The smoked duck sandwich at Love and Haight is not actually made of duck. Similarly, the pepper steak sandwich involves no actual steak. They are meat substitutes, products where soybeans and other such things are processed to resemble meat. I’ve considered such things before, and ultimately I concluded that they say more about meat than they do about soybeans. (The short of it is that it says an awful lot about cold cuts that you can mash a bunch of soy together and get something that is more-or-less as good.) But what of the things in themselves?
If we consider the most basic question, I should say that the sandwiches are a success. They taste good. The pepper steak was tasty, and the duck was particularly choice. It had a deep, smoky flavor, and the success of the sandwiches definitively credited to how good these flavors were. The accompanying ingredients were lettuce, tomato, pickles, red onions, mayo, mustard and, in owing to the location and the style of the place, sprouts. That’s a classic deli sandwich, but if the main ingredient fails there isn’t much there for backup. In further evidence of the reliance on the fake meat, if one is going to attempt to pass off a facsimile as hey-I-guess-it’s-good-enough, one does not attempt duck. It’s not a fake-it-and-hope-nobody-notices move. That’s important to note, because it points at the whole problem with the sandwich.
I think there’s a framing issue at work here, and while both sandwiches were quite good I’m far from convinced they were everything they could be. Food isn’t just a question of taste and smell. We eat with our eyes, the atmosphere matters, the context has an impact. There’s a lot going into each meal, even if we’re hardly conscious of most of it. What I found myself wondering at Love and Haight was whether I would have enjoyed these sandwiches more had they not been pitched as fake meat. The fake duck was good enough that I was happy to be eating it, but it was a far cry from real duck. Smoked duck is juicy and tender, a product of abundantly fatty tissue. There are a lot of ways to make soybeans delicious, there are very few that will turn them into duck.
Above I asked what was the value of the things in themselves, and I’m not sure I have an answer to that question. I cannot consider them in a context apart from fake meat, they don’t exist in any other context. I don’t know what you would call it, and I don’t know whether I would have ended up there eating it if it wasn’t trying to emulate meat. Those are difficult questions, and I don’t have answers for them. It light of that, I cannot help but think I haven’t given these sandwiches the full consideration they deserve.