Tuna Conserva – Gjelina Takeaway, Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice

gjenia

Gjelina is either an exceptionally lucky establishment, or someone there is a wizard. Out of the more than 400 establishments I have patronized, I have never had a sandwich as well constructed as that one. The taste was fine, flavorful tuna, peppery arugula, sweet roasted red pepper and caper aioli is a well-balanced lineup. But the sandwich stayed together from first bite to last, never shifted much, there was absolutely zero filling creep, and each bit of crust was robust but yielded just before the dreaded clamp-and-tear had to be applied. I consider a sandwich successful if it hits even a few of those marks, but to hit all of them is some kind of magic. I’m genuinely unsure of how much credit to award Gjelina because I’m not sure how much of this can be achieved on purpose. How much control does their baker exert over the density of the crust? The air was not especially humid but the ocean wasn’t far; could this same sandwich come together in the inland empire? This is not, I suspect, a question with an answer. No matter. This was a fantastic sandwich, and that much is certain.

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Shrimp Rich Boy – Mendocino Farms, Los Angeles

mendocinofarmsshrimprichboyThe Shrimp Rich Boy is one of Mendocino Farms’ seasonal offerings, a combination of garlic marinated cajun shrimp with a meyer lemon relish aioli, bacon, their ‘krispies,’ candied jalapeño, tomatoes and shredded romaine on a soft white roll. While I could see some purists decrying a ‘take’ on the po’boy, I have no such attachment to this particular archetype and so, provided the resulting sandwich is a good one, I do not mind. And the resulting sandwich at Mendocino Farms is quite good, although it could have been better.

The krispies at Mendocino Farms stand in for fried foods, with mixed results. They’re not so pleasant on the not so fried chicken, but fit in quite well on the turkey confit sandwich I sampled. Here they’re much more towards the fitting in end of things, but they also call to mind the fact that the shrimp in the pseudo-po’boy you’re eating aren’t fried, and that the sandwich would be much better if they were. I get why Mendocino Farms doesn’t deep fry things, but that doesn’t mean they’re not missing out. The shrimp here were cold and firm, and while they were flavorful I think this sandwich would have been a real delight had they been hot and had a crunch to them.

So there was that what-could-have-been and a lopsided stuffed construction, but overall this was a fine sandwich. The candied jalapeño was a nice touch, and a nice change from the pickled and fresh that are commonplace. Mendocino Farms sometimes misses the mark but the sandwiches are never boring, and that’s enough to ensure my return.

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.

The Brooklyner – The Curious Palate, Venice Blvd, Mar Vista

brooklynerThe Curious Palate is one of those cafe style establishments that is, for lack of a better term, fancy. That’s a fine thing for a place to be, and certainly it would be nice if some of the standard chipotle-chicken-turkey-pesto places aimed a bit higher. But fancy places do come with a bit of a disadvantage, namely that the sandwiches are difficult to recreate at home. Take Mendocino Farms’ turkey confit, for example. You could make turkey confit at home, but it’s a long way to go for a sandwich. (I have no problem going to such lengths and would recommend it to all of you, but I recognize that each individual must make their own investment.) The Curious Palate has a number of sandwiches that would be a lot of work to put together in your own kitchen, but they also have several more straightforward numbers, and that’s not something that can be said about every fancy establishment. So kudos to them on that, for whatever it’s worth.

The Brooklyner is smoked salmon, goat cheese, a roasted tomato aioli, red onion, fresh sliced tomato and pickles on an extremely hearty, crusty sourdough. The salmon’s flavor is strong and distinct, the cheese is tangy and offsets the light smoke, and the pickles cut through the cheese. The tomatoes were fresh and firm, thankfully, and the tomato aioli gave their flavor a bit of depth and roundness. In short, it’s a fine lineup. And what’s more, tomato aioli aside, it’s something that wouldn’t be more trouble than a quick run to the grocers.

