It's lunchtime at Sandwich Planet (534 ninth avenue, near 39th Street; 212-273-9768), a month-old tight squeeze of a storefront restaurant done up in comic-book colors around the corner from the Port Authority. Two cops walk in; one takes a cursory glance at the menu and orders a French dip. His partner studies the list, begins to order, and hesitates. Five minutes later, he's still looking. "You havin' trouble reading today?" says French Dip. "You been perusin' that menu for about twenty minutes -- you better not disappoint me with a ham on rye or something." While Officer Slowpoke undoubtedly let French Dip down with his final selection -- ham on sourdough, with Cheddar and honey mustard -- his indecision is understandable. What would you do in the presence of a couple hundred made-to-order sandwich choices?
Sandwich Planet's affable owner, Will Brown, who can be seen vigilantly manning his post at the podium where he takes delivery orders and greets customers, got his start in the sandwich trade a dozen blocks north at the thriving Island Burgers and Shakes. There he cultivated a following with his varied assortment of boldly seasoned and lavishly garnished chicken churascos and hamburgers, most of which are reprised at Sandwich Planet. We heartily endorse any of the sinus-clearing blackened-chicken churasco combinations; cajun-style is less fiery for those who can't handle the heat. Try the one called Bourbon Street, which is gilded with bacon, Monterey Jack, onion, and Brown's spicy, proprietary "bayou mayo." (All sandwiches are $4.50 to $7.75.)
Brown, who grew up on the West Coast with an affinity for bread and all that goes within it, sensed a sandwich vacuum right here in the restaurant capital of the world. "You know what I hate?" he says. "Those places where the sandwiches are sitting there in plastic, waiting to be bought." That's not the case at Sandwich Planet, where a guy who calls in his order of three Napalm churascos (blackened, with barbecue sauce, jalapeños, Cheddar, and habanero sauce) has to circle the block in his car until Brown runs outside to make a curbside delivery.
Brown has expanded his Island oeuvre to include Italian panini, all named for Italian and Italian-American people, places, and things, from the Sopranos (prosciutto, Toscano salami, provolone) to Pacino (a Soprano with tomato and fontina instead of provolone) to the pope (not strictly Italian, but very much a Pacino in spirit). But the panini, which are served on a choice of breads from Sullivan Street Bakery and TriBakery, may be the weakest planet in this sandwich solar system. The ingredients are clearly fresh and ample -- the truffle-scented Lollabrigida is veritably bursting with goat cheese -- but Brown really excels with his retro classics, the kind of two-fisted all-American sandwiches that have been displaced by wraps and other raised-pinky deviations. What sets Brown and Sandwich Planet apart is his insistence on the homemade over the processed. He makes condiments from scratch. He roasts his own beef. He bakes his own bone-in ham, which he buys from a local butcher and seasons with cloves and brown sugar. The fragrant final product makes an appearance in the Mini Cristo, a delectable take on the Monte Cristo made with chicken salad (homemade and archetypally old-fashioned, without a trace of curry powder or an errant raisin), ham, and Swiss, on sourdough bread that's been dipped in a milk-and-egg bath and grilled to perfection.
Brown is so proud of his excellent roast beef, made from a crown rib he roasts rare, that he urges customers to order it cold (because any more heat will cook it past pink). Try it with Cheddar, bacon, and an amazing horseradish, sour-cream, and black-pepper spread, or browned, if you must, in a cheese-steak sandwich so overstuffed you'll have more than enough meat for a second sandwich, in the grand tradition of Katz's or the Carnegie. Needless to say, he roasts his own turkey, which he works into a succulent turkey BLT. Even the coffee-shop stalwart grilled cheese benefits from Brown's attention to detail. One features fontina with roasted red pepper.
Chips, of course, are the classic accompaniment, but you should leave room for a jumbo baked potato, as far from the minimalist, olive-oil-doused Four Seasons version as is humanly possible. The Classic is a pre-Pritikin marvel, stuffed with butter, sour cream, Cheddar, bacon, and chives. For dessert, your choice is limited -- not unhappily -- to one of Ed's Big Ol' Cupcakes, baked by a struggling actor-waiter acquaintance of Brown's and available two ways: devil's food or yellow cake. Even the wishy-washiest beat cop should be able to handle a decision like that.
Other noteworthy developments on the sandwich front: Perceptive visitors to City Bakery (22 East 17th Street; 212-366-1414) who can tear themselves away from Maury Rubin's tart display may notice the occasional surprise addition to the sandwich and salad-bar counters. That's because chef Ilene Rosen (who, like Rubin, uses Greenmarket-fresh produce in her work) is subject to bouts of seasonal inspiration in her ever-expanding line of sandwiches ($4.50-$7.50). Pears in season? She roasts them with maple brown butter and pairs them with ricotta salata. Tomatoes making their yearly debut? It's time for corn-bread-crusted green tomatoes with tomato yogurt on an onion roll. A few months ago, she rolled out an anti-carcinogenic burrito for soybean savants: A spinach tortilla encases stir-fried tempeh, fermented black beans, and Japanese hummus -- Rosen's name for a purée of soybeans and canola oil. Her background in furniture and interior design gives her an architectural advantage: "I imagine somebody biting into it. I look at the stringy parts, the soggy parts -- it has to hold itself together."
Serious attention to sandwich construction is also paid two blocks away at Marco Polo (15 East 15th Street; 212-647-1515), the cheerful nine-month-old café that morphs into a wine-bar annex of the adjacent Tocqueville restaurant at night. Partner-spouses Marco Moreira and Jo-Ann Makovitzky were caterers first, and their bite-size mini-sandwiches ($3 to $4.50) reflect their focus on big flavors in little packages. Classic egg salad goes luxe with the addition of truffle oil and just a hint of sun-dried tomato, an upgrade that shouldn't scare egg-salad purists away. Lemon confit renders tuna salad bracingly tart, and -- neatniks should note -- the circumference of the beefsteak-tomato slice perfectly matches that of the multigrain roll. French ham and Brie with butter and honey mustard is five fat-filled bites of pure bliss. But the café's crowning achievement is named for its creator: Marco's Favorite panini ($7.75), heated on a sandwich press, makes a dramatic olfactory entrance, with its drizzle of truffle oil paving the way for the pungent flavors of prosciutto di Parma and Asiago cheese -- proof that there's room enough on this sandwich planet for grilled cheese in every guise.