Bread and Butter
Sampling Two Eras of Sandwich in Parkville
This is a tale not of two cities, but of two sandwich shops -- one old, one new. When it's too hot to eat something heavy and all you want is a light repast, either of these two establishments could be just the ticket. Your mood, more than your appetite, will dictate the choice.
Inside the lounge at Johnny Dee's (1706 Joan Ave.,  665-7000), a Parkville institution for the past 40 years, it appears little has changed since the place opened. (I haven't seen this much Danish modern since my mother's living room.) The chairs are placed for conversation and slouching and, well, lounging, with low coffee tables between them.
Lounges make me think of lounge lizards, but I don't see any here. Most of the guys are way beyond their lizard days. One is trying to corral his grandchildren. Also, no one is really eating at the coffee tables. Maybe the surroundings are too reminiscent of a living room, and most of these patrons -- like me -- had a mother who surely wouldn't let them eat in the living room or put a drink on the coffee table without putting a coaster underneath it first. A small back room is mirrored to seem bigger than it is; at first I think it's the nonsmoking area, but people are smoking in both rooms, it seems. The mood is laid-back; I have a hunch no one gets too confrontational here.
It's a Friday, and the server is harried, but she finally delivers a cold Killian's ($2.55) and a strong, brewed iced tea ($1.25). I request one of the day's specials, the soft-shell-crab sandwich with fries ($8.15). C.C. opts for the signature dish at Johnny Dee's: a shrimp-salad sandwich with onion rings ($8.30). The crab is a big one (especially in this dry season), lightly battered and fried. Great flavor. The fries, thick and long, with skin on, are fab. Ditto C.C.'s heaping helping of onion rings. As for the shrimp salad, it's the best I've had this summer -- big chunks, perfectly steamed, with just a bit of celery, minimal mayo, and a judicious touch of Old Bay.
On the other side of Loch Raven Boulevard, discover Panera (1238 Putty Hill Ave.,  821-9111), a café, bakery, and coffee house in one. This franchise is pure '90s, with orange-sherbet-colored walls, hanging paper lanterns, and a wait staff barely beyond bar-mitzvah age.
I discovered the bakery first, but don't get me started. Three words, friends: asiago cheese bread. Panera has specialty breads too, such as olive sourdough, pesto, cinnamon raisin, and sun-dried tomato, all available on a rotating basis.
On this Wednesday night, my buddy Karen selects creamy country asparagus soup while I try the low-fat vegetarian gumbo. We both opt for Panera's You Pick Two deal ($5.45); with her bowl of asparagus soup (thick, fresh, perhaps a tad salty), Karen chooses a half-portion of Caesar salad. (Just four words, friends: asiago-cheese-bread croutons.) With my gumbo (dark, rich, peppery), I order half of a salad called the Fandango: fabulous field greens tossed with tons of walnuts, chunks of subtle Gorgonzola, mandarin-orange slices, and a sweet, fat-free raspberry dressing.
We have to try a sandwich too (we're working, after all), so we split a Bacon Turkey Bravo ($5.45), which combines thinly sliced deli turkey with crisp bacon, smoked Gouda, lettuce, and tomato on pillowy tomato-basil bread. The dressing is a species of honey mustard. The Bravo comes with a pickle spear and a small bag of potato chips.
On a second visit, the French onion soup ($2.85) disappoints. Overly salty, it arrives with two slices of provolone on top that melt to a gloppy mess. This soup is worthy of the wrath of the French Anti-Defamation League.
We fare a bit better with the sandwiches. The chicken salad ($4.75) is a white-meat delight, but the tuna ($4.65) is mayo-heavy. The Italian combo ($5.95) is light on both meat and cheese, but its huge roll is filling.
Learn from my example -- finish with Caffe Latte (tall, $2.10). I mistakenly order a Caffe Borgia (tall, $2.35). Now I know what was in those rings the Borgias always wore, the ones they flipped open and from which they dumped poison into an enemy's drink. The menu's description sounds good: "Espresso with steamed milk and chocolate, prepared with a hint of orange and topped with whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles." I know, I know: Those chocolate sprinkles should have clued me in. But I am in a Renaissance mood. And the sprinkles are the least of the problems anyway -- the orange flavoring overpowers the coffee completely. It is so sweet that if I have a mirror I could watch my teeth rot.
Before you leave, be smart and spend a buck for a big cookie or a biscotti. And buy a loaf of bread or two to go as well. Bet you can't resist tasting them on the ride home.
Johnny Dee's: Open 11:30 A.M.-11 P.M. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 A.M.-midnight Friday and Saturday, noon-10 P.M. Sunday. Panera: Open 6 A.M.-9 P.M. Monday through Saturday, 7 A.M.-8 P.M. Sunday.