It may be the most popular sandwich of the Western world. #1 in the USA, #1 in the U.K., and in France some even claim it accounts for 70% of sandwiches eaten in the country.
While many cultures have their own takes on a ham sandwich, Charlottesville’s peak form is the Spanish rendition at Mas Tapas. Chef Mike Ketola has been doing it the same way for nearly two decades, starting with a crusty roll, baked fresh every day in-house. Atop that Ketola slathers Mas’ famous garlic alioli, made by a slow, patient process. And, then there’s just ham and cheese. As with everything at Mas, though, sourcing is key. The jamon Serrano and queso Manchego are world class. As is the sandwich.
When the James Beard Foundation cancelled its annual awards this year, it explained:
The choice comes as restaurants continue to suffer the grave negative effects of COVID-19, and as substantial and sustained upheaval in the community has created an environment in which the Foundation believes the assignment of Awards will do little to further the industry in its current uphill battle. The Awards’ usual positive impact on restaurants and chefs’ businesses will likely not be fully realized due to the current state of the industry, with many restaurants closed permanently or temporarily or operating at minimal capacity.
So, why does this site continue to celebrate restaurants, even as they struggle to survive?
More to the point, restaurants’ heroic efforts in 2020 warrant celebration. Even while on the brink of survival, restaurants brought moments of light into dark lives of seclusion. When a pandemic blocked the usual outlets for restaurateurs’ passion to spread happiness, they just built other outlets. As they did so, gifts from the Culture of Takeout came in phases.
First, there was the comfort of familiarity. When a pandemic uprooted our lives, continued access to old favorites assured us that not everything had changed. For all the havoc COVID-19 wrought, it would not take away our go-to Bodo’s order.
Next came the excitement of new things, like the chance to enjoy meals at home from restaurants that never offered takeout before, and even new dishes created just for the Culture of Takeout. The dreams of Ivy Inn regulars came true when the Greek-American family behind it finally began selling Greek food unlike any Charlottesville has seen.
The man behind it is Michael Ketola. Even before Ketola transitioned from MAS’s sous chef to head chef three years ago, the dish bore his stamp. Ketola is so tied to it that his bio once read simply: “I cook shrimp good.” Over his fourteen years at MAS, Ketola has cooked upwards of 300,000 shrimp.
Like many great dishes, the gambas are a marvel of simplicity. Ketola credits MAS founder Tomas Rahal with its origin, and says it captures well the Spanish approach to food on which Rahal built the restaurant: source great products, and treat them with care.
Every detail matters, beginning with the best shrimp they can find: wild-caught Gulf shrimp from the same source as long as Ketola can remember. From there, there is no brine. No marinade. Not even any seasoning. All Ketola does is split the back of the shrimp to remove the entrails, and they are ready to cook.
The shrimp sear on MAS’s 375 degree Fahrenheit parilla for about a minute per side, in nothing more than a drizzle of garlic infused olive oil. That’s it.
How can such a simple preparation stir such strong reactions? Ketola cites two keys. One is cooking the shrimp in their shells, a Catalan technique which helps them develop and retain flavor. The other is the shrimps’ unusual size. Typically, the largest shrimp at a grocery or seafood market can be about 16-20 shrimp per pound. At MAS, they are 10-15 shrimp per pound. That size, Ketola says, helps them stay plump as they cook, without drying out.
“No Short Cuts”
If the shrimp are a model of MAS’s simplicity, the alioli with which they are served manifests another MAS guiding principle. Patience. “One of the foundations of everything we prepare at MAS is taking the time to do it the right way,” said Ketola. “No short cuts.” For the alioli, MAS has long followed the same slow, laborious process, combining in a stand-mixer olive oil, egg yolks, garlic, lime juice, sea salt, and black pepper. The use of a stand-mixer rather than a blender may be what most distinguishes MAS’s alioli from other house-made versions. While the high speeds of blenders and food processors can make alioli more quickly, they also create friction and heat, which can begin to cook the egg yolks and alter the alioli’s texture. Whereas a blender can make alioli in seconds, MAS’s alioli requires a full twenty minutes in the hand mixer, or more.
The process begins with egg yolks from Forrest Green Farm’s organic free-range chickens. “Egg yolks are key to a nice alioli,” said Ketola, who lights up when describing Forrest Green Farm’s. “They are the brightest orange and yellow yolks I have ever seen.”
In the bowl of a hand mixer, the egg yolks stir slowly with lime juice and pressed garlic. Next, Ketola gradually adds olive oil, just a little at a time. MAS uses a rich, full bodied blend of picual and arbequina varieties from Los Aljibes Estate, in Albacete. The intensity and bitterness of the picual balance with the freshness and sweetness of the arbequina.
About half-way through the stirring, after the initial emulsification has taken hold, Ketola adds salt and pepper. Finally, he adds small splashes of water as needed for a smooth and creamy result.
One Saturday in May, the refrigerator bore the surplus of the prior night’s takeout MAS feast. As was common in 2020, lunch became an exercise in assembling products of the Culture of Takeout. Shrimp? Alioli? Shrimp salad of course.
To serve, it needed nothing more than Gerry Newman’s butter rolls from Albemarle Baking Company, one of Charlottesville’s best vehicles for delivering deliciousness. Like Newman himself, the rolls have no desire for the spotlight, with a pillowy texture and delicate flavor that allow a sandwich’s filling to shine uninterrupted.
2020 tested Charlottesville restaurants like nothing ever has. In response to a harrowing pandemic, the passion and resilience of our restaurants yielded not just bright spots in dark lives but also new experiences that never existed before. None was more delicious than that shrimp sandwich in May.
Today’s Five Finds on Friday come from Robin Fetter, author of The Real Vegan Housewife, whose Instagram and Facebook pages cover all things Charlottesville and vegan. The Instagram page is planning a giveaway if it reaches 1,000 followers this month. You can follow along here to enter. Fetter’s all-vegan picks:
1) Veggie Iron at Iron Paffles & Coffee. “You can catch me eating here at least once a week. If I am not trying out their weekly vegan specials at lunch, I am usually ordering the Veggie Iron for breakfast because when it’s served with their equally amazing Cafe Americano, it really sets my morning off right.”
2) Pineapple Jerk Cauliflower Wings at Champion Grill. “This place has won me over in the short amount of time it has been open, and these wings have the perfect sweet and spicy balance that goes well with their incredible beers. I personally suggest pairing this with their True Love Mexican Style Lager.”
3) Vegan Wonton Nachos at Firefly. “This place has become quite the vegan staple over the years, and they are always adding something new on their menu for the plant based patrons, but these nachos will always call my name. Besides, who can say no to a plate of fully loaded fried wontons?”
4) Tofu Bibimbap (without egg) at Doma Korean Kitchen. “I promise you that you will not miss the egg. This dish is so full of flavor, and still has a lot of the elements of a traditional bibimbap.”
5) Tomates Asados (Smoked Roma Tomatoes) at MAS Tapas. “MAS Tapas is surprisingly more vegan friendly than one might think, and this dish in particular may not sound like much when you see it on the menu but I gotta warn you, it’s addictive. I could seriously eat these tomatoes by the bucketful, but if you order these with their hummus which also comes with their amazing house made cold fermented bread, guaranteed – you’ll thank me later.”