STELLAR: The Reuben is one of many fine options.
The All Star Sandwich Bar has the greatest cornbread I’ve ever tasted: balanced and complex in flavor, fully evocative of every aspect of an ear of corn. But it’s not featured here. It’s just included with “Texas State Pen chili” ($3.50/cup; $5.50/bowl). This is typical of the place. All Star is all about hiding light under bushels, about trained chefs admitting they prefer the working-class and regional cooking of diners and luncheonettes. Because it’s almost a protest against celebrity cheffery, it’s not about caricature food criticism, either. Chef/owner Chris Schlesinger recognized me on one visit and said hello. Yet nothing changed from my other two visits. And why would it? The All Star Sandwich Bar is what it is.
All Star Sandwich Bar | 1245 Cambridge Street, Cambridge | Open Mon–Thurs, 11 am–9 pm; Fri & Sat, 11 am–10 pm; and Sun, 11 am–8 pm | MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Access up a small step; sign says that they’ll bring out ramp | 617.868.3065
Schlesinger, best known for his East Coast Grill, is an elite chef with a populist bent that’s so bent he must run into himself sometimes. So when he decided to conquer a new area of the restaurant business, it was sandwiches. Eat ’em and run. Obviously these aren’t ordinary slabs of meat and bread. But they aren’t gussied-up or gourmet, either; they’re both faithful copies and Schlesinger-ized recreations, and every one is true to the maxim that plain, honest food tastes good.
Schlesinger broke through with barbecue, so it’s not surprising that the cheap beef sandwiches here are the leaders. But the grilled sandwiches are also terrific, much of the comfort food is killer, and the side dishes are so delicious they sometimes steal the show.
Despite one of the menu’s mottos, “Home of the sandwich hall of fame,” there are only a few faithful regional specialties, such as beef on weck ($8.95), from a triangle of upstate New York.
Another proud menu notation declares All Star to be “Wrap free since 2006.” But you can get Texas State Pen chili — not even a sandwich! — though I’m not sure they’ve been entirely faithful to the official recipe, as reprinted in Frank X. Tolbert’s now-classic A Bowl of Red (Doubleday, 1966). This is terrific, cheap-meat, salty chili, not over-spiced, and perhaps a little sweeter than the standard. The sour cream and cilantro garnish is definitely post-cowboy, not to say postmodern.
Another non-sandwich item is poutine ($5.50), the much-loved, much-despised comfort food of Quebec featuring French fries with gloopy gravy and cheese curds. All Star poutine is made with really superb French fries ($3.75/“pile”) and true diner gravy. I loved it, but it’s not for every day.
You could eat the beef on weck every day, though, and some people probably do. A roast-beef sandwich with horseradish and au jus on the side, it’s served on a hot bun, like a bulkie roll, with caraway seeds and salt. The only way to make it any better would be to add a side of German potato salad ($2.50), prepared here with a grain-mustard dressing that’s also used on salads. Another fine side dish is deluxe macaroni and cheese, but I have to warn you: this one has a shot of hot sauce among the comfort.
The Reuben ($8.95) can be made with the classic corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese, and Russian dressing grilled on dark rye. The only slight flaw being not enough sauerkraut per corned beef. But if you deviate with pastrami and light rye, it’s back in balance. And for habañero thrill seekers, the “Atomic Meatloaf Meltdown” ($8.75) is a legitimate three-bomber, wonderfully balanced by the meaty flavor, the slight stodginess of the meatloaf, the red-onion jam, and even the sourdough bread, despite a healthy dose of Schlesinger’s own Inner Beauty hot sauce.
Some sandwiches are only available as daily specials, so pencil in a Thursday visit for the Eastern North Carolina Style BBQ pork ($6.50) — the pulled pork that made the East Coast Grill famous — on an “average white bun.”
All Star can be less than stellar in its halfhearted attempts to go meatless. The “veggie Cuban” ($8.95), for instance, is a pressed bun of grilled vegetables (eggplant dominant) and cheese — a travesty of a sandwich that normally depends on three kinds of pork. The grilled falafel burger ($7) works as a veggie burger if you use enough ketchup. But it’s nothing close to falafel, which is a world-class pita sandwich (I know, it could be mistaken for a — hiss-boo — wrap) if you put spices in the mix, fry it crisp, and douse it with tahini sauce (available here on request). In fact, the Israeli version adds a Yemenite hot sauce, zhoug, that would be right at home in Schlesinger’s wheelhouse.