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Apparently, there’s a real Monte Cristo mystery vexing the greater Kanawha Valley right now.

And it’s being fueled by fans who are valiantly searching for the best local version of this batter-dipped, pan-fried and sugar-dusted ham-and-cheese sandwich dunked in jam, but who are coming up short in their search.

I’ve dodged these questions before, but jumped fully into the fray after the following plea from a local attorney. I won’t name him because, quite honestly, I’m not sure he wants folks to know the depths of his despair.

“Where are the Monte Cristos?!?!” he cried. “It is (sort of) unbelievable that I can’t find one in the Charleston area! An authentic Monte Cristo, that is. It really makes me miss Bennigan’s more and more.”

For those who don’t know, Bennigan’s is a “pub grub” chain that had a popular restaurant for years at Charleston Town Center, anchoring the corner where Panera recently closed across from The Chop House.

Their Monte Cristos were amazing, along with a towering Legendary Death By Chocolate dessert that celebrated over-the-top indulgence before it became commonplace at many an American restaurant. (Seriously, the word “legendary” is even in the name of this giant wedge of rich chocolate ice cream, almonds, mini-marshmallows, chocolate fudge sauce and Twix™ cookies on a crumbled Oreo™ crust — all covered in a chocolate shell with a small pitcher of hot fudge on the side.)

But I digress. Back to the drama at hand.

The attorney’s plea continued: “The Smokehouse stopped serving Monte Cristos, which was once a month, because of some fryer issue, but that excuse is unacceptable. Why can’t a (any) restaurant make the iconic sandwich? I would appreciate your feedback on this serious issue!”

He ended his diatribe with a smiley emoji, so I don’t think he’s actually about to march on the State Capitol over this. Turns out, however, he’s not the only one up in arms over this issue.

To help provide some answers, I turned to a few local restaurant groups and review sites on Facebook, only to discover the same question has been posed time and time again, but with no real resolution as to who has the best. For every fan who raves about one restaurant’s version, there are others who passionately disagree.

I did learn that a few local restaurants feature Monte Cristos on their regular menu, including Dream Day Café in Nitro and Vino’s Bar & Grill in Charleston.

Others serve them up as regular or semi-regular weekly specials. In Charleston, you can find one at Bar 101 some Mondays and at Nosh every Thursday. Happy Days Café in South Charleston features them on Fridays, as does The Bucket in Dunbar on Sundays.

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I saw chatter about Squared Circle Burgers in Campbells Creek having a good contender but, alas, it appears that wrestling-themed burger joint has closed.

So tell me, dear readers, who do YOU think has the best Monte Cristo in the area? I’m going to compile a list, try them all and declare a winner once and for all!

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In other local food news, this past Saturday’s Wagging Tails and Nitro Ales — Smoke on the Water Edition chili cookoff and craft beer fest raised more than $4,000 for HospiceCare, plus additional funds and awareness for the volunteer Dog Bless animal rescue group.

As for the competition aspect of the day’s events, here are the winners!

Traditional Red Chili: Diane Lentz, first; Jason Willis, second; Mike Duffy, third

Chile Verde: Tonya Simmons, first; Judith O’Mearza, second

Homestyle Chili: Larry Summey, first; Judith O’Mearza, second

People’s Choice Winner: Cooke Funeral Home

Best of Kanawha Valley Cassie Johnson Award: Nitro Fire Department

Best Booth: Sarah Skaggs

First-place winners in the Red, Verde and Homestyle categories will now move on to compete in the World Championship Chili Cookoff next year in Myrtle Beach.

Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy.” He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or Follow @wvfoodguy on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.

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