Chicken Bacon Avocado — Vons, Figueroa Blvd., Los Angeles

The made-to-order supermarket deli sandwich is, of course, something we have examined many times before at On Sandwiches. Today we explore another and question two things: storage and application of avocado, and abundance of the “large” sandwich.

Many sandwich shops and supermarkets, of course, offer avocado on sandwiches, either as a staple or as an addition at a customer’s whim. In most sit-down restaurants, the avocado will be freshly sliced and place on the sandwich. In many sandwich storefronts, however, the avocados will be pre-mashed for the sake of ease of storage and application. These are not so much “avocados” as “guacamole with one ingredient.” This is what was provided for my Chicken Bacon Avocado sandwich at Vons. It is understandable, although discouraging to the sandwich purist. Time is money, after all, and if it is simpler and more expedient to simply produce a #2 scoop of mashed avocado and spread it around the bread, why wouldn’t a manager or CEO (or whomever) make that call? While the sliced avocado is preferred, this is still something to take note of, and to think about when obtaining a sandwich with avocado. (Please note that although it has been a while since I have partaken of Subway, when last I was there, the avocado was still sliced to order; a somewhat surprising fact given the photographs of their menu items and the overall reality of the franchise.)

The second point I want to address here is at what point offering a “large” sandwich becomes unnecessary. What you see above is a perfectly acceptable sandwich. Unfortunately, I ordered a “large” version of this sandwich, which — due to the nature of the focaccia bread on which it is served — resulted in the counter employee simply making two of the above sandwich and wrapping them separately. I would argue that this is not a large sandwich. This is, in fact, two of the same sandwich. Again, perhaps I am a stickler of semantics here, but these are not the same thing.

The sandwich(es) was (were) actually quite good. Nothing revolutionary, of course, but all the flavors married well and added up to a satisfying experience. And then, of course, I had to eat another sandwich.


Slow Roasted Pork — Four Cafe, Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles

In sandwiches, as concerns most others things in life, it is not often necessary to try to gimmick up a sure-fire winner. If you must have your dalliances and whimsy, either work out your quirks in the comfort of your own home, or make your entire enterprise reflect that you are not to be taken seriously with regard to the art of the sandwich.

Four Cafe is a fine establishment, serving fresh fare with plenty of vegan and vegetarian options and with an eye toward healthful menu items. They have a seasonal menu and some of their winter offerings were quite spectacular indeed. Unfortunately, it is now spring, and they are featuring a pulled pork sandwich that does grave disservice to the genre.

Pulled pork, of course, is often married with citrus (specifically orange juice), utilized in a wide range of marinades and mojo sauces, etc. What Four Cafe has done here is to take pulled pork that has reportedly been through a whole grain mustard marinade, and create a sandwich consisting of red onions, gruyere, arugula, garlic aioli — and orange slices. The result, of course, is a nightmare on rye bread. To begin with, pulled pork should not be associated with any sort of cheese — that is strike one. The gruyere, as to be expected, was completely lost in the needlessly crowded (yet still startlingly slender) sandwich. Secondly, the pulled pork was layered so thin that there was nearly a 1:1 ratio of pork to oranges. The flavors of the sandwich (such as they were) were completely overwhelmed by entire orange slices (and if we are being honest, these were almost certainly sections of clementine, but I defer to the menu’s boast of oranges). Even if the pork were not completely overshadowed by the citrus (and I do not mean that as a compliment to the citrus), Four Cafe appears to be blissfully unaware that sections of orange (or whatever) are not what you would call “conducive” to inclusion in a sandwich. In fact, the rubbery, tough, and fibrous texture of the orange is at best an antithesis to the yielding nature of pulled pork. What you are left with is a sandwich that is difficult to eat, an insult to pulled pork, and really devoid of any distinguishable flavor or trait other than “oranges.”

You called it a “Slow Roasted Pork” sandwich, Four Cafe. Don’t hand me nothing but citrus and call it a day.

