Chicken Fried Steak (Libby’s Market)

Today’s sandwich is the “Chicken Fried Steak.” It combines a breaded, fried beef patty with lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese, and mayonnaise on a roll.

Notes: Located in Brunswick, Libby’s may just be the ideal small Maine corner store, come to life. A small, modular building with plenty of charm, its continued existence likely depends entirely on beer sales, the price fluctuations of the Humpty Dumpty potato chip wholesaler, and the ability to crank out reliable, inexpensive sandwiches to a loyal customer base.

Outside, customers recline in the Spring sunshine, eating sandwiches at picnic tables. Inside, behind a partition covered in press clippings, photographs with hand-written captions, and the business cards for other local businesses, the small breakfast and lunch counter sits directly in front of a single metal table for dining in. Next to the self-serve pizza station, there’s a slow-cooker with the day’s hot selection; often, macaroni and cheese, or creamy clam chowder, made with whole clams, sold by the ladle for just a few dollars. A small saltwater tank gurgles in the back of the shop, housing Libby’s lobster population, for sale by the pound to customers or occasionally plucked live from the water to make the store’s legendary fresh lobster rolls.

I considered the lobster roll (available in three different sizes…but that’s another post for another day), but ultimately wanted something a little junk-foodier. Still nursing a ham Italian hangover, I wanted something hot, fried, and mass-produced. I settled on the small “Chicken Fried Steak” sandwich, for $4.39.

Libby's MarketWhen the counterperson who made the sandwich handed it off to the cashier, she jokingly described it as the “Sandwich of the Day.” This is no exaggeration. Flipping open the white styrofoam clamshell container, I was staggered by the humble beauty of this sandwich. You know when you order a burger at a fast food restaurant, and it looks nothing like the picture, because those “photos” of fast food are really just digital renderings? This was the opposite of that. I had no idea what to expect from a chicken fried steak sandwich from a corner store, setting my expectations fairly low, and was presented with a proud specimen that achieved a vertical stature that even the best fast food restaurant can only dream of. Piled high on a soft roll, I was impressed by the freshness of the tomato, the pleasant crunch of the iceberg lettuce, and the double (double!) layer of sliced cheddar cheese. The chicken fried steak portion of the sandwich clearly arrived at the shop frozen, packed by the hundred in plastic-lined cardboard boxes, but I didn’t care. The beef layer was hot, crunchy, and salty, like a deep-fried hamburger patty covered in mayonnaise, and the soft chew of the roll was the steak’s perfect counterpart.

In retrospect, the cheddar cheese was a bit of a misstep on my part; the strong flavor dominated the other subtler aspects of the sandwich. Next time, I’ll probably go the American cheese route, and perhaps see if I can pile on some jalapeno peppers from the pizza side of the menu, to add a little heat. What’s important is that, only a few hours after finishing this sandwich, I am already planning my next order. The next time I want junk food, I won’t be driving through somewhere for squashed, anemic, room-temperature replicas of food. Instead, I’ll go to Libby’s, a neighborhood market that is cranking out inexpensive, comforting classic sandwiches. I can’t wait to try something else.

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed “Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road,” as well as the taco-centric blog “Eat More Tacos,” and the junk food-centric “Spork & Barrel.” His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, “‘Wich, Please,” was named “Hottest Restaurant in Maine” for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.

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