Lunch pal Neal Hagen was back in town after a business trip to Tennessee, and was talking about some of the meals he'd had there. "Fried chicken, fried catfish, fried okra - fried everything," he said.
The chat turned to the subject of meatloaf. "I don't know anybody who doesn't love meatloaf," he said. "But you never find consistent meatloaf at restaurants. Even the meatloaf at the same restaurant will vary from visit to visit, so I have to question their contents. The trick is to find a restaurant that intentionally makes the same meatloaf day after day."
I know of such a place, I told him, and they serve meatloaf every day. Well, then, he said...
That's how we found ourselves standing in line at Roxie Deli at 11:15 this morning, while the countermen assembled our sandwiches: house-smoked meatloaf on chewy ciabatta rolls with melted cheddar and provolone cheeses, horseradish, mayonnaise, tomato, onion and crisp jalepeno coins. They're built in three sizes (big, bigger and biggest) for three prices - $7.56, $9.52 and $15.06, after tax.
Here's how Roxie co-owner Chris Tannous (with wife Amy) makes the meatloaf: "I mix 80-20 ground chuck with eggs and my secret rub, then form (the loaves) in pans and put them in the smoker. It's not your mother's meatloaf."
What's in the secret spice mix? I was joking, right?
Neal and I sat in the sunshine at a small table next to the massive smoker, which burns oak and fruitwood. Wisps of fragrant smoke wafted by now and then.
We unwrapped the sandwiches, admired their artistry and began demolishing them. The melange of tastes and textures is a template for all other meatloaf sandwiches to follow.
"Gee, whiz!" Neal exclaimed. "You can smell the flavors before you even take a bite. Most meatloaves are dry, but this is moist and delicious."
Chris Tannous came outside and opened the smoker to rearrange fragrant, mahogany-dark briskets, which are smoked for 16 hours. Then he opened a top compartment and showed us the pans of meatloaf.
"I put these in at 5:30 this morning, and I'll take them out at about 5 this afternoon," he said.
Any specials coming up? "We'll smoke brisket, ribs, tri-tip and Buffalo wings for Superbowl Sunday," he said. "Get here early."
We chewed the last bites of the sandwiches and wadded up the last of the napkins.
"Sitting outside of a little grocery store, next to a smoker in a parking lot, eating a meal like this..." Neal said. "Only in America."
Neal should know - he's traveled the world. Ironically, the best meatloaf sandwich he's ever had has been right here all along.
Roxie Deli, 3340 C St., Sacramento; (916) 443-5402, www.roxiedeli.com