Fried Catfish Po Boy – The Louisiana Territory, San Francisco Bay Area

The Louisiana Territory is another Bay Area food truck, and their Po Boy is a fairly standard offering: Fried catfish, lettuce, tomatoes, special sauce. All of that is perfectly satisfactory, the fish is moist and the sauce, bearing a strong resemblance to tartar sauce, pairs nicely. It was a tasty number, and I want to be perfectly clear about that. This was tasty. Here’s what it wasn’t: A sandwich. Let us return briefly to August of 2009, and our review of the now-closed Hank’s Eats:

The idea of what is and is not a sandwich comes down to the obvious and the intent. The obvious is the precious few simple qualifications that must be met, namely bread on the top and the bottom and some other ingredient in the middle. The intent is what makes it a sandwich and what ends up disqualifying the Porky’s Revenge. In order to be a sandwich the intent must be for the food to be eaten aligned horizontally. It is in this that we find sandwiches in harmony with our mouths and indeed our larger selves. It is in this that we find each bite encompassing the sum total of the ingredients in the sandwich, all of them represented in their proper proportions. It is in this that a sandwich becomes a sandwich.

It might not be clear from the photo, but the bread for the Louisiana Territory’s Po Boy isn’t sliced horizontally. It isn’t sliced at all. The loaf is hollowed out to a thin crust, then filled with ingredients. Now, I’m going to get a bit pedantic here, and if other people aren’t willing to join me I hold no grudge. That said: Whether this is or isn’t a sandwich is not just an academic distinction. In filling a hollowed out roll, everything is to be mixed together. You construct a salad, then stuff that salad into a casing. A sandwich, as we all know, is constructed in layers. A big part of what matters is what I mentioned above, that each bite (ideally) contains the sum total of the sandwich. A great many sandwiches do not meet this ideal, but similar to serving a sandwich with a fork in it, to stuff a roll with a salad is to surrender without even making an attempt. The torta I had recently at Casita Chilanga didn’t feature a bit of everything in every bite, but it is intention that makes that an honest failure and this a sin. The mixture at Casita results from an abundance of starring ingredients and enthusiasm. Here you’ve just got catfish and friends, all thrown together, taking your chances. You surrender all control over the arranged presentation of ingredients. If that’s the choice an establishment makes that’s their business, I simply ask that they not sully the good name of sandwiches with the lackadaisical attitude.

Short Rib Grilled Cheese — Four Cafe, Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles

It is safe to say that the making of a sandwich into a “______ grilled cheese” or “grilled cheese ________” is, in most instances in 2012, a tawdry gimmick. The “gourmet grilled cheese” sandwich has been played out to the point of near-absurdity in recent years, with many a food truck, sandwich counter, and would-be fine-dining establishment endeavoring to put on airs and reach a clientele by offering an approachable item under the pretense that their sandwich is a Michelin-star spin on the ubiquitous and universal grilled cheese. Usually, these offerings are nothing more than a grilled cheese sandwich with a bunch of “unusual” ingredients thrown in, merely for the sake of things. There is rarely thought involved beyond, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if a grilled cheese sandwich included ______.” The answer these establishments don’t want to hear, however, is that it usually isn’t.

This is all a long-winded means of introduction to a sandwich that is anything but a gimmick. The short rib grilled cheese from Four Cafe is a grilled cheese sandwich only by the default of the literal interpretation of its method of preparation. This sandwich was an endless delight, and would have been none more so had the appending “grilled cheese” been stripped from the board altogether. The pulled and braised beef short ribs were flavorful and moist, but pleasingly firm. The red onions, softened by the grilling, added a pleasing, but not overwhelming snap and brought a welcome addition to the flavor palate. The gruyere cheese was the perfect component to fasten everything together and add texture and oil to the endeavor. The focaccia bread was the perfect container and was indeed grilled to perfection. It all added up to a sandwich that was a true delight to savor.

If the sandwich had a fault — and I don’t believe it did — it would be that the ingredients of the sandwich were purported to include horseradish, although none was significantly detectable. It may have been overwhelmed by the gruyere, or it may have become a part of the short rib. Either way, its presence was not missed in the slightest.

This item is a part of the Winter Menu at Four Cafe. I will do everything in my power to sample it again in the coming weeks, for fear that it will no longer be on offer when the spring rolls around.

