True Burger, Los Angeles, CA

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I’ve taken issue with hamburgers before, because I believe the form encourages excess which only in very rare instances actually excells. But I still go in for one from time to time, largely because the ideal of a hamburger is strong, and when someone makes one with that ideal in mind the result is often really quite good. Take the above burger: white cheddar, roasted tomato, fried onions, spring mix, bacon jam, ketchup and ginger mustard. As a lineup, that’s just a basic bacon cheeseburger. But each ingredient has been carefully considered and slightly upgraded: the onions extra crunchy, the tomato a bit sweeter for the roasting, the bacon relatively unobtrusive in jam form. There’s one apparent misstep and one actual one, and both are worth discussing. The bun looks large and likely to send half the burger out of the side, but it was soft and juice-absorbing and the whole thing held together without any issue. The spring mix looks sparse, and it was. I generally do not care for lettuce as an afterthought; if you think it’s worth having on the burger then put it on the burger. Burgers are generally quite rich, and can easily support an echo of richness in a respectable amount of lettuce. Regardless of the error with the spring mix this was a very, very good burger and a fine example of the form’s higher end.

Southern Fry – Plan Check Bar + Kitchen, Sawtelle Blvd, Los Angeles

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The menu at Plan Check isn’t very crowded, but everything on it seems to have the benefit of a lot of thought. There’s nothing simple, and the southern fry is no exception. It’s nost just fried chicken, it’s jidori chicken, a particular type of breed known for strong flavor. Bacon would be a popular addition but it’s also a lazy choice, and it’s not the one made here. That’s duck breast ham you see pictured, and spicy green pimento cheese and pickles round things out. I’m generally skeptical of the upscaled sandwich—after all, there’s nothing wrong with a simple fried chicken sandwich—but there’s a clear vision at work here and I respect anyone who thinks that they can make something humble into something genuinely special. It’s a successful effort here, resulting in a delicious sandwich. Exquisitely crunchy fried chicken with a strong, meaty flavor, plenty of heat, and a salty sourness from the pickles and the ham. It’s not Top 10 good, but it is well, well above average, and that’s always something worth celebrating.

OMG Lamb Sandwich — Community, Hillhurst Ave, Los Feliz

omglambCommunity is a restaurant in Los Feliz with no small reputation, and the OMG Lamb sandwich is another example of my faith in the top of the menu. It’s not an infallible rule, but generally speaking, whatever’s listed at Number 1 is likely to be a pretty good bet. I find it to be the item most labored over, the one that started someone dreaming. I don’t know if that’s the case with Community and to be honest…I hope it wasn’t. the OMG Lamb sandwich is good, quite good, but it doesn’t feel revelatory. In short, it isn’t OMG. Well marinated lamb joins cucumber-tomato salad, dressed greens and jalapeno yogurt, on ciabatta, slices so thin as to be flatbread. The lamb is juicy and well prepared but the dominant note of the sandwich is pepper, present with the lamb and echoed in the yogurt and overall there wasn’t much past that note. I’m being picky, because as I said this was quite good. But I’ve been at this long enough that I have to be picky and besides, I’m not the one making divine promises.

Bánh Mì Saigon — Grand St, New york, NY

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“If my own voice falters, tell them hubris was my way of adoring you.” – Lucie Brock-Borido, “Freedom of Speech”

Earlier this week I told someone that Bánh Mì Saigon probably wasn’t worth a trip. I gave this very serious consideration before I said it, but in the end I knew it was the right thing to say. Bánh Mì Saigon used to have the best sandwich in America, but that probably isn’t true anymore.

Probably. I want to revisit what I first said about Bánh Mì Saigon, what occurred to me when I realized sandwiches were something worth writing about:

 I have not eaten every sandwich in America, and I do not aspire to. The conclusion that this sandwich is the best was not reached by poll, not by formula, not by proclamation. It simply is. The #1 from Bánh Mì Saigon is not an appeal to reason, it is an argument for sandwiches as a religion.

I first ate that sandwich more than seven years ago, and in the intervening years I’ve eaten at more than 400 different establishments. Of those, only a single one even made me so much as consider that Bánh Mì Saigon might not have the best sandwich in America. In the end, it wasn’t a challenger that unseated Bánh Mì Saigon, but the simple failure of a lazy monarch.

I knew things were in trouble when Bánh Mì Saigon started making the Number 1 ahead of time, leaving them to grow stale and dry on the counter. I tried to hold on, learning that if you got there early enough you could find a fresh Number 1, and if you could manage that it was still the sandwich I knew it to be. That might still be true, but ultimately that is more condemnation than rescue. If it’s good at 10 in the morning and lousy at two in the afternoon, that just means someone isn’t trying. And as I have stressed on this blog, repeatedly and at some length, there is no greater sin against sandwiches than lack of effort.

saigon-steakThat is the Number 7 from Bánh Mì Saigon, bánh mì bò xào, which is to say steak. It’s very good; a bright lemongrass flavor to the beef is a particular highlight. But it’s not as good as the Number 1 used to be.

