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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Gimme a B, Gimme an L

August 17, 1995|JONATHAN GOLD

Pickle-intensive Korean stews are perfect in winter; bosky Eastern European food is just the thing in fall. But at certain times of the year--now, more or less--it is too hot to contemplate anything other than a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich for lunch and, at that, the BLT closest to where you work. Something about August compels even noontime regulars at mariscos joints and Vietnamese noodle shops to feast on BLTs from the taco wagon with about a gallon of diet Snapple.

A BLT, a small essay in the crisp and the tart, is no easy thing to ruin, equally forgiving of industrial-grade bacon and hard, sour tomatoes, of toasted Wonder Bread and bargain-brand mayonnaise. The meat is there basically to provide a jolt of salt and the rich mayonnaise to temper the acids of the unripe fruit. A BLT is usually the safe thing to order from room service after midnight in a strange hotel. You can be sure it will do.

But in late summer, it is normal to expect a little bit more from a BLT, both because you may be eating a couple of them a week and because, as my friend Nancy is fond of saying, it is the only time of year you can really count on the "T." In August, merely not bumming you out can seem an insufficient virtue.

Last week, the first week of really-good-tomato season, I cruised around in an air-conditioned car and tried a different BLT or two pretty much every day. There are worse ways to fritter away a summer afternoon.

Nick's Cafe, the lunch counter north of Chinatown owned by a couple of homicide cops, served the kind of BLT your mother may have put in your lunch box: a few thick rashers of bacon arranged neatly with the other stuff on lightly toasted whole-wheat bread, then pressed down so you could see the outline of the fry cook's hand on the sandwich, a sandwich prepared with love but not something for which I'd forsake the superb ham 'n' cheese.

The Silver Lake diner Millie's had something like dad's version of the same sandwich, tasty but sort of roughly thrown together, on rough-textured sourdough toast. (One sign of a good BLT: The toast rubs the roof of your mouth raw.)

Sometimes a BLT should reek of gentility and restraint and mayonnaise, usually at well-refrigerated coffee shops that serve bottomless glasses of strong iced tea--regular iced tea, not passion fruit or mango mint. This is the sort of BLT my mother periodically would eat four times a week at the old Colony coffee shop in Malibu. This is the sort of BLT you'll find at the Westside coffee shop Ship's, with mayo on the side, or the Alhambra landmark Twohey's (wash it down with a fresh-lime freeze from the fountain), but most successfully at Burbank's splendid Five Horsemen, where the tomatoes are luscious and the bacon has some heft.

The BLT at the Hamburger Hamlet--too bready; no fun--has sort of an odd presentation, prepared as a triple-decker sandwich with an extra slice of white toast in the middle, cut into quarters, and skewered together on frilly toothpicks so that what ends up on the plate looks like two Dagwoodian sandwich wedges that stretch across most of the plate.

At the Crocodile Cafe, I asked for a BLT and was brought a toasted, buttered hamburger bun stuffed with shredded taco lettuce, a sink-stopper of tomato and what can only be described as a semi-fresh version of Baco-Bits. To be fair, the waitress told me after the meal that the Crocodile didn't really have a BLT on the menu, but she did charge me $6.75 for it.

The BLT at the Hard Rock Cafe, a crisp, bacon-laden version of the sandwich, is almost good enough to compensate for the probability that you'll wait 45 minutes behind Danish tourists for a chance to eat it.

*

For a great BLT, sometimes you have to pay a little more. The elements that make a hamburger truly special come together somewhat more often at inexpensive lunch counters than they do at the swank places, but growers' market tomatoes and artisanal bacon are expensive and hard to come by. The Daily Grill serves a fine BLT on its sturdy sourdough bread, although the bacon is overly lean and often cooked almost to the rubbery hardness of an import LP. On the other side of the aisle, Campanile's $12 BLT is made with dead-ripe marinated tomatoes, soft but mineral-tasting lettuce, untoasted country white bread and vividly smoky bacon left a little limp, a chefly sandwich that demonstrates the potential softness and succulence of a BLT better than any sandwich I've ever had, but at no small expense in texture.

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