Today’s sandwich is the “Cuban Chicken Panini” from Panera Bread. It combines “all-natural, antibiotic-free chicken, smoked, lean ham, sweet & spicy pickle chips, Swiss, chipotle mayo & sun-dried tomato ale mustard” on focaccia.
Location: 343 Gorham Road, South Portland
Notes: The first thing you need to know if you have never eaten at a Panera bread, as I hadn’t, prior to today, is that people are absolutely buggo for it. The Panera Bread company in South Portland, at noon on a Tuesday, with every single seat in the spacious dining room filled with people happily munching salads, an overflow of teenagers smoking cigarettes outside while they waited for their broccoli cheese soup to warm through, and a parking lot that was positively ass-to-elbow with cars, was doing a booming business. Some of these cars were in legitimate parking spaces, while others had been carelessly Dukes-of-Hazzard’ed sideways onto the side of the road and abandoned by their owners. We parked in the Verizon lot next door, scrambling over a snowbank to fight our way through a legion of South Portland’s lunch-breakiest finest, figuring that after all these years, everyone must know something we don’t about this sandwich shop; assuming, if you will, that the simple pleasures of a cup of soup and half a panini had been remembered by the entire working population of the Maine Mall simultaneously.
And why not? With over 1,300 locations, wildly profitable annual reports, and top ratings in Zagat naming Panera for “Best Salads,” and, puzzlingly in a restaurant with many lunches hovering in the 1,000 calorie range, “Best Healthy Option,” we decided it was worth checking into.
I’ll tell you why not: Because this is not a good sandwich. While I was pleased to be able to make out the different ingredients, and while those individual ingredients weren’t exactly bad, they didn’t combine into a pleasing whole. The whole sandwich was really startlingly sweet, and not the way you would expect from a regular Cuban sandwich’s sweet pickles. As I pulled the sandwich apart, I realized that everything on it was sweet. The ham was sweet. The “sun-dried tomato ale mustard,” with its wonderful whole mustard seeds, was sweet. The Swiss cheese was melty-sweet. The pickles may as well have been candied. And the focaccia had a really sweet, buttered quality.
A chemically-tasting pile of sugar and salt can call itself a “Cuban Sandwich” all day long. It isn’t. It’s adult baby food. It’s not healthy, Zagat, and it’s certainly not delicious. If I’m going to drop almost 1000 calories on lunch, and then spend the rest of the day inert, covered in grease-sweats, and filled with regret, I’m at least going to own that decision, and do it with the two cheeseburger Extra Value Meal at McDonald’s.