French Dip – Roast Deli & Market, Barrington Ave, Brentwood

roast-frenchdipWhat’s the best French dip in Los Angeles? I have a particular affinity for the Frenchs dipped at both Phillipe the Original and Cole’s (in that order.) Some time ago I was surprised to learn that the general line on these establishments, at least in a certain crowd of Los Angeles eating enthusiasts, was that they weren’t that good. OK, sure, but far from the best French dip in town. So I’ve made it my business to try to find a representative sample of the sandwich. The early returns are in, and while I’ve yet to find a truly bad sandwich, most of them also aren’t great. The French dip is a pile of roast beef, some au jus, and generally some manner of horseradish or other peppery accompaniment. It’s delightfully simple and tough to screw up, which leaves it with a wonderfully high floor. But the fact that there isn’t a whole lot to it, which means it has a pretty limited ceiling. Which one is better than the other might just depend on the day, the context in which one eats it, or a host of other things that aren’t really about the sandwich itself. That’s not a tremendously satisfying conclusion, and it may be unfounded. Luckily, continuing research means eating more sandwiches, and I guarantee to you that I will do just that.

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Brisket Banh Mi – Gjelina Take Away, Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice

brisketbanhmiOn more than one occasion, both on this site and elsewhere, I have summarized a sandwich as “10/10 concept, 2/10 execution.” This is simply my preferred way of saying that something is a good idea but whoever executed it fell short. Although I hadn’t given it much thought, prior to eating at Gjelina Take Away, I would have been skeptical that the inverse was possible. 10/10 execution, 2/10 concept? If it’s such a poor concept, surely carrying it out can’t bring high marks. I’m still not sure if such a thing is possible, but if it is you’ll find it pictured above. Beef brisket on a bánh mì is not something I would have come up with, and I would argue that that’s for good reason.

Lots of things can and do go onbánh mìs, with a variety of flavor profiles resulting. That said, they tend to have commonalities between them, usually in the form of…well, Vietnamese flavors. I’m not sure an enjoyable bánh mì is possible without that, and the brisket bánh mì wasn’t encouraging. The beef was awfully rich and seemed bland in comparison to the kind of thing I’m accustomed to in a bánh mì, and overall the sandwich lacked a brightness that a good bánh mì has in spades. The brisket was just too much, and the cilantro wasn’t up to the task of reeling it in.

All of that said, this sandwich felt like exactly what it was intended to be. The brisket was tender and juicy, the vegetables fresh, present in sensible proportion, and the baguette had a tremendous crust. In short, 10/10 execution, 2/10 concept.

Cold Meatloaf – Clementine, Ensley Ave, Los Angeles

clementine-meatloafI’ve been to Clementine a number of times, and I usually come away quite pleased. The sandwiches tend to be simple affairs, well executed. That’s usually enough, but the issue with a simple sandwich is that when something goes wrong, there’s little left to support what remains. Take the above. The menu promises sliced meatloaf, caramelized onions, iceberg lettuce and their ‘10,000 lakes’ dressing on country white bread. That sounds like it would be just fine, but the actual sandwich I was served didn’t have much to speak of in the onion department. They weren’t completely absent, there was one bite towards the beginning that reeled me in and another towards the end that assured me I wasn’t crazy, but in between there was little of the sweetness that would have balanced the sandwich out. Without the onion, the remaining sandwich was a bit dry and altogether unbalanced, something from which few sandwiches can recover.

It occurs to me that I’ve never had a genuinely good meatloaf sandwich. I suspect that it’s simply a more difficult task than most expect, and so the general effort tends to miss the mark. That’s a shame. I think that there’s a lot of potential there, but it will have to wait for some other day, in some other sandwich shop.

Red Miso Short Rib – Lemonade, Barrington Ave, Brentwood

redmisoshortribA simple sandwich of mizuna, a peppery green a bit less assertive than arugula, pickled red onion, and ‘red miso short rib,’ which is to say beef short ribs pot-roasted with red miso. Deeper in flavor than white or yellow miso, it brings a saltiness and a rich umami flavor that would overwhelm lesser meats but pairs quite well with short ribs. The use of mizuna struck me as a bit curious, and I actually feel the stronger arugula would have been better suited to the sandwich. Was mizuna there just for the sake of being different, slightly fancier? I would have said yes, were it not for the large pile of mizuna that comes with the sandwich as a side salad. It would appear that mizuna is simply what they prefer to have on hand, and so in the sandwich it goes.