Malibu Chicken — Johny’s Kitchen, Cal State Los Angeles

I am a firm believer that one should never judge an establishment by one bad experience. In nearly all situations, a bad sandwich can be excused by any number of things, and the other items on offer might be superior. Unfortunately, if you keep going back to the same sub-par establishment in hopes they will impress you the next time can sometimes leave you feeling like a fool. It is a dicey proposition.

I endeavored to try out another item at Johny’s Kitchen, feeling that, since they had so many sandwiches on offer, my previous horrible breakfast sandwich experience was perhaps an anomaly. I selected (as is my custom) the most intriguing menu item. In this case, the Malibu Chicken. Advertised as “breaded chicken,” ham, and Swiss cheese on my choice of bread, I placed my order and was not asked a bread preference. Thus, I received a deep-fried frozen chicken patty, a slice of ham thrown upon a grill while the patty fried, tomato, lettuce, and mayonnaise on a sesame seed bun.

I have been having bad luck with bland sandwiches as of late, so we can add another one to that list. The patty was flavorless, there was too much lettuce, and the cheese, mayo and one thin slice of ham were indistinguishable from one another and hardly detectable. Malibu chicken, not in its sandwich form, is a spin on chicken cordon bleu; a means of making a gourmet dish approachable. In that respect, this sandwich is appropriately named. This is a low-class sandwich for a palate so undiscerning as to become negligible.

Hamburger & Egg Sandwich — Pete’s Blue Chip, Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles

Pete’s Blue Chip on Colorado Boulevard in Eagle Rock is a curious establishment. Situated awkwardly, seemingly run-down and with a bizarre menu, it took me an exceedingly long time to figure out which sandwich to order. I decided at last upon the hamburger and egg sandwich, and after having consumed it, I am no less puzzled.

The hamburger and egg sandwich — and it is a sandwich, as it comes on your choice of bread, with “bun” not being an option; that is a separate section of the menu — is a strange creation indeed, at least the one that was constructed for me that day.

The sandwich consisted of a thin hamburger patty, an enormous quantity of scrambled eggs, iceberg lettuce, a dollop of mayonnaise and a truly gargantuan slice of tomato on an English muffin. In the eating, it was exceedingly and perhaps a bit unsurprisingly bland. Not nearly so bland as my egg-and-little-else sandwich from some time ago, but quite bland, indeed.

The strange thing about this sandwich is that so much could have gone right were any of the ingredients swapped out for another. Were the hamburger patty instead a sausage patty; were the lettuce or tomato instead red onion; were the mayonnaise instead Dijon or stone-ground mustard; were the eggs fried rather than scrambled…any of these would have represented an exponential upgrade in both flavor and quality. The concept had unlimited potential. With just one small tweak, this sandwich could have come close to living up to that potential.

Tennessee BBQ Pork — River Belle Terrace, Disneyland

The River Belle Terrace is located on the border of Frontierland and New Orleans Square in Disneyland and features a few different sandwiches on offer. The Tennessee BBQ Pork is pulled pork in a thick BBQ sauce served on a soft white roll. It comes with a plastic cup of beans and your choice of cold salad.

The pork is tasty enough, with the sauce being about as appetizing as your average inoffensive BBQ sauce. The bread is spongy and unexceptional but holds the contents adequately. It isn’t a chore to eat, isn’t stale and can definitely hit the spot. Anywhere else in the world, this would be a mediocre, unexceptional or even disappointing sandwich. As far as Disneyland sandwiches go (and I have had my fair share), it is above-average. It does not approach the Monte Cristo at the Blue Bayou or the small offerings available during the food and wine festival at Disney’s California Adventure, but if you are at the park and in need of a bite, it will more than suffice.

Guest Post: Jon Bois on a Bacon with Homemade Mustard Sandwich

From time to time esteemed members of the larger community of sandwich enthusiasts have a tale or idea too good to be kept to themselves or only shared privately. In these instances, On Sandwiches is happy to feature these contributions. In this case, Jon Bois says some things that need saying.

