Fat Banh Mi-Ki — Fat Sal’s Deli, Gayley Ave, Westwood, Los Angeles

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I love the bánh mì. A bánh mì is the reason this blog exists. There are 28 separate bánh mì reviews on this site. If there’s someone who’s been to more bánh mì places than I have, they aren’t blogging about it. So when I look at the above…it’s wrong.

Marinated steak, pickled vegetables, a spicy coleslaw, fried onion rings, tomato, jalapeño, cilantro, a teriyaki glaze and sriracha mayo. That’s a far cry from what I know the bánh mì to be, what with the onion rings, the tomato, the coleslaw, the teriyaki. It’s just a mishmash of pseudo-Asian ingredients and the sort of fried indulgence for which Fat Sal’s is known, and they have the gall to call it a bánh mì. Teriyaki?!!?

The thing is, I’m not sure I care anymore. This was a good sandwich.. Sweet, spicy, tender and crunchy and really just balanced from top to bottom. I’ve held fast to dogma for a long time, claiming to be some arbiter of something I didn’t invent and can’t claim to fully understand, and maybe it’s time to be done with that. There’s room in this world for the pure experience, but there has to be room for the rest of it, no? This was a really tasty sandwich, and maybe that’s the last word.

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Horse & Hole — Top Round, S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles

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Continuing their habit of bringing culinary-geography-oddities to Los Angeles cuisine, the Top Round sandwich above features Provel cheese, a processed cheddar/swiss/provolone cheese that’s particularly popular in St. Louis. It has a loose, gooey texture and here it joins horseradish cream, roasted mushrooms and the namesake roast beef. That’s a fine lineup that works for all of the obvious reasons; it has a deep, rich flavor balanced by earthy, savory mushrooms and spicy horseradish. But more than a simple, well-designed sandwich, I’d like to point out a bit of execution here.

Eleven. I have featured 11 sandwiches on this blog that I said needed more horseradish. There were another half-dozen or so that I ate but never featured here. “Needs more horseradish,” I said again and again, and I had basically resigned myself to this being the case for every horseradish-containing sandwich I ever expected to be served. But the above sandwich changed that. It had a proper amount of horseradish, with a fine heat throughout the sandwich and a few bites that really took it to the palate. Horseradish is an assertive ingredient, but included halfway it only serves to tease. Some of the sandwiches at Top Round fall prey to this trap, but thankfully not the one with “horse” in the name. The Horse & Hole is a fine sandwich with plenty of horseradish, and I couldn’t be more delighted to pay such a rare compliment.

Chimichurri Rib Eye Sandwich — Simple Things, Kinross Ave, Westwood

simplethings-ribeyeSimple Things has been featured at On Sandwiches a few times, and they’ve become a trusted source for a good sandwich. My point with this post isn’t about this specific sandwich, which was in fact good. (Sliced ribeye, roasted cherry tomatoes,
onion jam, arugula and chimichurri on ciabatta. A fine lineup.) My point here is to talk about chimichurri. In its simplest form nothing but parsley, garlic, oregano, olive oil, and vinegar it can be tweaked a thousand different ways. It’s delicious, and as I ate this sandwich I wondered why on earth we don’t see it more often. I can’t count the number of sandwiches I’ve seen that are meat, greens, and horseradish. That’s fine, I’ve loved more than a few of them, but surely we would be better off if the vibrant notes of chimichurri were not so hard to find. It can’t be logisitcs, chimichurri is something of a cousin to pesto and that’s everywhere, in grocery stores both freshly prepared and in lesser, shelf-stable forms. Simply put, I can think of no reason this sauce shouldn’t appear much more often than it does, and I salute Simple Things for working to change that.

Beef on Weck – Top Round Roast Beef, La Brea Ave, Los Angeles

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A beef on weck in Los Angeles! The beef on weck is a specialty of the greater Buffalo area that, sadly, hasn’t gained much traction beyond western New York. The last time I saw one was more than five years ago, at the All-Star Sandwich Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I ordered it without hesitation then, and I ordered it without hesitation when I saw the menu at Top Round. In both cases I was well rewarded.

The beef on weck is all all-time great as far as doing a lot with almost nothing. Roast beef on a roll sprinkled with kosher salt and caraway seeds is all that’s really there, though usually with some horseradish. And that’s all it takes; the herbal notes from the seeds balance well against the richness of the beef, the salt ramps everything up, and the horseradish brings a pleasant heat. (Like all sandwiches with horseradish, this did need more horseradish.)