Atun Escabeche – Churros Calientes, Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles

churroscalientes

Here is the proper way to cook a fresh piece of tuna: Get a skillet. Get it nice and hot, add a little oil. On the other side of your kitchen, place your tuna fish on a clean plate. Lift the plate and point it at the hot stove. Count to three. Cross the room, shut the burner off, then return to and eat your tuna.

This is not the method followed at Churros Calientes, sadly, much to the detriment of the sandwich. There is a certain tragedy inherent in tuna, as I have noted before, and that’s in a well-cooked piece. Overcooked, the pathos becomes too much to handle. This was a fine piece of meat, and it gained much from a flavorful herb/spice/vinegar marinade. I really wanted to like this sandwich. But all flavor played second to the dry, mealy tuna, the result of much too much heat. There’s no saving something like that. An inherent tragedy is one thing, but a willful one is something very different.

(Though it is outside the purview of this blog, I would like to note that the churros at Churros Calientes are phenomenal. Really stellar churros, well worth going out of your way.)

Ahi Burger – Library Ale House, Main St, Santa Monica

library alehouse

The tuna steak sandwich might be my absolute favorite thing to order, though it is not my favorite sandwich. It’s a risk/reward proposition, the cut of meat is so tremendously easy to ruin, but so sublime when done well. As you can see by the photo, the folk at Library Ale House know what they’re doing. The slice of tuna in their ahi burger is firm and moist, not quite thick enough for the warm-outside-cool-center that marks the very best sandwiches, but quite good nonetheless. The tuna is joined on the bun by asian slaw with a bit of heat to it, a citrus ponzu dressing and wasabi aioli. That’s not an especially adventuresome lineup, but it’s one that’s certain to be delicious. There’s a sweetness, some spice to counter that, and the slaw is a fine textural contrast.

I try to keep things positive around here, but I cannot speak of tuna fish without noting that someday they will all be gone. As I have noted this before:

Tuna is a fine, fine meat and some day when our grandchildren ask us what it was like I think it will be our great shame to tell them that most of the tuna we ate was dry, coming out of a can only to be drowned in mayonnaise, gussied up into fully moldable slop.

That may be what’s coming, but it is not what is yet here. Today we still have sandwiches like the above, and I am ever so grateful to have them.

Quiznos Lobster Seafood Salad Sandwich – Slummin’ It

quiznoslobsterseafoodsalad

Though I ate the above sandwich, I had not originally intended to talk about it. I ate it because there’s always the chance that a franchise chain will put out something surprising, and I wasn’t going to talk about it because there’s a much, much (much) better chance they won’t. On Sandwiches is an enterprise of enthusiasm, not one of criticism, and so I avoid talking about many of the disappointing sandwiches I eat. But someone on Twitter requested it, and so here we are.

Sweet mercy, this is awful. The above picture very nearly does the sandwich justice, and it was nice of the Quiznos down the street to let me know right away what I was in for. The national chain was not so kind:

Lobster-Sandwich-DetailI’m not one for “fast food doesn’t look like it does in the ads,” as it strikes me as fruit hanging so low one might trip over it. But the disparity between those two images is too wide for me to ignore. Where do they get the bread used in the photo, I wonder, and do the tell the proprietor of that enterprise what they’re doing with it? I imagine some baker catching sight of the ad one day, recognizing his own bread and weeping softly.

Anyway. To the matter at hand, this sandwich is no good. There is some lobster and seafood salad, but it’s as bland as such a thing can get. Far from the chunks present in the promo photo, It’s minced beyond recognition. That’s not my preferred state, but it can still make for a good sandwich. That wasn’t the case here, of course. What’s most irritating about a case like this is that it wouldn’t take much to save the effort. If your seafood salad lacks flavor, a little lemon juice will boost things up. Fresh cracked black pepper, seemingly included in the promo version, would have gone a very long way here. (Pepper is available at nearly every sandwich franchise, but it is never fresh cracked. The rate of aromatic decay in a peppercorn is one of nature’s great injustices, but it is what it is.) So despite that a halfway decent sandwich was well within reach, Quiznos instead delivers the above. Tragic.
quiznos2In case the seafood might strike you as some kind of aberration, the above is the Prime Rib Peppercorn sandwich. It is exactly as good as it looks.

