I am a man of many inconsistent prejudices. For example, I love peanuts, but I hate peanut butter. Well, alright, maybe “love” isn’t the right word. That’s just the American talking. You love your children, you like this peanut. But I do hate peanut butter. In the same way, I like cucumbers, and I like sauerkraut, but I despise pickles. All forms of them. I like beef, but I do not like porkbeef. What is porkbeef?
“Hey, there’s a new sandwicherie in Kaubamaja,” Mrs. Mingus informed me last week. Kaubamaja is Tartu’s downtown mall.
—I’m on it! I told her without even thinking. Within a minute, my coat was on and we were on our way downtown.
—So what’s it like?
“I just walked by it. I haven’t tried it yet,” she answered.
—What do they serve there?
—Right, but what kind?
“Stop it,” she told me. I was asking stupid questions. I wasn’t being very Estonian, and by that I mean I wasn’t thinking before opening my mouth. With today’s over-processed food, you really need to consider both what comes out of your mouth, and what goes in.
—So, it’s like Subway? I carefully asked.
“I think so. But I really hope it’s better than that cheap knock-off of Subway, called Metroo, across the river.” “Metroo” is the Estonian word for metro, or subway.
—Yeah, that place is nasty. Cheap, but nasty. You’re basically eating sandwich-flavored bread, they skimp so badly on the fillings.
We entered Kaupsi, as the locals call the mall, and went to the side entrance to XPRS Deli. An attractive little corner kiosk, I had high hopes. It’s an Estonian chain, but you won’t find the Tartu XPRS on your GPRS, or GPS or whatever the acronym is. It’s so new they haven’t even updated their webpage yet.
Not that it’s a problem for me, but the menus are only in Estonian. Even on the webpage, which says in Estonian, “The best chef is you—make your own sandwich!” That’s cool. But for most people in Estonia, a võileib, or sandwich (literally “butter bread”) is still an evolving food.
My first time in this lovely country, I was a guest in my friend’s aunt’s home. She had made an incredible butter bread smörgåsbord. At least ten different kinds of butter breads. But these weren’t what I considered a sandwich. Each consisted of a slice of bread with various toppings. Quite good, and a different experience. And having new experiences was why I had visited in the first place.
A sandwich for me was a massive baguette with three kinds of meat, and a lot of it too, a couple kinds of cheese, oil and vinegar, sliced onion, tomato, lettuce—Subway, basically. After years in Estonia, I can now honestly say that my favorite “sandwich” ever, however, is a slice of black bread with garlic cheese. Garlic cheese is grated cheese (no particular type) mixed with a little mayonnaise and crushed garlic. I cannot get enough of it. I do not love it, but I like it, yet I don’t like most Estonian cheeses by themselves, or the mayo. Don’t criticize me for that, though, because it’s not my fault. I can’t help what I like. All I can do is try new things.
“Hi, can I get the Men’s Favorite, please? But with no pickles,” I asked Õpilane, the waitress. That’s a pretty name.
—Of course, she smiled. What would you like instead of pickles?
“Hmm,” I said, eyeing the wide selection of ingredients that were not protected by a sneeze guard. “What goes well with beef?”
—We don’t have beef, she informed me, a mildly odd look on her face in reaction to my apparently odd question.
“But,” I began. “But, the menu says this sandwich has röstbeef.”
—Ah, yes, that’s roast pork.
“Ah, I see,” I responded, intrigued at my discovery of a new element on the periodic table of deli meats: porkbeef. “What would you recommend?”
—I don’t know, Õpilane told me. I’m new here, my name is Krista, she continued.
“OK, could I have some jalapeños, then?” She looked confused for a moment. I found it odd that the sandwich station would be manned by a trainee, without supervision or instruction as to what she actually was selling, but I didn’t take issue with it. “Chili peppers, I mean.” And she happily placed some jalapeños on top of the porkbeef.
Mrs. Mingus ordered a sandwich for herself as well. The main ingredient was salmon. “We’re out of salmon,” Krista informed her, so she chose something else. Mrs. Mingus asked for Feta on her sandwich, and mentioned Feta three times. When she started to eat her sandwich, she noticed there was no Feta on it.
Krista mentioned that if you buy two sandwiches, you get one free. “Three equals two”, as the ad puts it. “You can build your own sandwich,” Krista said. “Just tell me what you want, and I’ll make it.” We decided to get soy meat. I don’t know what else to call it. Soybeef? We asked for any suggestions, but Krista didn’t know. She was very polite though, and eager to at least try and answer questions. She was about twenty. Had she been forty, she would have just answered our pestering questions with a cough.
The sandwiches themselves were, well, mediocre. At first I thought they were skimping on the fillings, but then I realized that you could order as many different kinds of fillings as you wanted. I just didn’t know what to order, and neither did Krista. But that’s not her job, I guess. Or is it? However, I did feel like they skimped on the meat.
The bread was good though. It was almost like a focaccia. XPRS Deli had a good selection, as well. But yesterday, Mrs. Mingus went back. The sandwiches were made by another person, who did not skimp with the fillings. The bread was dry, however, “crumbling apart”, she said.
One extremely minor thing that kind of bothered me was that the onions were diced, not sliced. The way vegetables are cut really does make a difference. Texture is all-important in cuisine. The tomatoes were tiny little chunks, too. Not the thick slices in the pictures on the menu.
I hope the owners read this, I can imagine one of them looking like Ned Stark. “Subway’s coming,” he mutters to himself. If XPRS Deli wants to survive, more attention needs to be paid to freshness, variety and consistency. In addition to porkbeef, maybe also serve realbeef. And garlic cheese! That would be awesome on a Subway-style sandwich. Also oil and vinegar.
I hope XPRS Deli doesn’t lose its head. Estonian integration to the West is both good and bad. Good for security, bad for local business. There is already McDonald’s in terms of culinary invaders. Local restaurants need to get their acts together. The Americans are coming, and they love processed food. Personally, I don’t love it. I don’t even like it.