Katie Boyts explores the boroughs of Baltimore through universally accessible and lovable foods: Tacos and Sandwiches.
(with Chris Attenborough in tow, wielding the camera)
Tacos and a sandwich. Tortillas and a slice of bread. The surfaces beckon a cook like a blank canvas to a painter, naked and waiting. Will the final product be beautifully rich or slathered in mediocrity? Accessible or pretentious? El Salvadoran or Korean? Italian or French? There are as many options for a sandwich and taco as there are hues of blue.
Besides filling us up with affordable deliciousness, these portable bundles of calories generously offer up a chance for exploration. They hold up a lens to the nooks and crannies of a city. The taquerias and delis, the trendy, the fancy, or the quiet little hole-in-the-wall joints; they can all transport us somewhere that is definitely not Baltimore. And they can do so for a much lower price than any plane ticket.
I grew up in Texas, which basically means tacos are in my blood, bones, and gray matter. It was Sunday ritual in my home. No one dared whisper an alternative to Mexican food for our sacred Sunday lunch. And reigning supreme at any Mexican restaurant (The Original usually ended up the winner) were the chips and salsa. The sight of the small, humble salsa container was a thrill – clear plastic with a bulbous bottom and cylindrical top, its innards red as a ripe tomato. The salsa was never fancy or overdone. It was all fresh tomatoes and spices, cold without hurting your teeth, spicy without burning your tongue. My family could destroy a basket of chips in approximately .8 seconds. Chips and salsa are my life… which I realize sounds really depressing. And I don’t care.
Fast forward to Baltimore and I still get the insatiable itch for the savory morsels of corn shells and cumin-scented meat. Especially on a Sunday. It’s like a physiological alarm clock begging for refried beans. So my photographer friend, Chris Attenborough, and I set out last year on a taco pilgrimage to find the city’s best, instigated by my refried bean alarm. The pilgrimage became the defining characteristic of our entire friendship. We don’t really vary our activities like normal friends. We don’t go to the movies or get drinks or play chess. We once went to a baseball game I guess. Once. But honestly I probably ate nachos there so I’m not sure if that counts. Anyway, mostly we just eat tacos.
The first taco spot was picked out of my curiosity about a place near Patterson Park, Tijuana Tacos 3, and was also the first time we’d ever hung out. The next time I was craving chips and a cold coke… an El Salvadoran place in Broadway East. After that, it just made sense, out of humor, hunger, our mutual love of thematic events, the answer was always: Tacos. After a few months Chris created a spreadsheet “Taco Notes” with rating systems: the fillings, atmosphere, chips & salsa, and service. So I figured why not share this with the world? Enter: you.
As for sandwiches, I’m a baker at heart. I’ve studied the craft for a long time, had the privilege of apprenticing with a few of the country’s most amazing bakers: Dave Schnell from Brown’s Court Bakery in Charleston, Willem Malten from Cloud Cliff in Santa Fe, and Ken Forkish in Portland, Oregon. I worked at Dooby’s in Mt. Vernon as the head baker and pastry chef since its opening in July 2013.
And as a pastry chef, I would often get the question, “What are you known for? You know, like, what’s your thing, your mojo, your calling card?” (Ok, nobody ever said mojo but I really wish they had.) I think they expected a fancy French answer like mille-feuille (I had to look up the spelling of that by the way), or kouign amman (pronounced Queen Aman). But my one syllable answer to the mojo question: Bread. Queue the flash on people’s face resembling boredom. Just bread? They wanted a sexier answer. They wanted a French accent. They wanted less carbs. But I always wanted Just Bread.
Some of my favorite memories of Dooby’s are the ones where a cook would come in with a sandwich idea – roast beef, cold cut, caprese, cheesesteak. And the bread game would begin. We’d set out to answer the question, “Which bread should we use?” So many factors to consider: the flavors of the meat, how messy the fillings are, how rich the sauces are, the texture, the shape, the way it should be held. Every bread choice for every sandwich was intentional, and tested, and then tested again.
I love a sandwich because sandwiches are easy to love, but also because, as a baker, they offer this creative, collaborative process that’s often taken for granted.
Similar to the loveable taco, sandwiches beg for innovation. I mean, how excited are you when you show up at a party and it’s a Sandwich Bar?! (Oh that’s never happened to you? Too bad because it happened to me once and it was pretty much amazing.) At the same time, sandwiches always seem to taste better when someone else makes them. Which is probably why we usually just buy sandwiches. And unless you’re buying free-range artisan certified-organic slow-roasted sandwiches, they’re pretty affordable.
Author Katie Boyts is a pastry chef with a love of affordable carbs and the host of the Baltimore chapter of CreativeMornings. She will begin her Baltimore Taco and Sandwich series next week. Stay tuned…
All photos by Chris Attenborough.