Do you like bacon? Don’t bother answering. I have suffered your memes, your retweets upon retweets sharing with the world that you are on #teambacon, your “bacon = FLAWLESS VICTORY” image macros. Stop for a moment and consider that you are not on a culinary journey, but rather are rolling through the same closed circuit.

Perhaps it does not interest you to create; perhaps you would simply do. Ultimately I must respect, and even celebrate, your “journey,” because your life is yours to live. Myself, I set upon a quest: to relegate bacon to a supporting role in favor of, of all things, a condiment.

That quest ought to sound odd to you, because it reflects an odd interest of mine: I am fascinated when a purportedly tertiary element steps into another role entirely. I like to watch pitchers bat. I enjoy reading about merry-go-rounds in Ghanaian playgrounds that generate electricity for their villages. I am amused to consider that of all the knives and saws and things that rest within this age-old pocket knife of mine, the utility of its scissors has outlasted them all.

I constructed a mustard sandwich that was decent enough to drag along some bacon with it.

Mustard is the greatest of condiments, and it’s also among the simplest to make. I did so with some brown and yellow mustard seeds, white wine vinegar, and salt, then scooped a liberal amount over some sauteed mushroom and poblano pepper. It was strong, which I prefer mustard to be, but not overwhelming. I was so pleased by how it played with the vegetables that I would have been perfectly satisfied to slam the door with the top slice of marbled rye and forget the bacon altogether.

No … no. It was time to humble bacon, to re-assign it under the command of a condiment. And so it did, with two crispy strips tangled through the mustard and vegetables. Indeed, the mustard starred, and the bacon, though its presence was welcome, provided no more than secondary saltiness and fattiness.

The sandwich wasn’t quite “great.” It was simply “good.” But I succeeded in taking this salty, shriveled mediocre-meme generator and reducing it to the least important component. You are on your thousandth lap under the bright lights; I am in the wilderness. Daybreak approaches. Will you notice?

The Month of Bánh Mì – Reflections & Recommendations

And so On Sandwiches’ Month of Bánh Mì concludes, having featured 23 sandwiches across four cities. The highlights, largely focusing on philosophy:

Putting philosophy aside to focus on quality, I’d say the best bánh mì in San Jose is at Thien Huong. The best bánh mì in San Francisco is at Saigon Sandwich, unless you’re already familiar with the sandwich. In that case head to Bun Mee. In New York City, until someone proves otherwise, I’m saying Bánh Mì Saigon is the best. I put less stock in that recommendation than I used to, but I’m not willing to jettison it quite yet.

I hope that as readers you were entertained, but perhaps more importantly I hope that I have done justice to the sandwich. I believe that the bánh mì is a genuinely special sandwich amongst the innumerable sandwiches that exist or that any of us may dream up. It seems more delicate somehow, the balance more precarious. It’s never piled high, so rarely ostentatious, a simple but flexible archetype that allows considerable variation in kind, quality, and construction. So much of culinary history in America involves foreign foods, flavors and ideas slowly moving into the country at larger, shifting as they do, gradually ascending to whatever perch they deserve. The bánh mì isn’t there yet, but anyone who takes a good long look can see that’s where it’s headed. It’s too good not to, and all of us are lucky to be here, today, enjoying these sandwiches even before their nascent glory. They aren’t a secret, not even close, but they’re miles away from popular. It’s less than rational and a little elitist to say so, but I think that gives them a little something special. Next time you sit down to enjoy a bánh mì, count your blessings that you live where they’re available. Smile at your fortune, and savor everything that sandwich can possibly offer. I know that’s what I’ll be doing.

Vegetarian Bánh Mì – Hamilton’s Tavern, San Diego & Tofoo Com Chay, San Jose

The veggie grilled pork sandwich at Tofoo Com Chay in San Jose

I first ate this sandwich over two years ago, fairly soon after I decided to start a sandwich blog. It’s a fairly standard vegetarian bánh mì: fake pork, cucumber, carrot and plenty of cilantro on a crusty baguette. It’s a good sandwich, but I ate it very soon after one of my experiences with the best sandwich in the world, so I had a fresh memory of a really great (pork containing) bánh mì to compare to. I wasn’t quite sure what to think. Was it fair to compare the two sandwiches? What were their relative strengths? Was I even capable of objectively considering it in its own right? That was in December of 2008, and I’ve been ruminating on the answers to those questions ever since.

