor. He spent a year copy editing Food and remains a frequent contributor to the section as a writer and recipe tester. He also has a side gig working on cookbooks with chefs.
A three-foot Italian cold-cut sub wasn’t going to win this competition, so Baldinger and Webster knew they needed to come up with recipes that were creative yet achievable given their backgrounds as enthusiastic but untrained home cooks. So they turned to chef Mike Isabella to serve as a sounding board and recipe tutor.
Isabella knows sandwiches. He runs the popular G Sandwich on 14th Street NW and serves as the de-facto commissioner of the shop’s annual Sandwich Madness contest, in which his chef buddies from around town dream up crazy ideas for sandwiches that will then run on the G menu; the one that sells the most gets a donation to the charity of its creator’s choice. (Also, the winner gets to talk smack all year. That is gold in chef currency.)
Isabella listened to the competitors’ plans.
Baldinger wanted to translate the Korean feast known as bo ssam into sandwich form. Bo ssam has gone mainstream thanks to chef David Chang, who serves a version of the crowd-pleasing dish at his Momofuku restaurants, with a huge roast pork shoulder, lettuce wraps and an assortment of pungent condiments and toppings, served with a dozen raw oysters. Baldinger’s vision included shredded Asian roast pork, kimchi, ginger-scallion sauce, crisp bibb lettuce, pickled carrots and a blend of Korean gochujang paste and creamy Japanese mayonnaise.
Isabella needed a minute to collect himself. Accustomed to hearing fellow chefs reel off spectacular concepts, he apparently had initially underestimated what he was going to hear from a couple of desk jockeys. Then he went into mentor mode.
“What about the oysters?” he asked.
The oyster question had initially caused Baldinger some trepidation. They can be a chore to source, and they require additional preparation. Isabella’s reaction reshaped Baldinger’s internal dialogue from “Do I add oysters?” to “How am I going to prepare the oysters that I’m going to need?” He decided to fry them and toss them across the sub like some obscenely hedonistic garnish.
In any game there are always turning points that, after the final whistle blows, stand out as the moment everything changed, even if it didn’t seem like that big a deal at the time. Remember those oysters.
Webster planned to completely reinvent the BLT with a sandwich that would bear no resemblance to the classic bacon-lettuce-tomato. He wanted to make a bacon-and-onion jam; a spread based on chicken liver pâté; and chicken thighs. (Bacon. Liver. Thighs.) A crisp giardiniera starring fennel and cherries would freshen it up.
Isabella pointed out that it’s hard to grill enough chicken thighs to fill such a large measure of bread; perhaps whole roasted chickens and a mix of white and dark meat was a better way to go? Webster hadn’t considered using anything but thighs; breast meat, however, begins with the letter B, which gave him the idea to use roast chicken breasts instead, while incorporating the thighs into the onion jam.
Game day was fast approaching. The two opponents would enter the so-called arena at Isabella’s Kapnos restaurant, where Isabella and two other chefs — Amy Brandwein of Centrolina in CityCenterDC and Kwame Onwuachi of the forthcoming Shaw Bijou and a contestant in the current season of “Top Chef” — would taste and evaluate the Bo Ssamwich and Chicken “BLT.”
Baldinger built his sandwich, as planned, to overflowing. A cross-section revealed the roast pork surrounded by vibrant colors: green scallion sauce and lettuce, gochujang mayo the color of a parking cone and an orange layer of pickled carrots. And, of course, those golden fried oysters. It was a little wobbly, but show-stoppingly stunning.
The judges were wowed by the look, and although Baldinger’s worst fears were confirmed — the hinge of his bread had severed, leaving the sandwich slices virtually impossible to manipulate without creating a huge mess — the panel was willing to overlook the Bo Ssamwich’s structural shortcomings. The oysters got everyone’s attention, as did the boldness of the gochujang mayo and gingery scallion sauce.
Webster piled on his ingredients, too, ending with the cherry-fennel giardiniera. Its dressing could make a mess of the sandwich, so he laid the giardiniera on cautiously until he felt there might be just a little too much. He then spread it out, closed the sandwich and cut cross-sections of the bread that held together firmly but didn’t have much color. He was concerned by how little giardiniera there appeared to be; a three-foot loaf of bread has a way of making everything that’s put on it seem insufficient.
The judges opened with enthusiasm. The concept was fun, they said. Brandwein and Onwuachi loved the chicken liver pâté. Then Onwuachi asked about the giardiniera, and said that everything about it sounded good, but that he didn’t get much of it. Isabella found the sandwich’s overall flavor too sweet and suggested that some cherry peppers might have made the salad more assertive. (Webster debated telling him there were cherry peppers in there, but clearly there weren’t enough of them.)
The judges filled out ballots that asked them to score the sandwiches for appearance, taste, creativity and “overall” appeal, the last of which would count for half of the sandwich’s point total.
The judges deemed the minuscule winning margin of less than a tenth of a point appropriate. One by one, they reiterated how much they liked both sandwiches. The implication: Everyone’s a winner!
Baldinger’s reaction: Nope, I’m the winner!
Webster agreed, and opted against calling Al Gore for advice on what to do next. Webster and Baldinger shook hands and Webster sulked off, mumbling, “See you next year, yeah?”
Or did he say, “Stupid giardiniera”?
Webster is the co-author, with chef Mario Batali, of “America: Farm to Table” (Grand Central Life & Style, 2014).
Want to judge this year’s Super Bowl Smackdown subs for yourself? The Bo Ssamwich and Chicken “BLT” will be featured on the menu at G by Mike Isabella, in both nine-inch and three-foot sizes (must order three days in advance), through Sunday.
G by Mike Isabella, 2201 14th St. NW. 202-234-5015. gbymikeisabella.com.