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MTA 1904 sandwich
Photograph: Courtesy of the MTA

The MTA’s subway sandwich is bad

The terrible idea is a mess, conceptually and in practice.

Amber Sutherland-Namako
Written by
Amber Sutherland-Namako

Last week, newsreaders, sandwich-lovers and people with a pretty niche knowledge of workday meal spots said “OK?” when the MTA announced a collaboration with iconic Katz’s delicatessen and four-fifths of a chain called Alidoro that bills itself as “New York City’s Ultimate Lunch Flex.” It is a sandwich called “the 1904,” named after the year the first subway line opened to the public to commemorate the subway’s 118th anniversary, Oct. 27, 1904, according to a press release

Eating and drinking is allowed on the New York City subway, as it should be, and sandwiches, in general, are extraordinary vehicles for myriad possibilities that one can build clear up to the sky. And some—like BECs, chopped cheese, and pastrami—are among this town’s most famous foodstuffs. That’s sort of where Katz’s comes, with the beef, which is joined on a rye sourdough baguette by garlic confit cream, Calabrian pepper dijon slaw, and aged provolone at four of five Alidoro locations for $14 before tax or tip. But conceptually, this partnership is still a mess. It’s unclear exactly what delicious filings could possibly marry the disparate bookends that are sandwiches and transit. 

“This specialty sandwich may seem like an unconventional way to promote the transit system, but we are looking for opportunities to bring together iconic New York City brands and also to support small and growing businesses by encouraging riders to return to the subway,” MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber said at a press conference, before venturing a connection between this sandwich and mass transit’s ubiquity. 

Katz’s owner Jake Dell seemed like the one man who knows that something is up in a Twilight Zone episode with this: “When I first got the call from Jon [Streep, Alidoro CEO] I was a little confused. I thought, why does the MTA want to do a sandwich? What is it about subways and sandwiches—not that subway, this subway—that screams sandwiches?” 

Before a twist with this: “And as we went through the project and we started talking about it, I got it, and it made sense. This is the perfect marriage. We’ve been around 135 years now. We are part of the Lower East Side and people don’t get to us without the MTA. So, I think, this all made so much sense to me. When you think of New York, you think of sandwiches,” notions still untied.

MTA 1904 sandwich
Photograph: Courtesy of Amber Sutherland-Namako

Questions emailed to the MTA about how and why Alidoro was selected as the city subway’s sandwich seller were not directly answered in the sense that the words in reply did not apply to the inquiry. Instead, a representative responded with affirmations about the MTA’s reliability as people keep on keeping on returning to normal, presumably swiping their MetroCard, a $2.75 single flick of the wrist, on their way to gather $14 sandwiches. A rep for Katz’s said that the MTA spearheaded the endeavor, approached Alidoro and that Katz’s joined later. A rep for Alidoro said that the MTA aimed to create “a classic NYC sandwich.”  

Seventy-five people who purchase the $17 “MTA Away Lunchbox (sic) Deal” will receive either $50 OMNY cards (that’s the thing to replace your MetroCard with zero lyrical appeal) or gift certificates at random. Perhaps this could defray the cost of buying future sandwiches elsewhere, because this one is bad. 

There is one aesthetic connection: the 1904 is wrapped in paper fashioned after the underground map. The Alidoro representative points out that it depicts stops closest to the shop’s locations. 

And as in concept, this sandwich is a mess in practice, too. Physically, yes, it’s a little sloppy, but many sandwiches (other ones, good ones) are. That this one’s flavors are all in disarray is most detrimental. 

The box ($21.90 with tax and tip) is snugly fit with chips and, in my case, two chocolate chip cookies (although PR materials only promise one). Unwrapped, a heavy perfume of garlic fills the air, less like that sautéing on the stove and more like a cartoon pop from a jar of powdered. In a fast-casual setting, this is moderately encouraging: Ingredients are included! A recipe was made! What’s in front of me did not emerge fully formed from a corporate mascot’s head! In this case, it turned out to be nothing. 

Curiously for its powerful odor, I didn’t get any meaningful garlic notes from that initial garlic bloom until after I’d given up trying to enjoy the 1904. Then, there was an unpleasant aftertaste marinating in my own mouth in the beautiful afternoon sun. The interim wasn’t much better. 

MTA 1904 sandwich
Photograph: Courtesy of Amber Sutherland-Namako

The bread in use is not bad—substantial but soft enough on the palate. Its flavor is a little odd, more reminiscent of a certain kind 1990s packaged whole grain sandwich loaf making vague pronouncements of “health” than of sourdough or rye, but the latter seems present in a few places. The 1904’s most chief characteristic is its overpowering layer of slaw. It’s decently dressed but too sweet like a breakfast cereal on a bun or some kind of “is it cake” tragedy. Like the whispers of rye, there are occasional pings of what must be the Calabrian pepper, but it’s all—including the pastrami and the provolone, even as it has some nice melt that hugs the baguette’s curve in places—just cloaked in apparent sugar. 

Conjure a classic pastrami sandwich and its own chief characteristic is likely height. It’s positively piled with studiously prepared, marvelous meat. None of the parties here appear to have stated any intent to recreate a classic pastrami sandwich across their varied and sometimes copy-and-pasted communications, but the comparison is unwelcome, identifying the 1904’s two limp layers under all of the accompaniments. Substantial salt does cut through the sweet and, again, like the rye, like the pepper, a nibble or two might make you shrug “sure, that’s Katz’s pastrami.” 

In a way, it helps Katz’s come off the most OK in this New Coke-like dud. Its presence, the most beloved name in this bizarre sandwich triangle, is scarce enough to not really latch on as bad. The only real danger would be for someone trying Katz’s pastrami for the first time in this form and rightfully not understanding what all of the fuss is about. 

We’d all just be better off saving our money for the subway fare downtown. 

The 1901 will be available at Alidoro locations through October.

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