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Standing Room Only: Red Hen Bread

"What really sets Red Hen apart is how they manage to pair each ingredient with a particular type of bread."

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[Photographs: Nick Kindelsperger]

Red Hen Bread

1623 N. Milwaukee, Chicago IL 60647 (map); 773-342-6823‎
The Short Order: Sandwiches where the freshly baked bread is the star.
Want Fries with That? No but you might need a croissant for the road.
Want Ketchup? Nope.

You know what I'm tired of? Paninis. Who signed the law that mandated that every sandwich tastes better when you smash the living hell out of it under a press and charge $10? We're afflicted in this country with what Stuff White People Like once named "expensive sandwiches."

You know, the ones from those cute little delis with worn vintage signs and hot employees who stuff their sandwiches full of goat cheese, micro greens, and roasted red peppers. Compared to the banality of a Subway, it can seem like a godsend, but that still doesn't excuse them of their sins. I mean, who cares what kind of bread you use once it has been flattened?

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Red Hen Bread in Chicago manages to avoid most of these pitfalls by focusing most of their attention on where it counts most: the bread. So while they don't have a panini press, they actually bake their own bread. In fact, a good majority of their business seems dedicated to people buying whole loaves.

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They also have a smattering of other baked goods including muffins, croissants, and little cupcakes (don't get me started on how much I hate big cupcakes). But I was in search of a sandwich when I stopped by the Wicker Park location this past weekend.

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The tiny shop is bright white and red, with just a few stools lined up against the window. The menu is long and includes everything from turkey, chicken salad, to the ubiquitous veggie sandwich. I asked an employee which ones he liked best and he settled on the roast beef and the tuna niçoise sandwich. Humorously, he claimed the main reason people order the turkey sandwich is that it's the first sandwich on the board.

What really sets Red Hen apart is how they manage to pair each ingredient with a particular type of bread. So a sandwich like the roast beef gets paired with a dark pumpernickel. The tuna niçoise is served on an olive rosemary loaf.

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Just as important are the toppings, which tend to be minimal and calculated to accent the main ingredient. The roast beef is served with slice of provolone, crisp red onion, bitter arugula, and just enough horseradish mayo to open your sinuses.

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The tuna niçoise sandwich is a clever play on the classic French salad. The tuna is spared the gloopy mayonnaise bath—instead it's tossed with a light olive oil and thyme dressing and served with lettuce, tomatoes, and artichoke hearts. It's my personal favorite.

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I guess the best praise I can give Red Hen is that their bread is actually worth tasting on its own. It's a step in the right sandwich direction.

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