The person who asked me if Bánh Mì Saigon was worth the trip happens to live in a city where they have regular access to a quality bánh mì, and that influenced what I told them. Bánh Mì Saigon’s rating on Yelp is still a respectable four stars, and the last time I was there the people I spoke to had nothing but praise to offer. Crucially, though, those people had also never been to Bánh Mì Saigon seven years ago, or even five.

“It simply is.” That certainty stood up to more than 400 sandwiches, and it was thrown away in the name of expediency. I could offer all manner of qualifiers; get their early, order something other than the Number 1, how good it is depends on your frame of reference, on and on I could go. But I dislike these sorts of calculations, and they have no place in the the question of best. Bánh Mì Saigon isn’t that good anymore. They no longer have the best sandwich in America. I don’t know who does.

Hudson’s Deluxe French Onion — Clementine, Ensley Ave, Los Angeles

clementine-frenchonionA great many sandwiches start as other meals, but very few of them start as soup. It takes a special sort of thinker to turn soup into something hand-held, and it takes an especially talented sort to do it well. Thankfully, Clementine possesses just that sort of person. Gruyere and caramelized onions join braised beef brisket on wheat levain, pressed to warm melted delight and served with a cup of jus. It’s richness upon richness, which is an incredibly difficult thing to do successfully. Contrary to what you might expect, this isn’t essentially without harmony. Everything works in the same direction, and so it isn’t that one side can drown out the other as they both combine for a loud, deliberate note. That’s what you find here, just umami on top of savory, deeply rich and just outstanding. Maybe one of the 10 best sandwiches I’ve ever had, and if you’re anywhere near Los Angeles I cannot recommend it enough.

Mushroom Cheesesteak — Boo’s Philly Cheesesteaks and Hoagies, Fountain Ave, Silver Lake

boosphillycheesesteakI have no idea what to make of the cheesesteak. In the past I’ve gotten polite and restrained sandwiches, two words that rarely go with Philadelphia. Another time a cheesesteak with pickles and ketchup in it, something that apparently isn’t unheard of hi Philadelphia but causes the natives I know to cock an eyebrow. It isn’t even that establishments are so hung up on authenticity that they make a bad sandwich, it’s that most of them are hung up on authenticity, don’t make an authentic cheesesteak, and they make a bad sandwich. It’s a strange beast, the cheesesteak.

Take the above. Boo’s Cheesesteaks, like all the others, promises an authentic experience. They come close to delivering, with an honest, cornmeal-dusted hoagie roll, plenty of steak and an honest Philadelphian’s portion of grease. I’d be quite pleased to get that in a sandwich, but I didn’t get it in a sandwich. As you can see, I got it in a pile.

Most everyone who makes cheesesteaks does so by piling stake on the grill, laying cheese on top, then lifting the whole mess into a roll. That’s all well and good, provided you pay attention to how wide your roll is and don’t just flatten it out and dump the whole mess on top. This isn’t just a personal quirk or a question of aesthetics; consuming the above involves folding it around the steak, not over it, and as a result all the cheese is bunched in at the far seam and you’re left with a lopsided sandwich. Getting a bit of everything in every bite is basically the entire point of a sandwich, and with what is essentially a two ingredient sandwich that really shouldn’t be very hard. Sadly, the basics are often neglected in pursuit of loftier goals, with the above-pictured calamity as a typical result.

The Fickle Pig — The Sandwich Smith, E 1st St, Los Angeles

sandwichsmith-ficklepigIf you recall my earlier trip to The Sandwich Smith, I gave them high marks for concept but found them lacking in execution. Specifically, there was far too much on the sandwich to find any kind of harmony. Well, meet the Fickle Pig. Pulled pork, chipotle lime aioli, cheddar cheese, tomato, bacon coleslaw and red onion on country white, plus a fried egg. That, friends, is too much. In my experience the best pulled pork sandwiches contain little aside from the title ingredient, but even if you’re going to pile things on you have to consider that the pork is going to be rich and flavorful. A fried egg is also rich and flavorful, exceptionally so, and so you end up with two strong forces pushing in the same direction, throwing the sandwich off balance. And that’s not even half of it! Chipotle lime aioli and bacon coleslaw are not quite a natural pairing, the cheese is lost, nobody knows quite what the tomato is doing…it’s all just too much, and the sandwich suffers greatly as a result. Though I can’t claim to know exactly why this happens, I suspect it’s a combination of needing to present a product that justifies the price and a desire to present the sandwich as something significant, maybe even something decadent. Ideally, I think this sandwich is the pork, the coleslaw, and the red onion. That would be swell, but a three item sandwich is a humble attempt at greatness. In a rush to impress the humble trio gets left behind for the shaky symphony, and all of a sudden the music is no longer worth hearing.

