When I sit down and think about – REALLY think about – all of the food that I’ve eaten (all of the different types of cuisine, all of the cravings, comfort food, and the weird ruts when I was addicted to one particular thing – I’m looking at you, chicken tikka masala with garlic naan), the one enduring dish that blows my mind each time is the “Monte Cristo”. AKA: The American Croque Monsieur. Oui.
The hard-to-find Monte Cristo is a deep-fried, eggy, french toast type of sandwich with layers of turkey (and sometimes ham) and cheese with powdered sugar and a side of berry compote (if you’re lucky). The salty/sweet flavor profile is so delicious, and the deep-fried heaviness is so satisfying, that it’s a wonder this isn’t served at more restaurants. The Monte Cristo is possibly the finest brunch dish.
The first Monte Cristo that really hooked me was in San Francisco at “Mama’s” in North Beach. This version was complex: 3 slices of white bread, 2 slices of gouda cheese, turkey, dipped in egg and fried like a french toast on all sides. They have their own system at Mama’s: cutting the crusts off of each slice (making the ends easier to seal), chilling the sandwiches overnight and wrapping them tightly in saran wrap (so that the egg wash doesn’t soak into the sandwich once dipped). The finished product is amazing. I have watched the Mama’s cooks frying the Monte Cristos on the line, and I always felt happy to see them taking such care to fry each side evenly (delicately crispy on the outside, and gooey on the inside – like a mozzarella stick sandwich).
I ordered the Monte Cristo at every Mama’s Sunday brunch since. But what was I to do for the rest of the week? I was hopelessly addicted, searching high and low for another comparable Monte Cristo. Denny’s or IHOP offered a Monte Cristo, but all I remember about these underwhelming Croque Monstrosities is that there was a ramekin of syrup instead of the blackberry compote. I tried to replicate the MC at home, but it was forgettable (I didn’t really understand that this was a very nuanced sandwich, it could be a work of art or a mathematic equation – one stray brush stroke or stray decimal would cause it to fall apart). Some things should be left to the pros.
Then, I came to the happiest place on earth. There’s a restaurant in Disneyland called “Cafe Orleans”, where they offer delicacies like beignets, chicken gumbo crepes, and… 2 types of Monte Cristos! Their traditional Monte Cristo has ham, turkey, and swiss, and is a battered version: each of the four Monte Cristo segments is like a beignet, with powdered sugar. And it comes with a berry puree. Their 3-cheese version is just as good (but it is not gouda enough), with swiss, mozzarella, and brie. Phew! That’s kinda rich for the average monsieur.
Why is it called a Monte Cristo? My best guess is that its based on the famous book, Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” (the 2002 movie stars Jim “What’s the Frequency?” Caviezel). Edmond wants to get revenge on the people that framed him and had him sent to prison. So when he gets out of jail years later, he masquerades as the “Count of Monte Cristo” in order to sneakily get back at those fools that had him locked up. In the climax of the movie, Edmond tells his enemy (mockingly) that his motives for killing him are “complicated” (spoiler alert). Which I think is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the actual Monte Cristo sandwich: it’s complex, sure, but it’s not really complicated. It just requires some finesse to make all of the elements work). Then, Edmond says, “How did I plan this moment? With pleasure.” ‘Nuff said.