A perfect ham sandwich at thirty thousand feet

No matter how glorious the LA sunshine, the beauty of the people, and the relaxing and inviting lifestyle, you have to say goodbye at some point if, like me, you actually live somewhere else. Over years of regular visits, I’ve perfected my leaving ritual to soften the sting. Booking a mid-afternoon flight from LAX leaves room for a half-day of varied activities (buying some kind of fabulously expensive juice, thinking about driving to the beach and then not driving until to the beach, etc.) with plenty of time for the most important thing, which is lunch.

No matter where I stay, my last lunch in Los Angeles is always at the Apple Pan, a seventy-five-year-old burger joint whose wood-panelled interior is mostly taken up by a U-shaped dinette counter dotted with Bordeaux. vinyl stools. The Apple Pan is one of those Los Angeles restaurants known not for its glitz, elegance, or Instagrammability, but for its sheer intractability in the face of change. A soda, if you order one, comes in a white paper cone balanced in a metal-handled holder. Counters wear short-sleeved white shirts and white paper peaked caps. Even the room itself eschews the modern comforts of air conditioning in favor of open windows and a set of ceiling fans. The most enduring of all is the menu. The Apple Pan is also known for its burgers – they’re small, in the Southern California vernacular; dressed with smoked ketchup, mayonnaise and pickles; and neatly wrapped in white paper – and for his pies, which are huge slices of devastating sweetness.

An hour and a half before my intention to arrive at the airport, I arrive at the Apple Pan, suitcase in tow. My order never varies: a hickory burger with cheddar, a side of fries and a slice of banana cream pie. If you happen to be in Los Angeles, do yourself a favor by stopping by the restaurant and repeating my order to the letter. And here’s the real trick: just before you’re done eating, wave to one of the foremen and ask them to make a ham sandwich to take away. Then, and this is key, eat it on the flight home. I try to hold out until the plane crosses the Rockies, but on particularly hungry afternoons, I’ll have taken the first bite as soon as Arizona.

The Apple Pan ham sandwich is both mundane and exquisite. The menu, characteristically efficient, describes it as follows: “Our own cooked ham served with mayonnaise and lettuce on bread of your choice. This undersells what is one of the greatest direct-shooter lunches in the world: a small mountain of thinly sliced ​​meat, pink as rose petals, under an equally tall pile of thick iceberg lettuce, all gobbled down with mayonnaise. (My choice of bread is almost always rye, although there is no wrong choice.) A takeout order is wrapped in white paper; it is tossed into a bag next to a plastic container of pickles, which inevitably spills excess brine which is then absorbed by the sandwich. When bitten, during the inhuman ordeal of commercial air travel, this gigantic creation – both oddly nostalgic and obscenely indulgent, perhaps much like Los Angeles itself – feels like a rebellious little act of pleasure.


Many of my favorite location-specific foods would be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate at home, but the Apple Pan Ham Sandwich can be T-replicated with the most basic ingredients from the grocery store. Two slices of bread, soft and untoasted, both spread with more mayonnaise than seems appropriate. A generous helping of freshly sliced ​​deli ham (“boneless,” if your deli carries it, though any flavorless variety will do) and an almost ridiculously thick wedge of lettuce. I’ve made the sandwich countless times; it’s always flawless. And yet, that never quite quenches my desire to get another straight from the source.

A few other food leaving rituals to consider:

New Orleans
The city is full of muffulettas, but none live up to the original, from Central Grocery. I have a hypothesis (untested, perhaps unprovable) that the only thing that can improve this great wheel of meats and cheeses is the strange microclimate of an airplane. Much like how a voyage at sea transforms a plain old Madeira fortified wine, the flight deepens and merges the flavors of the muffuletta, turning a superior sandwich into a phenomenon.

San Francisco
Take your bags to Zuni Café and order the famous chicken for two, for one. Eat what you can, then ask them to pack the rest to take away – to pick on the plane, of course, but also to save all the bones and leftovers for later use in the kitchen, as a base for a broth remarkable chicken. (Credit goes to my friend Tom, a person of extraordinary culinary genius.)

If your flight from O’Hare is on a weekend and early in the day, stop by Pan Artesanal Bakery and buy absolutely whatever they still have in stock. A loaf of one of their breads, well wrapped, makes for a week of outstanding post-travel sandwiches. Maybe try one with ham? ♦