This wasn’t a bad sandwich, but I couldn’t help but feel like the short ribs deserved more. It’s almost too simple, and I think some notes of sweetness or something more spicy would have gone a long way towards perking it up.

Jack in the Box Sirloin Swiss & Grilled Onion Burger – Slummin’ It

jackintheboxsirloinswissThough I dearly hope that On Sandwiches stands as the home of the world’s finest sandwich discourse, there are other places on the internet that discuss sandwiches. One of them is The Dwichtorialist, a French operation that features a variety of creations that intrigue and inspire. Imagine my delight when the proprietor of that site made their way stateside and sampled a few of our wares. Everything seemed swell when Umami Burger rated a nine out of 10, but a recent post on Jack in the Box had me more than puzzled. Having tried the sirloin Swiss and grilled onion burger, The Dwitchtorialist rated it an eight out of 10.

I’ve eaten at Jack in the Box. When in the right state, I’ve even found it quite enjoyable. But eight out of 10? I had to investigate. Wouldn’t it be a delight, if Jack in the Box had a burger that was capable of standing with the best? It would, friends, but it isn’t. The burger actually isn’t bad. It suffers from the same thing that hamstrings all fast food patties thicker than average, namely having been cooked dry all the way through. There’s a mayonnaise involved to compensate, and it has a nice peppery bite to it. That’s about where the fun ends, though. The grilled onions are sparse, and fail to bring the sweet notes one would expect. The Swiss is that thin strip you see nestled below the pickles, and the taste is about as strong as the sight. Like most fast food there’s more than a little salt, and overall it..it was a fast food burger. As one would expect, I suppose, but I had my hopes up.

It seems to me that this demonstrates the limits of criticism, to a certain extent. I cannot try the Jack in the Box burger as anyone but myself, a denizen of America, a man who has eaten his fair share of American fast food. Consider it a wall of context, one which genuinely can’t be torn down. And that’s so much the pity, given that on the other side of this wall a Jack in the Box hamburger is an eight out of 10.

BBQ Beef Brisket – Stone Oven, Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles

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If you’ve got any idea what the avocado in that sandwich is supposed to be doing, you’ve got more insight into sandwiches than I do. I suppose it’s a sign when the menu promises “avocadoes,” but I figured I’d give it a shot anyway. The avocado isn’t exactly objectionable here, it’s just barely noticeable, and there are fewer sins in sandwichdom more grave than wasting an avocado.

Aside from that, the sandwich wasn’t bad. I’ve been somewhat harsh on the so-called “fast casual” sector recently, singling out The Corner and accusing them of shallow tricks designed to impress consumers they see as rubes. I’d like to make clear that I don’t see every mid-sized chain trying to upscale things the same way, and Stone Oven presents a better take on the idea. The bread is the draw, baked in the namesake oven at regular intervals, leaving a fresh, tender loaf for one’s sandwich. In went beef brisket, cheddar, chipotle mayo, onion crisps and avocado. The brisket was capably executed, though far from the heights possible. The avocado may have been lost, but the rest of the ingredients went together well and, when combined with the really good bread, made for quite the tasty sandwich. Moreover, The Corner was on a street in a city, with much better options a stone’s throw away. Stone Oven was in a mall food court, and while “Best Sandwich in a Mall Food Court” isn’t too tall a trophy, it’s a trophy nonetheless.

Short Rib Grilled Cheese – TLT Food, Westwood Blvd, Westwood

TLTshortribgrilledcheeseI have no idea what happened here. The short rib grilled cheese was listed on the specials board at TLT Food, and having so enjoyed the last sandwich I got there this one sounded delightful. Braised short rib, caramelized red onion, lime-sambal sauce and a blend of cheese all between two pieces of sourdough that were crusted with cotija. That still sounds delightful, and I guess with all those ingredients there’s no room left on the sign for “WARNING: THIS ISN’T ACTUALLY A SANDWICH YOU CAN PICK UP AND EAT WITH YOUR HANDS.”

