Road trips can function a couple of different ways. There is the ideal kind, the one where time is not really an issue, you can stop and check out interesting sights and scenery, and most importantly, discover a local eatery that is delicious and memorable. Unfortunately, when I had to drive to Philadelphia last week, I was in a hurry and unable to explore.
That means driving on the Interstate the whole way and living at the mercy of what I call Interstate Eats. You know what I mean, you are driving down the highway, ripping off mile after mile all to the sounds of whatever strikes your fancy on your iPod, and the signs appear: McDonalds, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, etc. It is bleak, my friends.
The night before I left, I did what any modern intrepid road tripper does: I made several playlists for my iPod, loaded it up with podcasts of This American Life and Real Time With Bill Maher and inspected my vehicle — my trusty, no-longer-produced-because-they-are-out-of-business Saturn Vue, and got a decent night sleep because I was unable to leave until 5pm the next day, which meant that I would hit Philly at around 3am.
The road from Ann Arbor to Philly is covered mostly by the Ohio and Pennsylvania Turnpikes. Aside from gouging you for tolls, the Turnpike “plazas” that have restrooms, food, and gas are grossly overpriced. But what can you do? A hungry traveler has got to eat. Fortunately, the plazas on the Turnpike have a slightly better choice than leaving it to chance in Podunk, Ohio.
For starters, every one has a Starbucks. When you have to drive 600 miles and most of it is at night, my usual aversion to Starbucks gets pushed aside. So the first important task of fueling myself with coffee is accomplished with relative ease, if you consider Starbucks’ lame ordering system easy (I’m sorry, but a tall will never equal a small in my world). But after a few McMochas from Starbucks, I was ready for real food.
Lo and behold, included in one of the Ohio Turnpike plazas was a Panera. When faced with McDonalds, Pizza Hut Express, or Panera, the choice is quite simple. My history with Panera dates back to my days as a rosy-cheeked youth living in the suburbs of St. Louis. There, at the teenage hangout known as Chesterfield Mall, was the St. Louis Bread Company — the restaurant which would eventually be known as Panera Bread. So I have a soft spot for Panera.
After stretching a bit and inspecting the maps (something I always do, even if I have my route memorized, call it a catharsis) I walked into Panera and checked out the menu. Usually the “You pick two” is my Panera standby, but the menu offered an intriguing and potentially delicious option: The Cuban Chicken Panini.
Is there anything not to love about the traditional Cuban sandwich? Chicken, ham, swiss, and pickles, all smashed into a delightful, handheld symphony of flavor. I was excited about trying Panera’s version, as it was a nice break from the drive and I have a general theory that smashing a sandwich makes it better.
Panera’s Cuban Chicken Panini includes all the favorites I listed above, along with a chipotle mayo and a sun-dried tomato mustard, all on perfectly pressed focaccia. I received my sandwich and it was piping hot, which was fantastic as it allowed me to linger a few minutes while it cooled to read a copy of the Metro Times I snagged from a gas station before I left. Nothing like reading Dan Savage before you eat…
As for the sandwich itself, it was delicious. Sure, I had a few qualms — the pickles should be thinly sliced and cover the whole sandwich; Panera used pickle chips which provided poor overall coverage. But you will not hear any other negative words. The chicken was tender and juicy, the ham provided a nice, salty bite, the swiss was the perfect compliment. But I was really surprised by how much I liked the sun dried tomato mustard. Tangy and tasty, it complimented the meat but also was flavorful enough to stand out. I will no doubt seek out Panera’s Cuban Chicken Panini again.
After devouring my sandwich, I pushed forward into the night. Pittsburgh welcomed me with some great Indie music on a local station (91.3 for our Pittsburgh readers) and I rolled into Philly early the next morning. I was tired and ready to sleep, but excited about exploring the city when I woke up.
Fortunately, the rest of the trip would provide real culinary adventures — as delicious as my sandwich was, I was hungry for something new. I would find it the next day, along with some delicious old friends and Philly specialties.