I don’t know how long it will be before I see another beef on weck, but I know that when I see it I’m going to order it. I heartily recommend you do the same.

Prime Rib Sandwich – Simple Things, Los Angeles

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It needed more horseradish. I have said that after literally every horseradish-containing sandwich I have ever had, and the prime rib sandwich from Simple Things is no exception. Let me get the bottom line out of the way: this was a tasty sandwich. Beef, greens, tomato, horseradish on crispy ciabatta is a winner, and sweet caramelized onions and horseradish are a fine pair to cap things off.

But. Needed more horseradish. It always needs more horseradish, and I’m starting to wonder how that can be. Is horseradish really an ingredient that people enjoy consuming in tepid measure? It is distinct, in the sense that anyone who goes in for it knows what they’re getting. I talk a lot about balance and harmony here and one could accuse me of promoting the opposite here, but what I’m actually advocating is the raising of horseradish to the role of starring ingredient. The lineup above describes a fine sandwich but it is also an exceptionally simple one. Why not let it stand out? Were it up to me I might triple the amount of horseradish involved, name the sandwich after it and be done with it. On Sandwiches, though, is ultimately an exploration of what sandwiches exist, not what sandwiches are possible. The prime rib at Simple Things stands as so many good-but-uninspiring sandwiches do: without enough horseradish.

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.

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.

Meat, Greens and Cheese – Made at Home

dandelionbeefWith an event to attend over the holiday, I happened to make up a batch of an associate’s smokey chipotle bacon pimento cheese, a dip based around smoked cheddar with two extra hits of smoke from the chipotle peppers and the bacon. It’s as good as its reputation suggests, and as I do with most delicious things my mind turned to how it might best fit in a sandwich. Another associate suggested some peppery greens, and from there I was off.

The cheese has a strong flavor, and I didn’t think just greens was going to be enough, so I included a decent (but not excessive) amount of sliced London broil (from the deli counter, not homemade.) That brought a flavor that was substantial enough to not be overwhelmed, but not so substantial that it would drown out anything else. The greens in question were sauteed dandelion greens, as I thought those might have the best chance of standing up to the cheese. A little hot dog cart style onion sauce added a note of sweetness, and the whole thing went between two slices of sourdough.

pastramirabeBecause there’s no good reason to make one sandwich when two will do, I also put together a number with the same basic outline, but a few differences: the flavor on the meat went up, from London broil to pastrami. Accordingly, the flavor on the greens went down, from dandelion greens to broccoli rabe.

Overall, I think the dandelion greens are the winner here. Originally my associate had suggested arugula, and I think that level of pepper would also work, but I prefer the more assertive dandelions. It manages to push back against the richness of the cheese in a way that turned out to be crucial. The pastrami, while flavorful, just seemed to obscure the overall dynamic. Sandwiches, after all, are about harmony as much as they’re about anything else, and the pastrami just didn’t play right. Still, all in all a decent sandwich and one that was quite good is a fine result from a little leftover dip.

The Red Baron – Vine Street Deli, Vine St, Los Angeles

vinestdeli-redbaronI tend to come at sandwiches from something of a traditionalist perspective. The standing archetypes of the world of sandwiches are what they are for a reason, and if you’re going to play around with them you should have a very good reason for doing so. The reuben is a good example, as it seems particularly prone to “takes” and “re-imaginings” and “total nonsense.” Picture, if you will, a standard reuben with a healthy dose of avocado along for the ride. The above sandwich is a far cry from such ghastly examples, and it is to Vine Street Deli’s credit that it is so. Their Red Baron is hot pastrami and red cabbage sauerkraut on pumpernickel, with the standard swiss cheese and Russian dressing. There are two reasons this sandwich works: The first is that they didn’t push it too far. The ingredients are straight 1-to-1 swaps with standard reuben ingredients, and not particularly imaginative ones at that. One might criticize them for sticking so close to the tried-and-true, but when the tried-and-true is so good you won’t find me among the critics. The second reason relates to what I said above, about the necessity of a good reason for futzing around with the thing in the first place. I don’t know if the hot pastrami was the driving force behind this sandwich coming together, but it more than justifies the effort. It’s peppery and immensely flavorful, walked back just enough by the cheese, dressing and slaw. The result is an exceptionally well balanced sandwich and a nice change of pace for any reuben enthusiast.