There are whispers from the bar when the bologna sandwich hits the counter. Flanked on each side by a duo of dudes, the sandwich — taller than any bologna sandwich you’ve ever seen, toasted and sturdy as a fortress —elicits genuine utterances of “Wow” on each side. Instinctively, my arms wall off the sandwich in a protective move.
“What is that?” those around me ask, emphasis on “that.” The bar was crowded, one solo seat left, and the noise would hide any soul looking to attack a bologna without speaking to sentient beings. At Lakewood’s new neighborhood joint Hillside Tavern, chef Nathan Tate’s “smoked bologna” sandwich (made with mortadella, the best bologna humans could ask for) luxuriates in Texas pecan wood smoke, then gets robed in American cheese. Shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, “secret sauce” and — oh, let the clarion call from the highest mountains in exuberance — Zapps dill-flavored potato chips join the party.
When you press your palm over the toasted bread, the chips emit a dazzling, ground-shaking crunch. The nostalgia of this moment will send you rocketing backward in time. The only thing missing was a Capri Sun and an a la carte order of ThunderCats action figures.
“That’s not the sandwich I grew up with,” uttered one man to his friend from down the bar. “That’s no Wonder Bread,” said another.
In case you haven’t received the memo, bologna sandwiches are back, big-time. And while they bear little resemblance to the ones you grew up eating while sitting at your grandma’s Formica kitchen table, they flood your brain with nostalgia nonetheless. There’s a good chance one of those sandwiches surfaced in your mind now, with memories of shucking open the back of that package with a window into the pale pink circles of meat product inside. We slapped weird bologna on soft white bread, maybe with a swipe of mayonnaise or a watery burst of yellow mustard, and the soft bread fused to the bologna and cemented itself to the top of your mouth with every bite.
The salty, smooth taste landed between hot dogs and ham. Todd David, owner and pitmaster at Cattleack Barbecue, serves a wagyu bologna sandwich that opens rifts in time.
“To be honest with you, I still like the good old-fashioned stuff,” he says. It’s his go-to late-night snack if it’s in the house. A few slices dressed with spicy-sweet mustard on white bread is his default. “It’s something I enjoy and always have.”
He remembers the State Fair of Texas, wading through the lines and the intense, woolen heat for true roasted corn and the Fair’s bologna sandwich.
“I’m like, man, I can make that,” David says. “It starts with memories.”
Cattleack’s smoked bologna is something special: David fine-grinds wagyu-style brisket, smoothing and emulsifying, adding dry spices and casing it in the bright red stuff. It cures for a day or two, “getting happy,” he says. It’s cold-smoked, then hot-smoked to finish and sliced thick to-order. David likes his bologna on white bread with a little bit of barbecue sauce and white onion.
“They’ve gone crazy for it,” he says about Cattleack’s bologna sandwich. There are days when his smoked bologna is in such high demand that he’s forced to ration patrons to two thick slices per order.
‘Unifying lunch meat’
A few years ago, chef Danyele McPherson was working on her bologna sandwich recipe for Remedy (which closed in 2016), and, to make it perfect, she consulted the creative source: her mom.
McPherson didn’t grow up wealthy. Fish was never on the table. Chicken, if it arrived, showed up in a bucket from KFC.
“We just did not eat non-beef, non-pork,” she says. “So fried bologna sandwiches were something we ate on the regular.”
For Remedy’s take, McPherson’s mom made sure she shaved the onion thin. Don’t put too much, she told her daughter. Thin ribbons of bologna sat on charred Challah bread with American cheese and homemade mayonnaise. It was, for the brief period it was around on Greenville, one of the best, most memory-inducing damn sandwiches in the city.
“It’s kind of this unifying lunch meat,” McPherson says. “It’s the people’s meat.”
Starting Friday, Gung Ho, which now lives in Remedy’s former space, will serve chef McPherson’s bologna sandwich in its original glory. It’ll be available late night only, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Why reboot bologna? It’s simple: It makes her happy.
She’s not alone: Chefs around the city are surfacing with bologna sandwiches. There’s a home run of a sandwich at Shoals Sound & Service, one of their most beloved bar snacks. There you’ll find magnificent meat with ribbons of sensations of salty, crunchy and pickled.
Maple and Motor has thick-cut, griddled bologna that evokes feelings of tennis shoes in the grass, rainbows from arching water-hose mist. Hillside Tavern’s new smoked bologna sandwiches opens a portal, where you’re led back in time from the child version of yourself.
For Meat Fight, the local charity which, in the most fun way possible, has chefs cooking and running and biking in the name of multiple sclerosis research, McPherson typically auctions off a “backyard bologna bash.” The winner gets a home visit from McPherson’s crew, trucking along cold beer and a flat propane grill to fire up the bologna. At the most recent Meat Fight event, McPherson’s bologna bash gathered $8,000.
“This is fun,” she says, beaming. “This truly comes from an emotional place.”