Chicken Parmesan is the sandwich equivalent of a deep breath. Breathe in and let warming tomato sauce and hand-stretched mozzarella, forever complementing a peppery, crispy Milanese-esque chicken breast, fix you right up. Chicken parm is pure comfort, as iconic and New York-Italian as buttermilk-brined fried chicken styled with pickle discs is to Texans.
Jonathan Neitzel, executive chef at Carbone’s in Oak Lawn, knows what to do. I order the chicken parm, one of a handful of sandwiches, at the counter just before noon. It's in front of me within 10 minutes, a halved sub accompanied by store-bought chips, and it’s one of Dallas’ most underdiscussed sandwiches. Can we sit down and talk about it?
Neitzel brines chicken breast in salt water and sugar, pounds it flat and coats the breast with Parmesan, parsley, salt, pepper and the pulverized crumbs of day-old sandwich bread. The best chicken Parmesan sandwiches are doubled up and fork-tender — you should never grit your teeth through a chicken breast. It should never have the texture of Sam Elliott in Roadhouse. Mozzarella and ricotta are made in the kitchen, right in front of you, at Carbone's. The former cheese is cloud white, pulled by hand and stretchy when melted.
Marinara, a condiment so achingly polluted with tomato paste and sugar in some Italian-American restaurants that it tastes like melted Jolly Ranchers mixed with cherry tomatoes, is tomato-focused at Carbone’s. Onions and garlic, deglazed with some white wine and lots of good tomatoes, are the forward flavors here, and they’re as clear as and sharp as crystal. There's no metallic tang. There's no tomato paste, and no sugar steps near Carbone’s tomato sauce.
“We want to keep it bright," Neitzel says. “We went through a lot of different tomatoes.”
The expert-level chicken parms layer tomato sauce, soaking down to the shell of the bread. Carbone's follows through — half of the sandwich disappears like I’m backspacing in Microsoft Word. I asked for it to go, but it barely made it a foot before the sandwich magically leaped from the box to my mouth. The bread is crusty to soft (it's from an Italian bakery in Arlington), and the the chicken, crispy as stained glass, is sheeted with mozzarella. I should have announced that I was going to make the sandwich disappear like Criss Angel in a flourish of smoke and magic because that's what I did.
Fried chicken sandwiches are icons. The mark of the best ones, those that inspire other sandwiches in their wake, is balance. For Carbone's, sauteed bell peppers, onions and whole, blistery shishito peppers brighten with pops and snaps of acid. You deserve this. You need this chicken Parmesan sandwich in your life.
Carbone's, 4208 Oak Lawn Ave.
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