The Search for the Perfect Breakfast Sandwich

On a recent frigid morning, I followed a series of footprints left in the freshly fallen snow up to the front door of the Loose Goose Cafe on East Pleasant Street in Amherst. I knew the cafe had closed sometime last month, but felt the need to confirm it nonetheless. Sure enough, the sign on the front door read, “Thank you for 14 years of business. We will miss you all!”

What a disappointment.

I like egg sandwiches — a lot — and Loose Goose, a jazz-themed restaurant which specialized in all sorts of gourmet sandwiches named for jazz musicians, made great ones.

I usually opted for The Solo (egg and American cheese on a choice of bagel — the whole wheat worked well). But The Count (Basie) (egg, American cheese and bacon), The (Dave) Brubeck (egg, Swiss cheese and ham), and The (John) Coltrane (egg, cheddar cheese and turkey) all proved as delectable as Ron Carter’s walking bass line pacing a 16-bar tenor saxophone solo.

People can get pretty particular about their egg sandwiches. Fried egg? Scrambled egg? Meat? Veggie? Burrito wrap? Bagel?

“It can be a big dialogue when you let someone build their own,” said Helen Kahn, owner of the Cup and Top Cafe on North Main Street in Florence. “But regulars usually know what they want.”

Last summer Brooklyn journalist Joseph Checkler started a Kickstarter campaign in order to print and distribute instructional egg sandwich leaflets promoting what he called “best practices” to delis throughout Manhattan. Checkler’s check list included fried eggs, cooked on a griddle, served messy with lots of cheese — and ideally with meat.

He’d like the Classic Egg Sandwich (egg, cheese and meat on a bagel, toast, or English muffin) served up at Sylvester’s, on Pleasant Street in Northampton. And if I’m sitting with the newspaper at Sylvester’s counter top, I might agree with him.

But for me, the art of the egg sandwich lies at the confluence of both the taste and the ease of eating.

I usually get my egg sandwiches to go, enjoying them either in the car or at my desk at work. I don’t want to get egg drippings or bacon grease on my steering wheel or computer keyboard.

The sandwiches I liked at Loose Goose met my criteria admirably. And while its closing is a loss for local egg-sandwich aficionados, we are fortunate that there are many spots serving up excellent breakfast sandwiches.

After indulging in a final look through Loose Goose’s storefront window, I retraced my footsteps back to the sidewalk, and set out to find a worthy replacement, easily accessible from Amherst, where I live, to Northampton, where I work.

The Works Bakery Cafe Amherst

Just down the street from Loose Goose, in between High Horse Brewing and the fire station on North Pleasant Street, is The Works Bakery Cafe, which opened last April. The Amherst location is the most recent of several Works cafes to open across New England. The first was started in Manchester, Vermont in 1988 by four University of Vermont classmates. Other locations include Keene, New Hampshire, Portland, Maine and Brattleboro, Vermont.

Its menu includes not only several varieties of breakfast sandwiches (including a Western Wrap — eggs, ham, cheddar cheese, roasted onion and roasted red pepper, and their Huevos Hamcheros — with eggs, ham, cheddar cheese and salsa), but croissants, fruit smoothies, salads, soups and lunchtime artisan sandwiches as well.

I ordered an egg and cheddar cheese on a multi-grain bagel and the woman behind the counter scooped up a prepared mixture of liquid eggs and milk with a ladle, poured it into a bowl, and steamed it in the microwave.

“Our goal is to be 100 percent microwave free,” Works Bakery training coordinator Corey Lemoine had told me in an interview a few days earlier. “We’re looking into hot plates and various types of warmers, but we haven’t found anything that can duplicate the speed and quality of a microwave.”

All sandwiches are cooked to order, Lemoine said, but are ready in one and a half to two minutes. That is important, he added, because during a busy morning, The Works will go through more than 25 pounds of eggs.

The scrambled egg was not as light as Loose Goose’s, but the cheddar cheese was superior — though a bit greasier — to the American cheese used on my former favorite.

Sip Cafe and Coffee Bar Northampton

I was surprised to hear how prevalent microwave ovens are in the preparation of egg sandwiches, but Pete Allen, head chef and co-owner of Sip Cafe and Coffee Bar on Crafts Avenue in Northampton, said that they actually do a great a job of cooking the eggs.

“Baking eggs in an oven takes too long,” said Allen, adding that Sip’s kitchen is small and stovetop-free.

Sip opened three and a half years ago, but Allen and his wife, Kimberly, became the owners a year and a half ago.

It’s a small, almost pleasantly cramped space. As we talked at the table by the crackling fire in the fireplace, Allen waved hello to most of the customers who walked in. The fireplace, like the storefront window, he said, dates back almost 100 years, to when the space housed the Hampshire Bookstore.

