Libertines though they may be, chefs love making sushi because sushi is so limiting, so rigorous in what is allowed and what is not, so rooted in tradition and steeped in modernity. There is nowhere to hide with sushi, no cover for mistakes or dumbassery. You're either on your game or you're a goat — and everyone will know on which side of the fence you fall. It's a land of absolutes, and chefs like absolutes because so little else in their world is.
Chefs love soup for the opposite reason. With soup, there are no rules, no limits. Soup is nothing but cover. You can make a soup out of virtually anything. Vegetable ends? Sprouted onions? Celery too far gone for service? Sounds like a mirepoix to me. Gnarly bits of meat that not even a customer wanting well-done will eat? Pot of beans the new roundsman accidentally cooked down to wallpaper paste? Toss 'em in the pot, start 'em simmering and see what happens.
And chefs love sandwiches because they are a combination of these two impulses — the meticulous and traditional on the one hand, the carefree and (at times) goofy on the other. As with soup, almost anything that can fit between two slices of bread can be made into a sandwich. As with sushi, there are rules, considerations, ways to make a sandwich right and ways to make one wrong. And there are chefs who can raise the simple act of making a sandwich into something that approaches art. Because within the physical strictures of sandwich-making (there must be bread of some sort, there must be something in between) and the debatable philosophical conventions (should the mustard go on the top slice or the bottom?), almost anything is possible.
And then there's the sriracha — you know, the red stuff in the bottle with the rooster on it. Sriracha has become like a badge of craft among chefs slumming it on the wrong side of the culinary tracks. You see that bottle sitting on the table, lurking around the counter somewhere, and you know you're in a place run by a guy (or guys) who know from the international flavor palate, who've maybe done some time in the aisles of the local Asian market. I've seen it on hot dog carts, at burger stands, in the condiment caddies of joints that want you to know that they're in on the joke, too: that downscaling doesn't always mean downscaling even when it looks like downscaling. Sriracha is the lemongrass, the arugula, of the 21st century — a battle flag not of nationality or revolutionary intent, but of taste. It says: We know the good stuff, and we've got it here.
At the five-month-old Masterpiece Delicatessen in Highland, partners Justin Brunson and Steve Allee (both of them ex-chefs from elsewhere, both of them line dogs with years and addresses behind them) have the sriracha. It's set on the counter among the specialty mustards, the pour-top of cane syrup, the straws and napkins and jug of self-serve ice water. It's not an obvious thing, but it's there for those who know what's good for them, what's good for their sandwich. It's there for a certain restaurant critic who, already blown away by the fact that this tiny kitchen at hipster ground zero (2,000 miles from Pittsburgh and Philly and Cleveland and Trenton) was actually serving Taylor pork roll on a breakfast sandwich, turned just flat giddy to see the only condiment on earth appropriate for sliced and fried wads of pressed New Jersey pork product.
The pork roll came with a single organic egg, over easy (and then either steamed or basted to make the yolk gelatinous) with a hard grind of pepper and melted sharp cheddar all squished between the halves of a good, stiff and toasted bagel. It was already awesome, but dressing it with a shot of sriracha raised it to sublime. I was so thrilled that I didn't realize until far too late that I was choosing a sandwich off the breakfast menu (which, technically, stops at 11 a.m.) almost two hours late. Not that my gaffe slowed the kitchen down. In fact, they didn't even seem annoyed — another reason to like the place already.
But a couple of days later, I got my heart broken in the worst possible way. The schedule on the door claims that Masterpiece is open until 6 p.m. on Sundays, and when I'd called around 2 p.m., I'd been told that the kitchen would be serving until five. Which meant I still had three hours to get there, score myself one of those beef brisket sandwiches with red-wine gastrique, topped with taleggio fonduta and caramelized onions, maybe a little homemade pasta salad or, going whiplash-Asian, seared ahi on an English muffin with Korean slaw and wasabi aioli: four different countries on a single sandwich. Just the thing for watching CU kick CSU's ass.