Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich In America debuts tonight on Travel Channel at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich In America should probably be taken only as seriously as it takes itself, but I’m not allowed to post sandwich-related Lolcats and leave it at that. Man Vs. Food host Richman has established a bracket to determine the best sandwich from 10 American regions, whose victors will eventually face off against one another to win the iron throne, er, deli counter. Richman has a very scientific grading system called the B.I.T.E. scale to evaluate each sandwich’s bread, interior, taste, and eating experience. Criticism ranges from “absolutely extraordinary” to “without question the best.” In the première alone, the audience is introduced to without question the best pastrami, without question the best corned beef, and without question the best deli anywhere, so make your travel plans accordingly.
Now, it’s probably obvious to Travel Channel regulars that this program exists more as a tour with splashes of travelogue than as a talent competition. Best Sandwich In America would make a terrific Passport-like program that explores the local cultures of American cities via their sandwiches. It could deliver sumptuous food photography against alluring cityscapes or small-town charm, promoting the network’s basic sense of adventure. It could even focus on more than one sandwich per city. It could run for years.
Unfortunately this is not that series. Best Sandwich In America is a competition. An episode visits a region—the Northeast for the première—and descends upon the three chosen delis. Each act shows exactly how a candidate is made with a hint of local flavor, and at the end of each, Richman goes through his rubric. “The bread is perfect. The interior is like titans mating. The taste achieves a kind of ecstatic sorrow, as if every moment of my life going forward will be like falling out of the skyscraper of that pleasure. The eating experience is enlightenment itself.” Or something. The first two square off, and then the victor advances to face the third. At the end, Richman announces the regional champion after his careful weighing of the two competitors’ virtues. And that’s it. No explanation as to what he liked about one sandwich as opposed to the other. It’d be like writing, “No Reservations is the best Travel Channel food show” and expecting people to care.
The worst part is that Richman proves he’s capable of clearly describing these sandwiches when he wants to. At Tommy DiNic’s in Philadelphia, Richman praises the roast-pork gyro. It’s a foot-long roll lined with sharp provolone squares, filled with juicy pork slices, and topped with broccoli raab. Next to a Pittsburgh beauty containing French fries, cole slaw, two thick tomato slices, and a runny fried egg, Richman praises the simplicity of the roast pork. He highlights the broccoli rabe, in particular, for providing a tasty contrast, and he observes that the low starch content allows the ingredients to shine individually. After a spin with the B.I.T.E. scale that allows him to repeat his favorite chestnut—“I remembered it being good. I had forgotten how good”—that precision is a miracle.
Accept that Best Sandwich In America is the tip of a peninsula off of food criticism, though, and the show has plenty of pleasures amid the awkward jokes and the repetitive reality-show exposition. Most importantly, the subjects themselves: Every sandwich in the first two episodes sounds and looks delicious. New York’s classic pastrami and corned beef, a New Orleans shrimp po’ boy, a sassy Gulf Coast grouper Reuben, even the regional sandwiches that failed to make the bracket—shown in a quick slideshow at the end of each episode—are seductive in this light.
The brief background interludes, explaining how the delis came to be and how not just the sandwiches but the ingredients are made, also help convey the experience to the audience. The Pittsburgh contender has fries and slaw inside because truckers only had one free hand. So Primanti Bros. put all the sides on the sandwich. Watching its assembly—the freshly sliced Italian loaf, the provolone melting atop a pile of capicola, the mountain of food squeezed between bread—goes a long way toward compensating for the show’s refusal to put all that into words. Best Sandwich In America may not be able to convey the experience of eating, but it sure gives good set-up.
Too bad the audience doesn’t get to taste all these drool-worthy stunners. Richman is our avatar, our overly pleased taste buds. We don’t really get to root for favorites, at least beyond our home regions, because there’s almost nothing for a television audience to judge on. The show depends on Richman’s translation, which is why vague hyperbole is junk food. But describing the flavors and mechanics and experience of eating a sandwich—that guides people through. That’s how Richman brings us along for the ride, silently watching as he tastes Texas brisket for us. After all, Best Sandwich In America isn’t really a competition show, even if it tends to forget that.