Fundamental LA has appeared on this blog before, and so long as they keep making sandwiches they’re likely to continue appearing. Here they’ve gone the simple route, combining fried chicken with jimica and parsnip slaw on a house-made biscuit. I’ve had fried chicken sandwiches that are probably better, notably the Southern Fry at Plan Check, but I don’t know that I’ve seen one that does more with less. This is your standard chicken biscuit, raised well up with a spicy, crisp slaw that’s a good bit tastier than a few bread & butter pickles. There’s nothing wrong with the old standard, but Fundamental LA excels in demonstrating what’s possible beyond that.
I’ve had a number of portobello sandwiches lately, some of which I’ve discussed here. I try to vary things, but I also have a special place in my heart for the mushroom sandwich and I think they get short shrift. As such, I intend to just keep talking about them until I feel like more people are eating them, or I see them at more establishments. This is my blog, and I love mushrooms. I’ve featured fundamental LA before, and they make repeat appearances for good reason. They tend to excell in both concept and execution, and the number above is no exception. The mushroom is joined by avocado, frisee, pickled jalapeño and miso tahini dressing on toasted sourdough bread. The mushroom and the avocado form a deeply rich duet, the frisee is a delightful textural contrast, and the whole thing packs a substantial flavor. This is a great sandwich, and all the more evidence that if you’re steering clear of mushrooms you’re doing yourself no small disservice.
I’ve talked about the tragedy inherent in tuna fish before, but the short of it is that one day (possibly not far off soon) it will all be gone, and when it is gone it will be to our deep shame that most of the tuna we ate was dry and flavorless. Fundamental LA is a regular feature here at On Sandwiches, and I figured if I could trust anyone to do justice to tuna fish, it was them. The tuna conserva sandwich was billed as evoo, herbs, shallot, olives, tomato, avocado and lettuce on 12 grain. It was all of those things, but given their relative strengths I can’t help but feel olives should be written in bold, or perhaps twice. The olives really outshined everything else here, large, firm and briny. That would be fine on some sort of olive sandwich, but I came for the tuna. It was totally lost and it occurred to me that the sandwich could have been pulled chicken just as easily as tuna fish. Compounding all of this was that this is tuna conserva, a fancy sort of preservation involving poaching that carries an implicit promise of higher quality. Tuna salad is one thing, but if you aspire to tuna conserva the least you could do is leave the olives at home. I’ll doubtlessly be back at Fundamental LA, it’s still clear they’re aiming high and they have a number of other delicious sandwiches, but this one is a miss, and all the more tragic it’s a miss with tuna fish.
Having had a number of pleasant experiences at Fundamental LA in the past, I was curious to see what they might do with turkey. I don’t think much of turkey as a meat, usually finding it bland and its presence signalling an uninspired sandwich. The latter wasn’t quite a concern at Fundamental LA, as they put together roasted turkey breast on 12 grain with jalapeño apricot jam, arugula, and a lemon aioli. That’s a good lineup, a well conceived sandwich. As is too often the case at so many establishments, though, the execution was lacking. You can see it in the photo above, the big hump of turkey suggesting more of a domed construction than a proper stack. This isn’t pedantry or mere aesthetics; the construction of the shape has an immediate, direct impact on its consumption. There were too many bites of this sandwich that paired off a couple of ingredients at a time, robbing your humble enthusiast of the full, harmonious experience. Where everything could be tasted together this was quite good, though my personal preferences suggest more jam. But those bites were far too scarce, reducing what could have been a great sandwich to one that was just alright. I’ll find some exception turkey someday, but it isn’t here.
Back to Fundamental LA, this time for something new to the menu. Gone is the short rib sandwich, and in its place is braised lamb with eggplant, arugula pesto, roasted red peppers and pickled red onion on grilled sourdough. Compared head to head the short rib is a bit more adventurous, but there are things here to enjoy. The pesto went down on both the top and bottom of the sandwich, preventing the flavor from being lost. Overall the flavors work well together, and pickled red onion with roasted red peppers is a pairing that doesn’t show up often enough.
It wasn’t without its issues. Given that the eggplant was given second billing I expected quite a bit more of it, but it’s just a few slim slices, much to the sandwich’s detriment. The lamb was a touch dry, but I imagine that’s something that varies from day to day. All in all, Fundamental LA keeps up the effort as one of the stronger places for lunch in or around Westwood, and the next time the menu gets something new I won’t hesitate to give it a go.
The above sandwich is the Poblano Fresco from The Corner Bakery. Chicken, roasted red peppers, avocado, white cheddar and a jicama slaw, with chipotle lime mayo on a Poblano Cheese Bread. The below is the Chicken Torta from Fundamental LA. Chicken, tomatillo salsa, guacamole, cotija cheese, crema, jalapeño peppers and iceberg on a bolillo roll. Neither of these sandwiches are particularly great, but only one is forgivable.
