I‘ve eaten my share of breakfast sandwiches. My all-time favorite comes from the 876 Market Deli at 6th Avenue and 31st Street in NYC, where I would eat breakfast almost every morning after a night spent with friends across the street at O’Reilly’s, the kind of nondescript Irish pub that seems to thrive in Midtown. We would spend whole nights, great eight, nine or ten hour stretches, beginning immediately after work and leading to closing time at 4:00 A.M., drinking our 22-year-old brains out and trying in vain to figure out exactly what we were going to do with our lives after every last dotcom company in the city imploded following the Internet bubble burst of 2000.
This was where I learned that sometimes, the only way to face another day working for a drowning technology company, a day filled with endlessly irritating “Punch the Monkey” Flash banner ad design, a day where someone will use the term “synergy” and keep a straight face, after a night made fuzzy by 12 pints of Harp with Jameson backs, was with a nice, greasy, bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. The version of this sandwich served at 876 Market Deli is just about perfect: A New York-style “hard roll,” with half a dozen strips of crunchy, dried-out, curled-up bacon, and a thick layer of melted American cheese. The egg in this bacon-egg-and-cheese is barely a factor, barely a suggestion, and serves only as an excuse for eating what is, essentially, a grilled bacon and cheese sandwich at 8:00 in the morning after three-and-a-half hours sleep. Add a few shakes of hot sauce, and you’ve got my ideal version of this quick, on-the-go sandwich. Add a nap, and you’ll be (almost) ready to face the day.
Regular readers of our site know that I am, eternally and unapologetically, a fan of Punky’s restaurant on Brighton Avenue in Portland. They’re exactly the kind of Maine sandwich shop we love: small, independently run, with a huge, loyal, local following, serving inexpensive, home-cooked comfort classics in addition to their huge array of sandwiches and burritos. Go at lunchtime on any given weekday, and you’ll be greeted by a pretty impressive cross-section of Portland, where business types meet surly teenagers, where investment bankers rub elbows with construction crews, all jockeying for position in line in front of a hot bar that offers up the day’s selection of rib-sticking casseroles. Shepard’s Pie, American Chop Suey, Tuna Casserole, Beef Stroganoff, Macaroni & Cheese; it doesn’t matter. It’s all delicious, even as you can taste how bad it all is for you, even as you feel the blood in your veins start to move more slowly, your heart slow down to a leisurely pace, and you see the orange grease pooling on the inside of the bag. And it all costs about five bucks.
The menu doesn’t stop at the hot bar, however. There’s a full array of sandwiches, a board listing burrito specials, and a huge section of the menu devoted to anything that can be tossed into a deep-fryer, including mozzarella sticks, french fries, onion rings, and jalapeno poppers. Eat in the small dining area, outside at picnic tables, or behind the wheel of your car. In the morning, you’ll have a hard time finding a place to rest inside, because Punky’s also does one thing very, very well: Breakfast sandwiches.
These days, it’s unusual for breakfast sandwiches to be the medical necessity they were for me when I was in my early twenties. I don’t often start my day, anymore, with little hand grenades of fat, salt, and cholesterol. But I know that the next breakfast sandwich I eat will be from Punky’s. Their version uses a soft potato roll, grilled in butter. It’s topped with a thin, hard-cooked fried egg, a slice of white American cheese, and a few strips of crispy bacon. When it comes off the grill, it’s immediately wrapped in foil, where the steam warms the bun through, turning the sandwich into a little, light, fluffy whisper of crunchy bacon, egg, and melty cheese. All of the ingredients are in balance, with no single element overpowering the others. It’s inexpensive, profoundly filling, and feels like your internal organs are getting a big hug.
This isn’t the kind of breakfast that you have on the day you’re going to paint an award-winning watercolor of the cribstone bridge at Bailey Island. You’re not going to eat this bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich and suddenly be inspired to write a single stanza of an Italian sonnet. This sandwich is much more well suited for a day of hanging drywall, or spent dangling under a highway overpass, removing lead paint with a needlegun. Failing that, you could try being really, really hungover. No matter what, though, you will be impressed by the restorative, curing powers of the breakfast sandwiches at Punky’s, one of my favorite places to have a quick breakfast on the go in Portland.