This is the “Banh From the Pubs,” from Hamilton’s Tavern in San Deigo.  Cucumbers, carrot and daikon slaw join red onion, basil, cilantro and a house made hotsauce. In contrast to most bánh mìs, the bread here was sliced all the way through and the ingredients piled high. Bánh mìs are a lot of things, but “stuffed” generally isn’t one of them. I ate this over ten months ago, and my thoughts on the original sandwich joined with thoughts from this one and began to crystallize. Finally, I know what I want to say.

I feel as if I am on shaky ground, making this declaration and making something I love so much off limits to so many people. But I’ve thought about this a lot and I feel like this is the right thing to say. I was a vegetarian for seven years. I have nothing but respect for people who make what is a legitimate ethical concern their foremost concern in what they eat. But if we sit down and plot where their world intersects with mine we cannot just place things wherever we like. We must place them where they belong.

Imagine listening to La Traviata, only one of the channels in your stereo has gone out. You are still hearing beautiful, wonderful music but it is incomplete, doomed. At the height of Act II each cry from Violetta would go unanswered, she would plead with no one, finally agreeing to sacrifice her greatest love, giving in to non-existent demands, an empty hissing sound. That isn’t art, it’s tragedy. Someone asked me about the sandwich from Tofoo Com Chay. “If I’d never had a regular bánh mì,” I said, “I’d think this was a really good sandwich.” But I have had one, and I cannot help but think that one without meat is irredeemably flawed.

It might seem silly, at first, to suggest that people who do not want to eat meat are missing out because they aren’t eating meat. But knowing this sandwich both with and without meat I cannot help but define those without by what they lack. Consider a person who drives a convertible, and more than that refuses to leave the house when it rains. The only decent thing to do is to respect their choice, but I have no obligation to think it complete. Moreover, I wouldn’t suggest they approximate the experience of sharing a kiss in the rain by necking under the shower head. The meat, the pâté, it’s all missing here, and it’s a striking absence. People who don’t eat meat make a choice, one I respect and understand. That choice includes giving certain things up, and I suggest that bánh mìs should be among them.

The two sandwiches make my point in different ways. The sandwich from Tofoo Com Chay presents a fake meat in place of pork, meaning it is aping the particular style of bánh mì that I love so much. This is directly what I am addressing above. The sandwich at Hamilton’s, meanwhile, forgoes any mimicry and just rachets up the heat. Making a sandwich more spicy can improve it, but it can’t save it. If this is what your sandwich needs to be interesting, good, or  seem worth what you charge for it, I suggest you have gone wrong at some early step and ought to revisit the whole thing. So two bánh mìs attempt to solve the problem of being incomplete in different ways, and both come up short. Their problem, I feel, is that they have taken on a challenge that cannot be met.

In attempting to critique my own point, I considered the “So what?” angle. If people like these sandwiches, shouldn’t that be enough? There’s merit to that argument, and if we were talking about any other kind of sandwich I might agree. But there’s a lot of hype surrounding bánh mìs, hype that I help sustain. Not too long ago an associate told me he was off to try one for the first time. I practically held my breath until he delivered his report. I knew what heights the sandwich could deliver but was terrified that a stroke of bad luck might forever sour him on the sandwich I love. Thankfully that story ends happily, but when I consider these sandwiches I cannot help but be concerned. The casual sandwich eater rarely seeks out different versions of the same archetype; They know what they like and when something new falls short they go back to what they know. Imagine some budding sandwich enthusiast takes only a quick glance at the menu, not noticing that there’s no meat involved. They receive this sandwich and think “That’s it?” The idea makes me shudder.

I feel like a bit of a heel, saying what I’ve said here, and I ask that my non-meat-eating friends forgive me. I love sandwiches, and I love the bánh mì above all others. It deserves honest consideration, even when the conclusions I reach cast me as something of a jerk.