Regular readers will know that I’ve made this point before, but not so explicitly and in a single post. Put simply, it is perfectly acceptable to aim high and fail, but it is far from OK to aim for the middle. The top sandwich isn’t bad, exactly, it’s just boring. The chicken is bland, the bread more cheese than chili, and really the whole thing stinks of resting solely on the slaw. “Jimicia!” goes the thought process. “That’ll impress the rubes.” The slaw itself is also bland, and while chipotles and limes are both fine ingredients, it surely says something about vision if the only way someone thought they could be brought to a sandwich was to ensconce them in mayonnaise.
The bottom sandwich has shredded chicken that was re-grilled to give it a bit of a crust, but it didn’t hold together tremendously well and when combined with a slightly-too-soft roll the whole thing fell apart in the eating. The flavors were good but not quite up to what I’ve come to expect from Fundamental LA. Further, when you’re putting forth something like tomatillo salsa, the competition in Los Angeles is so strong that it’s tough to get away with anything less than great.
One thing this is not about is that one of these sandwiches is from a hip restaurant and the other is from a 150-location strong chain. The processed food industry is as advanced as any other these days, and any manner of product can be distributed in a stable form, at scale. Slow cooked chicken, for example, cojita cheese or crema, none of this is out of The Counter’s reach. They simply don’t think it’s worth the effort, or they honestly think that the top sandwich is a better concept than the bottom. That’s why it’s unforgivable. Because it’s lazy, because it presents nothing you have not seen before and it expects you to be grateful for that. There are a lot of ways to make a good sandwich, but there isn’t a single one that ends up insulting the person eating it.
After two recent disappointing upscale bánh mìs (one from Mendocino Farms and the other from Ink Sack, both respected Los Angeles sandwich joints) I was hesitant to try another. My love of the bánh mì is well established, and I have no strong desire to sully my love of the archetype with a string of medicore attempts to upscale something that doesn’t need upscaling. But people keep making attempts, so I figure I might as well. After all, maybe someone’s going to get it right.
As it turns out, someone did! Fundamental LA, who I’ve discussed twice before, has a pork belly number they combine with a duck liver pate, some pickled root vegetables, and ajalapeno aioli, all on brioche. That’s no baguette, but as I discussed in the Mendocino Farms there are larger concerns than choice of bread. The flavor profile is of utmost concern, and Fundamental LA pulls it off. (The same things I said about pork belly previously still apply, but objectively speaking this is a very good sandwich.) The extra helping of cilantro helps cut through the richness of the pork belly, as do some well executed pickled veggies. The elements that were absent in the Mendocino Farms sandwich are fully present here, and as a result the flavor profile of a good bánh mì comes through. That’s crucial, and it’s the difference between an upscale bánh mì that seems like a betrayal of the sandwich and one that doesn’t. Fundamental LA continues to impress, even in matters so close to my heart.
I’ve talked about Fundamental LA before, and what I found there last time was so delightful that a second trip was never in question. Thinking back to the braised short rib I enjoyed so much at Little Chef Counter, I elected for the sandwich of the same name at Fundamental. Aside from the name and the primary ingredient, though, neither sandwich has much in common with the other. In Fundamental’s case, it’s braised short rib with go chu jang, dandelion greens, pickled mung beans and garlic aioli on brioche.
That’s not your average lineup for a sandwich, and as with any stand-out sandwich lineup, there’s an implicit statement. In this case, I would venture that anyone who puts pickled mung beans on their sandwich is loudly proclaiming that they know what they’re doing. It’s a bold, almost pungent flavor and it would be all too easy for them to overwhelm a sandwich, even one anchored with the deep richness of short ribs. In this case, things are tempered by not only the beef but dandelion greens (an underrated source of richness when handled properly) and go chu jang, a fermented chili paste that brought exactly the kind of heat needed to corral the other flavors.
In short, the sandwich was phenomenal. Pickled mung beans on a sandwich are a promise, a pledge not to screw things up. Fundamental LA delivers.
In recent days I’ve grown increasingly tired of what I would call the Standard Cafe Lineup. Turkey pesto, chipotle chicken, caprese, tuna salad. Maybe a ham and cheese or some manner of roast beef. All of those sandwiches can be delicious, even stupendous, but by definition the average turkey pesto you encounter is unlikely to be spectacular.
It would be all too easy to get hung up on this, to grouse at length about atrophied imaginations and stunted vision. But there’s no need for that, because with a little extra effort you can find places like Fundamental LA, places that are taking atypical ingredients, combining them in interesting ways, and putting out stellar sandwiches. In the case of the above it’s duck confit, cooked up to a wonderfully crispy, chewy state. That’s joined with chimichurri, pickled watermelon radish, butter lettuce and garlic aioli on a brioche roll. That’s a delightful lineup, and it all works together spectacularly well. The sandwich is bright and flavorful, with acidic notes from the radish and the duck cradling all other flavors in its savory depth. Brioche is an underutilized sandwich bread, and this sandwich is a good example of why it’s so useful. It’s a soft and yielding bread, meaning none of the ingredients slide anywhere, and you just get the sweet starch notes that are so essential to what we know as a sandwich. Little Chef Counter in San Jose made use of similar breads, to similarly successful ends.
This was a fine sandwich. A sandwich as good in execution as it is in conception is a rare thing indeed, and I was delighted to have this one.