Albacore Sandwich – The Kitchen, Fountain Ave, Silver Lake, Los Angeles


I have a special place in my heart for sandwiches built around a quality piece of tuna, and I have an extra special place for delicious sandwiches built around a quality pice of tuna. That’s the albacore sandwich at The Kitchen, a combination of tuna, Asian pear, pickled red onion, mixed greens & wasabi mayo on a well-toasted baguette. That’s a great combination. The sweetness of the pear balances the spice of the wasabi, and the greens bring earthy undertones. That the bite of the red onion is slightly tempered by the pickling is the real signal of quality here.

Tuna is a delicate meat, easily overwhelmed by assertive flavors. The pear and the greens are subtle and play well, while there was restraint in the wasabi that kept it from being too strong. Red onion could easily blast out the rest of the sandwich, but a bit of pickling keeps everything in harmony. The baguette was well toasted, you can see a bit of char on the underside in the photo. That kept things crunchy, and made the bread yield to a bite rather than require a clamp-and-tear maneuver

Simply put, this sandwich had the mark of proper execution from top to bottom, and that’s a wonderful thing. Many a well-conceived sandwich falls short by the time it makes it to the plate, and the times when that doesn’t happen are well worth celebrating.

Crab Cake Sandwich – Alcove, Hillhurst Ave, Los Angeles, CA

The last time I had a crab cake sandwich, I found it a bit plain. A lightly dressed slaw was one of the things I suggested might improve things, so I was happy to see the crab cake sandwich at Alcove came with just that. Beyond the slaw, though, there wasn’t a whole lot to get excited about. It wasn’t a bad sandwich. There was plenty of fresh crab in a well fried (perhaps overdone) patty. The roll was fresh. I would have preferred a traditional tarter to the chipotle aioli, but the aioli wasn’t bad. Essentially the whole thing just ranked squarely at “capably executed,” and it’s difficult to get excited about capable execution. It’s all well and good for a quick sandwich at a lunch counter, or a $6 number wrapped in butcher paper and only destined to hit the spot, but a $15 sandwich at a fine sit-down establishment really ought to aim for a higher standard, don’t you think? The very fact that you’re putting together a crab cake sandwich really implies more advanced obligations. I’ll have to try another sandwich at Alcove, some chicken number, to see if their other offerings end up so middling. Given the crab cake sandwich, I won’t be holding my breath.

Smoked Salmon Sandwich – Little Chef Counter, San Pedro Sq, San Jose, CA

I’ve been so impressed by previous visits to Little Chef Counter that as soon as I notice a new sandwich on the ever-changing menu I head over to give it a try. The braised short rib was delightful, the mushroom sandwich delicious, and the breakfast sandwich well executed. The smoked salmon sandwich is the latest, with salmon joined by basil aioli, watercress, and spring onions on the same roll featured in previous sandwiches. Sadly, the law of averages has struck. This was a disappointment, the salmon dry, the basil almost unnoticeable, the spring onion similarly scarce. It functions as a salmon sandwich, but that’s the only note. Dressing the salmon in the basil aioli would have gone a long way, although I can understand the hesitation to do such a thing. The sandwich was just missing something to stand up against the salmon; something peppery or a mustard vinaigrette would have gone a long way.

I suppose a sub-par sandwich from Little Chef Counter was inevitable, but it’s sad to see. My opinion might be colored in the tiniest bit by the fact that this replaced the mushroom sandwich on the menu, that was mighty tasty and this is a big step down. All that said, Little Chef Counter still has a pretty good record and the next time a new sandwich comes up on the menu, you can be sure that I’ll head there with all due haste.