I've never liked ham. Perhaps it's because of the mass of bone lurking near the center or how the meat is the rosy hue of Pepto-Bismol even when fully cooked. All pink meat is pretty much the same to me, so when I learned about the croque-monsieur in grade school French, I imagined it was something like the grotesque fried bologna sandwiches a classmate sometimes brought for lunch.
But it turns out that the French might not be crazy about ham either. Sure "jambon" makes the ingredient list of their quintessential sandwich, the accidental creation of 19th-century workers who left their ham-and-cheese lunches by a radiator. But where a New York deli would pile inch-thick chunks, the French cut theirs chip-thin and only stack a slice or two. It's as if ham is merely the wingman for three things that Parisians really do love: bread, cheese and the velvety heaven that is Béchamel sauce. I've been visiting Paris intermittently since I was a teen, but it wasn't until this summer that I realized how fantastic "crunch-misters" are. So with the help of Google and my trusty Métro map, I scoured the city making up for lost time. Here are the best I tried.
5. Gérard Mulot
76, Rue de Seine
RER B at Luxembourg Gardens
A Frenchman referred me to this airy dessert shop for the "tarte aux pêches," a stunning masterpiece of quartered peaches dripping with glaze and cradled in a croissant-like crust. But as I perused the glass display cases, I quickly noticed a gourmet version of my new obsession: It was close-faced, crustless, and festooned with green vegetables. Yes, a generous serving of zucchini was layered like lasagna noodles between globs of cheese, and it brightened the taste of the sandwich considerably. My one complaint: The croques are premade, and even though a polite mustachioed gentleman happily offered to warm mine up, the flaxen layers of toast never achieved the hearty crunch I'd grown to expect.
4. Caffe Cambronne
5, Place Cambronne
Ligne 6 at Cambronne
€ 6 - 7.50
The area that houses this nondescript bar in the 15th arrondissement is more like Queens than Cannes: People wore ill-fitting sweatpants instead of trousers, and the graffiti-laden subway bridge over the town square looked as though it might collapse. But the normalcy was refreshing, and Caffe Cambronne's four types of croques were serious business. When the teenager across from me wasn't licking her boyfriend's ear, she tucked into the "croque aux trois fromages": sourdough layered with Emmental, Gruyère, and an unmistakable disk of melted goat cheese. I chose the "croque au poulet," with spiced chicken, cherry tomatoes, and diced parsley broiled on a slice of thick bread. It was like eating an urbane chicken cheesesteak, and though it wasn't necessarily authentic, it made me feel right at home.
3. Le Nemrod
51, rue du Cherche-Midi
Ligne 4 at St Placide
An expat friend lives near this funky brasserie, in a neighborhood that felt like the upper west side of Manhattan (think nannies with strollers and ubiquitous sports jackets). Despite a huge flat-screen playing the Tour de France and the English disco humming from overhead speakers, I saw several heads turn in my direction when my show-stopping croque arrived. Of course, this was probably because the plate was hissing like an animal; messy cheese ballooned and popped at me as traces of oil glittered like pin-sized candles. The toast crunched audibly at the touch of my fork, and I quickly noticed that in addition to the Gruyère, there was a bonus layer of silky Emmental cheese. The only thing missing from this crunchy-gooey euphoria was sauce; I couldn't really taste the Béchamel, and I found myself dipping the occasional bite into the dressing from my green salad.
2. Partie de Campagne
36, Cour St-Emilion
Ligne 14 at Cour St-Emilion
This peaceful café is nestled in Bercy Village, the 19th-century wine trading mecca-turned-haute shopping strip that is one of Paris's best kept secrets. Hammock-like turquoise tarps stretched over white brick shops teaming with shopping bags and chatty Parisians. Named for the 1940s romantic drama, Partie de Campagne is the type of quirky place that puts the bathroom hand soap in a ceramic tea kettle and only lists its croque-monsieur on the kids menu. But an indulgent waitress let me order it, and what arrived was lovely: The bread was smoky from the light char on its corners, and the sauce was slightly tart, as though it had been spiked with a sexier version of Grey Poupon. My friend and I spent almost two hours at our tiny round table, hypnotized by a world where time moved more slowly, and colors and tastes were more vibrant.
1. Café des Phares
7, Place de la Bastille
Lignes 1, 5, or 8 at Bastille
I have to admit that this "café-philo" had a clear advantage from the beginning. For starters, it's in the Bastille neighborhood, a former prison site that now evokes the bustling glory of the New Orleans French Quarter. It overlooks the sweeping July Column, hosts heated debates about metaphysics each Sunday, and boasts James Dean look-alike waiters who've made me rethink my position on men and skinny jeans. But all of that paled in comparison to my lunch: Robust country bread; light, sweet ham; and sauce with the faintest hint of gorgonzola -- all coated with a perfect shell of tanned Gruyère. As if lending itself to Shakespearean drama, it had been cut into three pieces and arranged around the perfect portions of green salad and hot, crispy duck fat fries. Ah, l'amour! I chewed to the rhythm of the congas accompanying a troupe of shirtless Brazilians shadow-boxing in the street and smiled. Inhaling the smell of freshly bubbled cheese, I knew my search was done: Four-thousand miles from home in the City of Love, I'd finally found The One.
Then again, I'm neither a food critic nor a Paris expert. Where is your favorite croque-monsieur?
Follow Beth Perry on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BethCPerry