It just seems so senseless. Surely at some point during the assembly of this sandwich there was a point at which it did not yet have a top. Would that not have been the time to insert the sauce? What purpose does it serve, there on top? It makes the sandwich significantly less pleasant to eat, for one, and it places the sauce farther away from the tongue. It could be an aesthetic choice, I suppose, but surely whoever made this realizes that after properly appreciating one’s sandwich, one tends to consume it?

The sandwich was good, but it could have been so much better if I hadn’t had to grasp it by the edges, or if the sauce were let to mingle with the rest of the ingredients. It could have been good, but tragically the whole experience was laid low by one asinine decision, and that’s a fate no sandwich deserves.

Turnip Sandwiches – Made at Home

turnipsandwich1Turnips! When’s the last time you saw someone go wild over a turnip? It’s been some time, I’d wager. One of the less popular root vegetables, people have been growing them for something like the last 3500 years, and within that stretch someone’s been jazzed about them about 15 times. Usually you see the opposite sort of reaction, and indeed a short time ago a pair of respected associates were on Twitter disparaging turnips. I’ve never been a big fan of the turnip, but it happened to strike me that maybe they might make some fine sandwiches, and so I set to work. Roasting the turnips seemed the natural move to me, as it leaves you with a better flavor than boiling them, and removes the work of changing water mid-cooking.

The turnip is a starch, of course, and that makes it a tricky thing to work with. There are some good sandwiches with fried potatoes in them, but in general adding such a thing throws off the starch-something else-starch balance that is the sandwich. So I figured if I was going to work with turnips, I had to include some rather large flavors to prevent a bland, starchy experience. That meant some smoked herring fillets, which have a heavy smoke, distinctly fishy flavor. So now I had the turnips, which bring a woody, earthy flavor, and smoky fish. I thought something sweet might play well in there, as smoke and sugar tend to pair exceedingly well, in barbecue and elsewhere. Caramelized onions are my go-to move for sweet on a sandwich, but I thought I might take it a step further for this occasion and I cooked up a batch of onion jam. Recipes vary, but in this case it was mostly a few pounds of onions cooked down in a couple cups of red wine and a honey gastrique. So the turnips, fish, and onion jam went down on some pretzel bread with a bit of horseradish mustard, and that was that.

I liked this sandwich quite a bit, but I’m not so sure that was about the turnips. The onion jam was delicious, I like canned fish, and pretzel bread is always a nice change of pace. This was quite good, and the turnips were a part of that, but they were hardly the star.

turnipsandwich3 My second attempt aimed for more simple ends. A New York strip steak, thinly sliced, salted and peppered and thrown in a skillet for just about a minute, went over some roasted turnips and under some provolone. Melted under the broiler, the whole thing came together as a fairly standard cheesesteak sandwich, except it also included turnips. I can see some cheesesteak aficionado not caring for what I did here, but I was quite pleased with it. The steak and the cheese are each assertive enough in flavor, but neither so much that they might drown out the turnips. Instead, the turnips give an extra dimension to what can easily be a fairly flat sandwich, and I thought it was quite welcome. turnipsandwich2Finally, I wanted something without meat. I’m celebrating a root vegetable, it would be downright negligent of me not to include something my herbivore associates can enjoy. I’ve still left the vegans in the cold, but this one is easily adaptable to their needs. For the third sandwich, I cut some heirloom tomatoes into slices about as wide as I had the turnips and gave them the same treatment, a stretch in the oven to boost up their sugars and break them down a bit. I’ve had my own issues with tomatoes before, but going heirloom helps make the most of things. Roast tomatoes and turnips isn’t quite enough for a sandwich, so I roasted some garlic as well and combined it with some minced scallion into a compound butter, which was spread on both sides of the sandwich. This one was a bit of a mess to eat, as the tomatoes had little structure left, but that didn’t prevent it from being all sorts of tasty. The garlic, tomatoes and turnips all have their own sweetness, with varying levels of subtlety, and it was a delight to have them working together. This was rich, vibrant, and the turnips helped establish the sandwich as substantial.

