The story behind the Earl of Sandwich chain sounds too surreal to be true. The men behind it are none other than the actual 11th Earl of Sandwich and his son, direct descendants of the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Montagu, the 18th-century Brit who famously asked for his meat to be put between two slices of bread so that he could eat supper with one hand while continuing to play cards with the other. As everyone knows, this purported act created the universally known foodstuff now named after him. The present day Montagus have parlayed that legend into a steadily growing fast-food empire with the help of a Planet Hollywood founder who's coincidentally also named Earl.
It is perhaps more interesting to consider the circumstances leading up to the birth of the chain back in 2004 at Disney World than the sandwiches themselves, which, despite the prominent “The World's Greatest Hot Sandwich” sign displayed outside of the newest Downtown Disney store in Anaheim, is just kind of okay. But, as evidenced by the lines that snake into the store at all hours, no one can argue the novelty of a sandwich shop operated by the heirs of the guy who reportedly invented it in 1762. Who, after all, wouldn't want to try Buffalo wings at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo or a French dip at Philippe's? But there's a marked difference here: 250 years separates what the fourth earl did with bread and meat (along with other achievements he'd probably much rather be remembered for) and what the current Montagus are doing, which seems more about capitalizing on their association and not necessarily because they know how to make a sandwich.
For their restaurants, the Montagus travel a road where outlets such as Quizno's have been before. The chicken pieces have artificial grill marks; the sandwich loaves possess a machine-formed uniformity, each one the size and shape of a brick; an army of teenagers trained to always be in a chipper mood mans the assembly line as though holiday elves, rolling up the sandwiches in gold foil and affixing custom-logoed stickers to the flap. To cut on labor costs, sides are prepackaged and set aside in refrigerated cases.
Some are better than others. One day, the potato salad was light, the nicely boiled wedges dressed to a near-perfect state with just the right amount of mustard and mayo; the next day, it was drowning in it, and the potatoes were nearly raw. The coleslaw and pasta salad seem much more consistent—the former composed of cabbage chopped to near-granular bits and the latter piquant of vinegar. If you opt for a full salad, get the Cobb, brightened by dried cranberries and loaded with just enough bacon and tossed with Ranch to make you forget it's missing the bleu cheese and the hard-boiled egg.
But let's get back to the sandwiches. The chain proclaims to bake the bread only when you place your order, which is technically true, even though the buns start out already parbaked. A short trip down a conveyor-belted toaster oven eventually turns the pale-white loaves golden brown. But it's this ciabatta-like roll with which I have a problem. In a lot of the sandwiches, the bread's thickness and density tend to suffocate the fillings; you get mouthfuls of bread and not much else. And as at any of its fast-food kin, the finished product at Earl of Sandwich never resembles the pictures promising creations bursting with meat and cheese. You'd have to pry them open to see what's inside.
The tuna melt is an exception, possessing the correct proportion of mayo-dressed tuna salad and melted Swiss to answer the girth of the bread. But on those sandwiches that involved roast beef, such as the Full Montagu, I was actually glad there wasn't more meat. So tough and fibrous was the sliced beef that I thought I had bitten into a wad of wet paper towels. An Italian sandwich featuring salami, capicola, ham, mortadella, Italian dressing, mozzarella and roma tomatoes was a lot better than the meatball version, which was lifeless by comparison, the beef orbs a touch too mealy and coated in a marinara that was barely there. There are uneven attempts at more exotic flavors: An insipid barbecue sauce made the Hawaiian sandwich—with chicken, ham and pineapple—too cloying, but roasted red and banana peppers managed to elevate the Caribbean jerk chicken to be as sharp as a Schick.
The best sandwich is one that's no longer served. The Holiday Turkey won't be back until next Christmas season, but it was with this messy, delicious, gloppy pile of white-meat slices, mashed potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce that I finally saw a sandwich expressing the spirit of the fourth earl's original invention—that a plated dinner can taste just as good between slices of bread.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.