While most breakfast places serve their egg sandwiches on a bagel, Sip does not. Its Morning Burrito and Western Omelette Wrap comes in a panini-prepared wheat tortilla, while its Classic (egg and cheddar cheese with choice of bacon, ham or sausage), Spinach and Onion (with egg and gruyere), and Roasted Tomato (with egg and goat cheese) are served on a delicious ciabatta roll.

Allen cracks and prepares a batch of eggs each morning, he said, so that they are ready when he needs them. Meat is then chopped, added to the eggs, and cooked together in a small bowl, as opposed to layering bacon or sausage on top of the egg and cheese.

“It’s definitely different,” Allen said. “But it puts more meat in each bite.”

Sip’s egg sandwiches are its most popular menu item, said Allen. As is the case at The Works Bakery Cafe, Allen serves his breakfast sandwiches all day. He also offer soups, salad, baked goods, and several choices of both hot and cold lunch sandwiches.

The draw for most of Sip’s clientele may be the coffee and intimate cafe space, but Allen stays open until 6 p.m., seven days a week.

“Closing a kitchen early just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “If we have it here, we’ll make it.”

Which is nice, because the only thing better than an egg sandwich for breakfast is an egg sandwich for lunch. (Although having one as an early supper is quite appropriate as well.)

While it struck me as strange at first, having chopped pieces of meat mixed in with bites of egg was a surprisingly nice way to incorporate the bacon into the sandwich. And the ciabatta roll was superb.

Tandem Bagel Company Easthampton

Tandem Bagel Company in Easthampton also serves breakfast all day, as is indicated in capital letters across the top of the menu that co-owner Chris Zawicki gave me when I visited the Railroad Street restaurant. Tandem also has a second location on King Street in Northampton.

Zawicki and his wife, Andrea, opened Tandem with Brian and Shannon Greenwood in April 2012. Zawicki said the four of them brainstormed their menu, which includes six types of egg sandwiches.

I ordered the Fresh (egg, avocado, tomato, red onion and pepper jack cheese), but the next time I will get the Sweet (egg, cheddar, sausage and maple syrup — yes, maple syrup). Tandem also offers Spicy (egg, jalapeno, spinach, bacon, cheddar cheese, chipotle mayo), Savory (egg, pesto mayo, tomato, mozzarella), Zesty (egg, cheddar cheese, jalapeno, spinach, avocado, salsa), and Tuscan (egg, provolone, spinach, roasted red pepper, garlic aioli) options, not to mention selections of soup, salad, oatmeal, yogurt, lunch sandwiches and an assortment of cookies and brownies.

Egg sandwich devotees can also build a sandwich of their own creations, with specific combinations of meat, cheese and vegetables.

With 28 types of bagels baked fresh in-house daily — starting at 3 a.m., Zawicki said — there is an almost endless variety of egg sandwich choices.

Tandem staff does not cook the eggs in a microwave, Zawicki said, but rather use what they call an “egg station,” which is basically a hot plate that makes egg patties with 4-inch diameters.

I found the choice of numerous bagels a bit overwhelming, but the avocado and pepper jack cheese was a treat. Oddly enough, I didn’t notice much of a difference between Tandem’s hot plate-prepared eggs and the microwave cooking that the other breakfast sandwich shops used.

Cup and Top Cafe Florence

Helen Kahn opened the Cup and Top Cafe in Florence in 2006. She wanted to create a cafe space that was welcoming to children. As we talked in the sunnier streetside front of the cafe, we could hear the cries of the (mostly) happy children and see their (mostly) content parents enjoying the play space in the back. Kahn said that her lease does not allow a kitchen with a range venting system, so she uses a microwave for her egg sandwiches as well.

“It makes them really fluffy,” she said.

Cup and Top also serves egg sandwiches all day. Its Breakfast Burrito (egg, cheddar cheese, salsa and mashed avocado in a white, wheat, or gluten free tortilla) is by far its most popular, accounting for half of the more than 9,500 egg sandwiches they sell each year, said Kahn. But I went for the egg and cheddar cheese on wheat. The bread, Kahn pointed out, was from Bread Euphoria Bakery and Cafe in Haydenville.

The scrambled egg did indeed have a light and satisfying consistency, and the healthy helping of cheddar cheese once again confirmed my suspicions that cheddar is the world’s best cheese. But the quality of the bread — and the, dare I say euphoric, manner in which it complimented the egg and cheese — was what lingered the longest.

The verdict

Different days call for different egg sandwiches.

I had always gotten my Loose Goose sandwiches on a bagel, but after my recent sampling around Hampshire County, I’ll now go for egg sandwiches on really good bread. I especially look forward to a return trip to the Cup and Top Cafe. I’m still thinking about that one.

But after another week of research, I might feel that maple-flavored sausage is the absolute essential ingredient for the best egg sandwich.

That’s the thing about them: There ares far too many enticing combinations and far too many excuses to have an egg sandwich. Or several.

(Originally appeared in the Hampshire Gazette.)

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