Elvis Keith – Ike’s Place, Market St, San Francisco, CA

The Elvis Keith sandwich at Ike's Place in San Francisco

Ike’s Place is a sandwich shop. Plenty of establishments serve sandwiches. In finer dining they can be an afterthought, in something like a bistro they can occupy a respectable portion of the menu, and in something like a deli they can be the only option. The deli is the closest cousin to the sandwich shop, but they differ in attitude. I do not mean to malign the institution of the deli, but many of them present the sandwich as something you might as well eat. There can be a fine selection of breads and meats, but leaving the emphasis on the standard set of options and the interchangeability of ingredients seems misplaced to me. This is not the case at a sandwich shop. Where a deli might list a handful of specials, Ike’s has over 50 named, specific sandwiches on the menu. Where a deli has an obligatory veggie option, Ike’s has a full 20 vegan options and over 30 vegetarian sandwiches.

What I see in this celebration of sandwiches is the realization of a dream. I see years and years of a man making sandwich after sandwich, exploring seemingly contradictory, seeing how he can take a good flavor to great, how far he can push great before it falls apart. Sandwiches at Ike’s come with his Dirty Sauce standard; this is a man who has done the legwork in making amazing things and now wants to share them with the world. And the world is happy to share in those sandwiches: Having arrived in only 2007 Ike’s is in 3 locations currently and will soon add another 3. Their sandwiches are widely praised by both press and public.

When I see a place like Ike’s, where I detect a long road of love culminating in a realized dream, I look at the first listed special. In that sandwich one often finds the favorite child: The sandwich loved longest, made most often, the sandwich in which someone’s dream begins to take form. It was with that in mind that I ordered the Elvis Keith, and it was there that I grew unsettled.

The Elvis Keith proceeds along a fairly predictable but likely satisfying path: Chicken breast, a fine base if ever the was one, teriyaki sauce, a strong sweetness, and wasabi mayo, reigning the sweetness back in. Were it to stop there, you would have a fine balanced sandwich, albeit a simple one. But there is one more ingredient: Swiss cheese. I was wary, but trusting. I ordered the sandwich and retired to a nearby park. The sandwich was good. It could have used more wasabi, but that might just be a matter of taste. All in all it was the simple, balanced sandwich I had suspected it could be, sweet and savory. What struck me is that the cheese was completely lost, obliterated by the teriyaki, unnoticeable. So if it was totally absent in flavor, what was it doing there?

Of the over 100 sandwiches listed on the menu, only three are genuinely free of cheese, two of which are more-or-less the same sandwich. (One has meatballs, the other vegan meatballs.) The third is the Unoriginal, apparently so named because it is nothing but meat on bread. Think about that; whether these sandwiches are all the design of Ike or some process of committee or community, essentially only two are deemed appropriate without cheese. That…I can think of no word for it other than lunacy. It is lunacy. The first conclusion is that a person or persons who love sandwiches has reasonably concluded that less than 3% of the sandwiches in their life should be served without cheese. I refuse to believe that. I simply reject it outright. Ike’s shows a blatant love of sandwiches, a respect and an understanding, and I cannot accept that with that kind of obvious passion comes such a stunning ignorance as to throw cheese onto every damn sandwich they see. I am not unequivocally opposed, I have said in the past that with a skilled hand cheese has its place. But that place cannot be everywhere.

So if it is not madness, it is mandatory. I don’t know exactly when it was established that a sandwich included cheese, but it seems to be the accepted standard. But enough is enough. I am not even suggesting that the default be thrown the other way, to making every sandwich without cheese. I’m just asking that together we take each sandwich as an individual, and ask ourselves whether cheese is needed. Whether you’re making yourself a quick lunch or you own a shop with 100 sandwiches on the menu, we can all take a moment to ask that question. Ask it, and it is in a fair and honest answer that we will find our way to better sandwiches.

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11 thoughts on “Elvis Keith – Ike’s Place, Market St, San Francisco, CA

  1. Have you, by any chance, read H.L. Mencken’s essay “Hot Dogs”? It opens with a short analysis of the history of the sandwich in America. The interesting thing, in this context, is that he identifies the cheese sandwich (along with chicken and ham) as one of the original three sandwiches in America. Is it possible that part of the reason for the proliferation of cheese is historical – that is, that cheese is on sandwiches because cheese has always been on sandwiches?

    Of course, this doesn’t change anything about your call for us to really think about our sandwiches (which I think is very justified). But it is interesting as a potential explanation

  2. I’m not familiar with the essay in question but it sounds like something I should check out. Thanks for the heads up!

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  4. Thanks so much for your blog post about the Elvis Kieth at Ike’s–I really appreciate the support! 🙂 A fun fact: I ate the Elvis Kieth 90 days in a row when I first opened Ike’s in 2007.

    PS: The ‘officially hidden menu’ at Ike’s has 26/200 sandwiches without cheese.

    • 90! Mercy that’s a lot. Good to see my instinct re: it being a favored sandwich were on target. 174/200 with cheese is still a substantial portion, but I’ll have to check out this officially hidden menu.

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