Special Dispatch: Paper Moon Diner, Baltimore
227 West 29th Street
Baltimore, MD 21211
by Joyce Carol Oats
I marked the dawn of 2012 with a Monte Cristo French toast sandwich at Paper Moon Diner in Baltimore. The new year, I’d decided, would be one in which I demonstrated unprecedented self-restraint. And it was for this reason that when the waiter asked me which breakfast meat I wanted in my Monte Cristo French toast sandwich (sausage, ham, or crispy bacon), I said loud and clear, and with maybe a tiny bit of a tone that implied he was suggesting an excessive indulgence: ‘no breakfast meat, thank you’.
This meant that my Monte Cristo French toast sandwich would consist not of two fat slices of French toast filled with havarti cheese, a fried egg and breakfast meat, dredged in maple-flavoured syrup, but only two fat slices of French toast filled with havarti cheese and a fried egg, dredged in maple-flavoured syrup. The dieter’s Monte Cristo French toast sandwich, if you will.
Paper Moon Diner raises a chicken-egg question. Which came first? Was it a diner that someone decided to decorate with decapitated doll’s heads and old Matchbox cars and Pez dispensers and a mannequin painted green and stuck all over with molded-plastic toy soldiers? Or did someone have a collection of decapitated doll’s heads and old Matchbox cars and Pez dispensers and a mannequin painted green and stuck all over with molded-plastic toy soldiers and did that someone think, ‘I need to get a diner to properly showcase this shit’? It’s a perplexing question. But something about Paper Moon Diner -- something about the way happy American families sit at tables in there blithely chewing pancakes under naked toddler dolls suspended from the ceiling with cords like ligatures -- made me feel that asking is not the done thing.
And so I turned my attention, instead, to my Monte Cristo French toast sandwich, placed before me by the friendly waiter on a thick white diner plate. It was puffy and golden, presented without any garnish but a small steel pot filled with the crucial maple-flavoured syrup, microwave-warmed to aid liquidity. (An important touch: many diner chefs apply the maple-flavoured syrup to breakfast treats in the kitchen, causing an unacceptable sogginess). Cutting in to my Monte Cristo French toast sandwich -- for this is a sandwich with the use of knife and fork intrinsic to its design -- I was pleased to note that the texture of the bread was springy and light; surprised to see that the central cheese and egg was not greasy.
The first bite of the Monte Cristo French toast sandwich revealed that it was a pleasant melange of sweet and savoury, with the perfect amount of morning-after champagne-soaking carbohydrate. The second bite of the Monte Cristo French toast sandwich filled my heart with a flood of regret: why had I deluded myself that my lofty refusal of breakfast meat made me any better than any other feckless glutton eating a fried egg-and-cheese sandwich served on deep-fried battered white bread? But third bite of my Monte Cristo French toast sandwich restored my confidence. For although it made me certain that I would never again eat a Monte Cristo French toast sandwich in a diner decorated by someone with a hoarding fetish, there was no question that my life would have been poorer if I had not tried it once.