Mr. Electric — Zelda’s Corner Deli, Westminster Ave, Venice

zeldaApologies for the wide-open shot, but the Mr. Electric didn’t come sliced and didn’t look like much from the side. But open it up and you get a clear look at exactly what makes this sandwich work: crispy prosciutto. The Mr. Electric is sliced turkey, prosciutto, avocado, provolone, pickled jalapeno, baby greens and tomatoes on a baguette, a lineup that could easily be something fairly pedestrian, were it not for the crisp on the prosciutto. It gave the sandwich a crunch it wouldn’t otherwise have, and together with the richness of the avocado and the saltiness of the prosciutto, things were well balanced and tied nicely together.

I’ve reviewed hundreds of sandwiches here by now, and if I’m totally honest this one seems destined to slip into the archives, never to be mentioned again. But before it goes I’d like to use it to draw attention to the slim gap between something like “pretty good” and something like “meh,” an ugly little word that nonetheless offers an honest assessment of much in life. This sandwich was only good because someone took the time to crisp up one of the ingredients, and it makes me wonder about every sandwich that’s ever failed to impress me. Did they all lack just one thing, some small change I couldn’t quite see? How far were they from what they could be, and how did they not make the step? How many of them are there, forever cemented as lost opportunities? No matter. This one was not, and all the more delicious for not being so.

The Ace of Clubs — The Sandwich Smith, E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA

sandwichsmith-friedchickenThe Sandwich Smith is the daytime scene at a joint establishment, at night yielding to sister establishment Fickle. It’s not the kind of setup you see often, but in my experience such a thing bodes well for an establishment. More dishes being cooked (especially if one or the other is aiming high) means more flavors at play, more experiments, more discoveries that might make their way to your sandwich. It’s not without risks, though. Take a look at the lineup for the Ace of Clubs: buttermilk fried chicken, garlic aioli, honey bbq sauce, feta cheese, avocado and bacon with lettuce and tomato on honey wheat. That’s a fair number of ingredients, and it is no secret that the more things go into a sandwich the harder it is to maintain harmony.

To recap a point made previously, people often think balance is the key to a good sandwich. It isn’t. An anchovy and jam sandwich is balanced, as salty as it is sweet, but it’s also probably terrible. Harmony is what matters, the fact that there’s just enough of everything to work together. The more items involved, the harder it is to make sure that everything’s in proper proportion.

That was the issue with the above sandwich. All the listed ingredients were present, but they were spotty and scattered. That can be a good way to make sure a particular ingredient doesn’t dominate, but I was left without a single bite that encompassed the entirety of the sandwich. I don’t mean to damn the entire thing, there were bites of this that were very good, and even some that were unexpectedly great (fried chicken and feta, particularly). The Sandwich Smith gets points for effort, but the execution wasn’t quite up to the task.

Wagyu Meatloaf & Winter ‘Shrooms — Mendocino Farms

mendocinomeatloafI have gone on record as saying that I’ve never had a genuinely good meatloaf sandwich, and I believe that’s because it’s a much more difficult sandwich than most people seem to think. To begin with, making a really good meatloaf isn’t easy, they’re far too often dry and bland. Beyond that the proportions in the sandwich are tough to get right, with enough meatloaf to matter you need a really fine balance of other ingredients, and it just wasn’t something I’d ever seen anyone pull off. Until, that is, I tried the meatloaf sandwich at Mendocino Farms.

In keeping with the typical offering from Mendocino Farms, it’s an upscaled meatloaf sandwich. Wagyu beef joins Japanese mushrooms, steamed kale, horseradish crema and herb aioli on a toasted sesame bun. Previously that kind of thing has missed the mark for me, specifically at Mendocino Farms, but here it seems to be just how to crack the meatloaf sandwich. The meatloaf was rich and not at all dry, the kale was bright and earthy, the mushrooms playing right between the two, earthy and rich. The crema  was sharp, and the toasted bun a nicely-yielding shell. As with all sandwiches containing horseradish it could have used more horseradish, but that’s really more a personal preference than any real rule. The last meatloaf sandwich I had nearly had me giving up on the whole archetype, so I am especially grateful for Mendocino Farms’ shining example. Let that be a lesson to me. The way we see sandwiches is as much about our eyes as it is about the landscape, and we’re better served by setting off exploring than by thinking we’ve seen it all.