There are few lunches more satisfying than a great sandwich. And there are few sandwiches more satisfying than a BLT. Good bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches stand out for their simplicity. A sublime BLT requires only good bacon cooked right, quality lettuce and ripe tomatoes, preferably in season. And of course, a little mayonnaise on toasted bread.
The BLT is a supposed descendent of late Victorian tea sandwiches, and recipe variants appear in American cookbooks as early as 1920. The sandwich now become a staple of the American lunch — I myself have been eating great BLTs at home for years, blessed with a bacon-loving father who makes his own mayonnaise. So when I decided to explore the BLTs that Lexington had to offer, my standards were high.
First, I went to Stella's Kentucky Deli, a great lunch spot at 143 Jefferson Street, where fresh, local food is served at tightly packed tables on hardwood floors.
Stella's had three BLT options on my visit: A standard with local bacon, tomatoes and bread, housemade basil mayonnaise, chips and a pickle for $7.50; a fried green tomato BLT that substitutes fried green tomatoes for the red ($7.95); and a special Benedictine BLT for $8.95 that substitutes Benedictine, the cucumber-cream-cheese spread created in Louisville, for the mayonnaise. Everything else is standard.
My companion and I gave the Benedictine a try, along with the fried green tomato version.
Stella's did everything right: the bacon was good quality and cooked perfectly — crisp but not overdone; the tomatoes on the Benedictine were local and fresh — juicy and nowhere near the mealy texture you too often encounter; and the lettuce provided a welcome crunch. The cucumber spread added a refreshing, summery taste without distracting from the bacon.
Their mayo is a success as well. The basil flavor is interesting without being overpowering, and still accomplishes its goal of cohesion. The fried green tomato version was neither too heavy nor too dry; the tomatoes were delicious — perfectly tasty and acidic, and the basil mayo helped bring a little extra moisture as well. I would wholeheartedly recommend any BLT Stella's has to offer. The portion sizes are generous but manageable, and I thought priced appropriately.
My next stop was Distilled, a relatively new fine-dining establishment at Gratz Park Inn, 120 West Second Street. I had heard it offered a BLT with pimento cheese, an interesting enough twist on the classic that I had to investigate. It turns out, the pimento cheese complemented the bacon very nicely. The lettuce was fresh and crisp, the tomatoes were local and at the peak of their flavor, and the bread was wonderfully buttered and toasted.
Distilled did without the mayonnaise — a smart decision, I think, as the pimento cheese and buttered bread more than made up for it. And then of course, we have the most important component of any BLT: the menu dubs the sandwich the tesa BLT. Tesa, commonly known as Italian bacon, is similar to pancetta — not smoked, rolled or dried — just cold cured, spiced pork belly. The tesa on Distilled's sandwich is delicious and inventive; it's rich, flavorful and cooked perfectly.
With Distilled's generous portions, side of fries and inviting atmosphere, I'd say its BLT delivers an excellent bang for the buck at $10.
My third destination was far from white tablecloth but no less pleasant than Distilled. I went to Wheeler Pharmacy, 336 Romany Road, home of a charming soda fountain that doesn't look like it's changed since shortly after World War II.
Wheeler serves all the staples — grilled cheese, shakes and, of course, BLTs. This BLT comes with chips and a pickle for the remarkable price of $4.75. Wheeler's is a straightforward, no-frills BLT. You get a choice of bread (sourdough for us), and five minutes later that comes out toasted with just enough mayonnaise, bacon, lettuce and tomatoes. The kitchen is partly open, so I could see my bacon being cooked fresh to order, and very well at that. The lettuce and tomatoes were fresh, and although it was no basil mayonnaise, the condiment added some moisture and was not overwhelming. This is not an enormous sandwich, but the portion is perfectly suited for lunch, the price is unbeatable, and the flavor is good.
Last, I went to Winchell's, a restaurant and sports bar at 348 Southland Drive. The BLT, only a small part of the expansive menu, is $8.99 and comes with homemade potato chips and a pickle.
The service was friendly, the atmosphere pleasant and relaxed. The chips were great, but the BLT was not outstanding. It was good, but for $8.99 it was not a sandwich I would race back for. The biggest issue was dryness — no mayonnaise or any other spread. Our waitress did bring us a small side cup of mayonnaise — which helped — but I think the sandwich would be elevated by simply spreading mayo on the toasted bread. However, all the individual components were good — the sourdough bread was toasted, the Applewood smoked bacon was good quality, and the lettuce and tomatoes were fresh and flavorful. The portion size was generous as well, but at the end of the day I felt that if I wanted a hot brown I would go to Winchell's and would opt for one of the other restaurants for a BLT.
I ended my BLT search confident that I had great options in Lexington and, just as importantly, great options at a variety of prices, atmospheres and ingredients. So if you love bacon and appreciate its signature sandwich, go meet a friend for lunch or supper, try a variation on a classic or stick with what you know — and order a BLT.