I remember reading once that the team of corporate chefs at Applebee’s (or possibly Chili’s, but frankly, this applies to any family-friendly chain restaurant that ends in an apostrophe “s”) aren’t so much chefs, as they are diabolical food scientists. What they’re doing isn’t creating recipes, the way many of us do, combining complimentary flavors in exciting and hopefully delicious new ways. Instead, what these guys are doing looks much more like the work of a mad scientist hell-bent on global domination, combining precise portions of salt, fat, and sugar in dizzyingly inventive new ways, with the goal of rendering your helpless reptile brain powerless to resist their latest creations.
There’s a neurological tipping point, where your brain doesn’t just register something as being “delicious.” Instead, consuming as much of it as possible becomes a biological imperative. Something tasting great is all well and good, but if food scientists can trick your brain into thinking that a given food item is evolutionarily, impossibly perfect for the survival of you and your species, it will want it more and more.
It’s a little bit cynical, maybe. But it’s also the reason every single Applebee’s across America has a packed dining room, every single night of the week, even though their food is hot microwaved trash. Salt. Fat. Sugar. Combined in heretofore unheard volumes, and at a price point of around eight bucks. Our brains are powerless to resist.
It was with this in mind, then, that I set out to design a perfectly craveable breakfast sandwich for the launch of my food truck way back in 2015. I wanted to take the lessons of these corporate food scientists, and use real food to create the same chemical response in my customer’s minds. And I’m happy to report that it worked like a charm.
But let’s back up, just for a minute.
Breakfast sandwiches are very important to me. They give me life.
And I’m not talking about super fussified versions, piled high with tarragon aioli and artisanal bacon cured in a whiskey barrel and bird’s nests of peppery arugula on sourdough toast made from a starter that’s been alive for a hundred years. I mean, those are fine. They certainly have their place.
For me, though, breakfast sandwiches can be such simpler exercises, and they can probably be purchased at whatever corner store is nearest to you right now. If you happen to live in NYC, you’re especially blessed, because it is home to more high-quality breakfast sandwiches per capita than anywhere else in the world. A New York style hard roll, lightly crusty on the outside and impossibly soft and chewy on the inside, a fried egg, a few strips of bacon, and a slice of American cheese, its pure chemical composition rendered melty by the heat of everything else on the sandwich, wrapped in foil so that it hits you with a blast of warm steam when you open the package. THAT’S a breakfast sandwich, and I’ll pick it over some overwrought frittatawich any day of the week. Add hot sauce, or extra bacon and cheese, depending on how hungover you happen to be on a given day, pay your $2, and get on with your morning.
When I started my food truck, I knew that having an absolutely killer breakfast sandwich on the menu was going to be super important to our success. Something freshly made, that customers could grab quickly, and at a price point comparable to the trashy breakfast sandwiches slowly circling in the warmer at the corner gas station. I also wanted to use science to design something that was intensely craveable; something that would get inside our customer’s heads with a big punch of flavor, and a mysterious something that they couldn’t put their finger on, that would keep them coming back.
It worked. This combination honors the simple bodega breakfast sandwich, amping up a few elements here and there for a combination that’s intensely flavorful, satisfying, and just a little bit mysterious. You can create an infinitely crave able breakfast sandwich of your own, and it almost doesn’t matter what components you use. You need something salty. Something fatty. Something meaty. And something either acidic or spicy. To begin brainstorming, make a list with different ingredients that fit into each of these categories arranged in columns. Then, start mixing and matching until you find your own irresistible combination.
Here’s the sandwich we created for our food truck, the “Breakfast ‘Wich, Please.” Use it for inspiration, or feel free to copy it exactly:
We start with a butter-griddled roll that our supplier calls “Portuguese Sweet Rolls,” though there’s nothing about these that seem particularly Portuguese. You can substitute a King’s Hawaiian Burger Roll, or even a Martin’s Potato Roll, in a pinch. But I think the light sweetness is part of the key, here, combining with the savory, spicy, crunchy elements in the sandwich. It’s a godamned party in your mouth, is what it is, and you need something with some sweetness to keep it all contained.
The second key is the sauce. On the truck, we use a Taiwanese chili sauce called “Union Foods Brand Chili Sauce” mixed with mayo, but it can be a little tough to find. You can always substitute sambal olek, an Indonesian ground chili paste, mixed with a few drops of sesame oil, and some good old-Hellmann’s mayonnaise. The sambal brings the heat, the sesame oil brings the mysterious funk, and with Hellmann’s, we Bring Out the Best.
We also thought long and hard about the “salty meat” component of this sandwich. If crispy bacon is good, and spicy sausage is good, then deep frying an entire thin-sliced boneless pork chop should be the undisputed king of breakfast sandwich meats. We brine ours overnight in salt water, but you can skip this step; just dip it in cornstarch (the trick that makes Chinese takeout impossibly crispy and delicious) and let ‘er rip.
Finally, please use American cheese on this sandwich. I know. It’s trash. Everyone knows that, by now. It’s okay. Substitute a superior cheese made with natural ingredients, and all you’re doing is denying yourself a meltiness and creaminess that defies the laws of the natural world, while spitting in the face of the teams of food scientists that made such a miracle possible, delivering us to this pinnacle moment of human evolution. And that’s downright un-American.
The Breakfast 'Wich, Please
- 2 tbsp mayonnaise
- 1/2 tsp sambal olek
- 1-2 drops sesame oil
- 1 thin-sliced pork chop
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil for frying
- 1 King’s Hawaiian burger roll or Martin’s potato roll
- 1 slice American cheese
- 2 scallions thinly sliced
- 1 egg fried, over medium
- 1 tbsp butter
For the Sauce
For the Pork Chop:
For the Sandwich:
- Combine all ingredients in a bowl, and stir well to combine.
- Heat oil in a deep frying pan or deep fryer to 350 degrees. Dip pork chop in cold water, then dredge in cornstarch. Fry until golden brown, then transfer to a plate lined with paper towels to cool.
- To assemble the sandwich, spread both halves of the roll with butter. Toast butter-side down in a medium skillet over medium-high heat until cut side is golden brown. Transfer to a plate, and spread each side of the bun with the sauce.
- Place the deep-fried pork chop down first, followed by the cheese, followed by the fried egg. Top with sliced scallions and serve hot.