If you’ve got no love for the turnip, I can’t imagine the above would sway you. But if you’re just not sure what you might do with them or why they might be enjoyable, I hope I’ve laid out some things that you might find intriguing. Turnips! If they were good enough for 1500 BC, they’re good enough for you.

Stall 239 – Vermont Ave, Los Angeles

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Stall 239 is a hole in the wall on Vermont, named after the number of the address. Street food is how it’s billed, and given that there isn’t a place to sit down I suppose that’s accurate. There are some classic deli sandwiches on the menu, but what caught my eye was the ‘specialty menu,’ with several interesting numbers listed. The Angry Bird caught my eye and is what you see above, a Taiwanese style fried chicken breast topped with a spicy coleslaw and served on a Hawaiian roll. I’ve seen some conflicting recipies on exactly what makes fried chicken Taiwanese style, but in this instance there was a distinct sweetness to it. That would be a nice contrast for a spicy coleslaw, but truth be told I found the coleslaw to be a bit bland. There’s a strong concept here, but the execution was lacking. Always tragic, that.

stall239-2I also went in for the Kalbi Smash, a combination of marinated Korean short ribs, grilled mushrooms, garlic, fried kimchi and mashed potatoes on ciabatta. I can’t really give this sandwich a fair shake, as the mashed potatoes weren’t ready when I stopped by and so I had the sandwich outside of its intended form. As it stands, though, it was quite good. I would note that that is Dutch crunch bread, and not ciabatta, but given how rare dutch crunch tends to be I’m not complaining. This one hit a good range of notes, sweet, savory, spicy, all playing well together. I’m curious about how it works with the straight starch of mashed potatoes included, so it seems that a return trip to Stall 239 is in order.

The Rossini – Burger Bar, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas

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I have spoken of the Rossini before. Not just spoken; I have praised, and done so at length. In my previous review I talked about Rossini himself, about why one might name a $60 hamburger after him, about what that says about him or about us. Having now had the hamburger a second time, all of that still stands. Perhaps even more emphatically. But this time I just want to talk about the burger.

Heading to Las Vegas recently, I knew I would return to the Burger Bar and eat the Rossini. That was never in question, but I did have my doubts if it was going to be as good as I hoped. I remembered it being very, very good, and given that memories often shine solely through the polish of nostalgia, I wondered if I might end up disappointed.

As it turned out, I had nothing to fear. Sweet mercy, is this ever a good hamburger. I took my time eating it, trying to stay mindful of every second, to engage it in communion. I spent time just smelling it, as I find that people do not smell their food as often as they could. It looks odd, but a meal only has so many bites, it has a nearly infinite number of molecules. Next time you’re really enjoying something, stop and smell it. I did, and it made no small difference. And oh, what scent there was to savor! The burger remains as simple as ever: wagyu beef, seared foie gras, and black truffles, served with a brown sauce. Each of those things are delicious in their own right, and what struck me most about the burger was how well they all come together. There are countless flavor profiles that work well together, but very few actually meld, presenting one unified flavor of an almost indescribable depth. There is not a tremendous range to it, there are few sweet notes and nothing really of spice, it is just richness. It is savory, incredible richness, and it is astoundingly good.

My associates each sampled the burger, so that I might confirm that this is not just me. Several of them agreed with me on how delicious it was but speculated they would be unable to consume an entire burger. That’s almost surprising to me, because if you look at the photo you’ll note that there really isn’t much foie gras and there aren’t many bits of truffle. This makes the Rossini stand out among upscale hamburgers, especially those in Las Vegas. It’s not a towering achievement, but it isn’t a modest one either. It’s a confident one, a hamburger aware of how strong its strengths are, knowing that it need not pile up what it contributes. It is at once expansive but not unrestrained, and this is a difficult balance for any sandwich to achieve, let alone one playing with foie gras and truffles and brown sauce.

The pictures I have taken do not do it justice, both in this post and certainly in the previous one. That is a testament to both my meager skill and the perma-dusk that grips every casino, and I hope you will not let that dissuade you from trying the burger, should you ever have the chance. It is a wonderful, wonderful hamburger, and I can’t recommend it enough.