We have been down this road before. You know -- the road of questionable food origins and, more important, what we consider to be the authoritative version of whatever it is we are eating. Be it a cheeseburger, a pizza or a soupy dumpling, we all have thoughts on what the particular item should taste like.
Unless you suffered through years of culinary training followed by even more years of peeling potatoes in the back of a five-star kitchen, you are probably like most of us and pull from your formative years when you describe the proper burger or pizza experience. This certainly holds true to today's subject, the Monte Cristo.
If you grew up in Dallas during the past 30 years you probably have had a Monte Cristo, or at least seen one ordered at a Bennigan's. These people had the sandwich down to a fine science.
When Norman Brinker conceived the restaurant in the late '70s, he probably did not consider that his chain would do two things that affected our lives forever.
First, you could easily get a fruit-adorned whiskey sour at the Walnut Hill location at the age of 15 if you stood over 6 feet tall and had two bucks. Second, Bennigan's started a lifelong love affair started with the Monte Criso that would lead at least one fine citizen of the City of Ate through hell and high water to find a decent replication.
It is through this dedication and the love of the sandwich that we offer in today's version of the battle that will forever live in our minds as the Monte Cristo Conflict.
Maybe this is a slight exaggeration, but let's examine the sandwich nonetheless.
The Monte Cristo shares its roots with a sandwich called the Croque Monsieur served in the bar and café scene in France in the early 1900s. The Monsieur is still served today and is made up of a grilled Gruyere cheese loaded with thin slices of ham and fried in clarified butter.
Some years later, Americans took a more modern take of the sandwich, making it our own. Today's Monte Cristo, the very one we saw served at Bennigan's in the early '80s, was introduced on the menu at Disneyland and can still be found on the Blue Bayou restaurant in the theme park's New Orleans section.
It was at Disneyland in the mid-'60s where you could (and still can) find the sandwich properly ordered as the Le Special de Monte Cristo. It's is served with turkey, ham and Swiss cheese on battered egg bread, delicately fried then dusted with confectioners sugar. This and a side of potatoes and seasonal veggies along with a fruit jam for dipping will set you back $21.99. Not bad considering that their jambalaya is nearly 30 bucks. But we are talking Disneyland.
Can we find this miracle of modern sandwich in Dallas today? Certainly, and it is on more than a few menus. So let's introduce today's combatants in the Toque to Toque: The Dream Café in Addison and Holy Grail Pub, located in the most northern regions of Plano.
The Dream Cafe, originally located in the Quadrangle, has a newer outpost in Addison on Belt Line Road. The cafe is known for its wonderful brunches and soulful kid-friendly environs. It draws families with its omelets and high-end breakfast tacos, but also includes a healthier version of the Monte Cristo.
We ordered the Dream version of the Monte Cristo recently but were a little disappointed to find that their dish included two thick slices of pain perdu stuffed with a few layers of turkey, Black Forest ham and a thick layer of Swiss cheese. Instead of the usual fries, Dream offers a delicious fruit salad that is frosted with a thin sheath of poppy-seed dressing.
This was a nice version of the sandwich, and our family physician probably would slap his seal of approval on the dish since it was seared on a griddle instead of deep fried. But this was not totally encased in batter, instead simply dredged though an egg wash before being cooked on just two sides.
Next, we checked out a lead on the sandwich at a newish pub located in north Plano on Preston Road just south of Highway 121. Among Holy Grail Pub's 48 taps and 112 selections of bottled beer, we found the Monte Cristo.
Holy Grail has a playful menu that expertly executes some of the better gastropub fare in the area. In chatting with one of the bartenders, we found that their take on the Monte Cristo was an homage to the Bennigan's version. (One of the owners worked at the chain many years ago.)
The sandwich came with a large handful of fries that were made on premises and a small cup of blackberry jam. It had a slight crunch and creamy interior that screamed freshness. It appeared to be authentic.
This Monte Cristo was encased in a lightly crisped exterior that was deep fried and flocked with powdered sugar. It oozed Swiss cheese, and thin layers of turkey and ham peeked through its delicate exterior.
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No other words seem adequate other than "Eureka." We had found the Monte Cristo that has haunted us all these years.
For its classic styling - plus the incredible selection of beer -- we award this week's Toque to Toque bragging rights to Holy Grail Pub.
Holy Grail Pub 8240 Preston Road, Plano 972-377-6633
The Dream Café 5100 Belt Line Road, Addison 972-503-7326