Pastrami with Chimmichurri — Wally’s, Westwood Blvd, Westwood

pastramiwallysNot even two months ago, I was eating a chimmichurri rib eye sandwich and bemoaning the lack of chimmichurri options in the world at large. Last Saturday, I walked into Wally’s cheese shop and caught sight of the special. Wally’s specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches, but this was something a bit different: pastrami, chimmichurri and aged Gruyère. Now, despite my having featured Wally’s before I imagine this was just a coincidence, but what a delightful coincidence it was! The rich, herbal chimmichurri was well paired with the smoky pastrami, and the nuttiness of the aged Gruyère rounded things out in a way that was hardly expected but really quite successful. This is not a sandwich without risk, the flavors involved could easily have clashed. But this is exactly the sandwich I was talking about when I wished chimmichurri was used more widely, and I salute Wally’s for accepting the risk and coming out with something delicious.

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Burrata Sandwich — All About The Bread, Melrose Ave, Los Angeles

allaboutthebreadburrataAll About The Bread has been featured here previously, but on a recent visit I sampled one of the newer items on the menu, the burrata sandwich. Burrata is showing up on more and more menus, and with good cause. A creamier mozzarella, it’s a decadent addition to any sandwich, boosting the richness in a way that’s less obtrusive than, say, meat. (I also found it with roasted heirloom tomatoes and a fried egg in an open-faced number, which of course is not a sandwich, and as such I will offer nothing but to say it was delicious.)

Here the cheese joins sun-dried tomatoes, basil, pesto, tomatoes and roasted peppers on All About The Bread’s basic roll (which really is stellar), resulting in a bright, rich sandwich with strong vegetable flavor. I want to note specifically that it doubles down (twice, in fact) with two types of tomatoes and both fresh basil and pesto. Sandwiches being about balance and harmony as they are, doing this sort of thing certainly runs the risk of throwing the whole sandwich off, but I think it’s successful here. It certainly wasn’t overbearing, and I think it’s because neither standard tomatoes nor fresh basil are particularly assertive flavors. All in all, the burrata makes a fine base for a delightful sandwich.

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.

Anchovy Grilled Cheese – Made at Home

anchovygrilledcheeseI still had some smoked cheddar on hand after last week’s efforts, and what better to do with some leftover cheese than to place it between bread and grill it? A word, then, on some of the hows and whys of grilled cheese. Firstly, it’s going to be unbelievably rich. You’re filling it with cheese and frying it in butter (you are using butter, aren’t you?), that’s fat on top of fat. You need to cut that richness with something, preferably something spicy or sharp. Plenty of places think the answer to the cheese is meat, often something quite fatty, but that’s a mistake, it’s just more richness on top of same. (This is why short rib grilled cheese is usually disappointing, and kimchi grilled cheese is never less than wonderful.) In the above case, I went with a tin of anchovies. Salty little devils, there was no question they could stand up to the cheese. I happened to have some scallions that were on their way out, and in they went as well. They brought a brighter sharpness to things, although something along the line of red onion might have been better, just because it’s more assertive. Lastly, a note on technique: Keep the heat gentle, somewhere just a touch over medium. It doesn’t take much to melt the cheese and crisp the bread, so don’t use much.

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.

Italian Bleu Jeans – Heywood, Sunset Blvd, Silver Lake

heywoodgrilledcheeseAfter having such a perplexing and dispiriting run-in with a grilled cheese at TLT Foods, I decided to see a specialist. Heywood is a grilled cheese shop (shoppe, in fact) that takes much care in sourcing their ingredients, so I figured they would also be keen on ensuring that they all ended up inside the sandwich. And sure enough, they delivered a sandwich in the standard configuration, ingredients surrounded by bread. Thank goodness.

The Italian Bleu Jeans is mozzarella, blue cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and a walnut pesto, and it is as good as that lineup reads. The mozzarella is a rich but unassertive base, and the blue cheese opens things up with a bright tang. The sun-dried tomatoes echo the tang of the blue cheese, and the pesto brings the whole thing together with nutty, herbal notes. The tomato bisque makes a fine side, and dunking the sandwich only added another layer of flavor. In short, it was everything one could ask of a grilled cheese, in both concept and execution.

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.

Truffle Grilled Cheese – Wally’s Cheese Box, Westwood Blvd, Westwood

Wally’s cheese box is a small shop annexed from Wally’s Wine and Spirits, the selection of cheeses, artisan this and that, and other specialty ingredients having grown too large to be contained within the larger liquor store. I’ve had good experiences eating from places associated with liquor stores, so I was excited to give them a go. The truffle grilled cheese came recommended by the incredibly helpful staff, and who on earth would turn down truffles?

The truffle grilled cheese is what it says on the tin, a grilled cheese made from cheese that is flecked with black truffles. It’s delicious, but as you might expect I was left wanting more truffle. The flavor was there, but it’s already a timid friend and it had a lot of cheese to contend with. Warm, gooey, delicious cheese, but cheese capable of drowning out a truffle nonetheless. The brioche was buttery and crunchy, well grilled but not burnt. All together, that’s a tasty sandwich that’s also a fair deal, but it did leave me wondering what else might be possible. That’s two positives, to my eye. What more could we ask of sandwiches than to both be delicious and spur us on to greater heights?

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.