A trip to San Jose isn’t complete without a stop at Little Chef Counter, a delightful place that remains On Sandwiches’ most frequently reviewed establishment. The menu is constantly evolving, and when I was there most recently I found a pork belly sandwich featuring an apple compote, celery root slaw and a lemon vinaigrette. Like nearly everything I’ve had there, this was delightful. If pork belly is your thing, I can’t recommend it enough. Speaking personally, I’m not so sure pork belly is for me.
I like fat. It provides both a pleasing taste and texture, and it is a key ingredient in any number of foods that I find to be delicious. But like everything else, there’s a balance to be had, and sometimes fat just gets out of control. Pork belly…sometimes I feel like it starts out of control. There’s almost always a fair amount of gristle involved, which I suppose can’t be blamed exactly on fat, but gristle tends to come with the territory of fatty meat. It can usually be avoided, but when it comes to pork belly it seems folks either can’t or won’t. Maybe I’m looking at this from the wrong angle, and you’re ready to insist that pork belly gristle is a feature, and not a bug. I remain unsold, but that doesn’t make the sandwich above any less good. Apple and pork is a classic pairing, the celery root slaw gives an earthy base to the whole endeavor, and the citrus in the vinaigrette goes a long way in tempering the richness of the meat. It’s a great sandwich, pork belly or no.
I had occasion to be in San Jose recently, and that meant another visit to Little Chef Counter. The menu there is constantly rotating, and the upside of this is that there’s always something new to discover. The downside of this is that sometimes something you love is sidelined in favor of something sub-par, as was the case when the mushrooms on toast was phased out and the smoked salmon sandwich appeared. That was a great loss by my estimation, as mushrooms are quite close to being a perfect food and are woefully underrepresented in the sandwich world. And so it was that I was delighted to return in the new year and find the mushroom pepper sandwich on the menu, a simple number consisting of cremini mushrooms, roasted red bell peppers and arugula in a marscapone sauce on a toasted baguette.
In the event that you’re one of the unfortunate souls who doesn’t care for mushrooms, I don’t imagine there’s much I can say to sell you on this sandwich. If you’re an enlightened type, I don’t imagine there’s much I need to say. The mushrooms are the star here, and deservedly so. The sauce could easily have been heavy and out of control, but it’s light and playing carefully in the background with a noticeable bit of spice to it. The peppers are sweet, the lettuce peppery, and the baguette is toasted such that each bite is yielding and there’s little need to go chasing stray mushrooms across your plate. In short, it is a well conceived, well executed sandwich. That’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from Little Chef Counter, and I’m delighted to report that they deliver.
Just because running around eating my favorite sandwiches wasn’t the best way to pay tribute to San Jose before I take my leave doesn’t mean I didn’t do it. I dearly wish Little Chef Counter had been around before my last year in this city, because they’re doing really wonderful things with sandwiches. My last experience there was disappointing, but every one before and since has been anything but. The chicken salad sandwich is the latest example of their excellent offerings: big chunks of chicken join Shashito peppers, romaine lettuce, peach jam, and a few slices of bacon on a hearty roll. There’s nothing too fancy going on here, just a very good sandwich. The bacon (as is so often the case) wasn’t strictly necessary, but it didn’t detract from things. The sweet flavor of the peach jam was the dominant note in the sandwich, and the chicken itself was very lightly dressed, everything I could have asked for. I’m sure there are fine sandwiches to be found in my new city, but I can guarantee you that on some warm afternoon I will find myself wondering what new sandwich Little Chef Counter has cooked up, and wishing that I were there to eat it.
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.
Little Chef Counter’s menu is constantly changing, and on top of that there are specials moving in and out every few days. Upon hearing that their brunch menu included a breakfast sandwich, you can be certain I made my way over there with all due haste. I’ve already been seriously impressed by one of their sandwiches, and quite pleased with another. Their offering for breakfast was a sweet Hawaiian bread roll, scrambled eggs with spinach, and bacon. Simple, clean, tasty as all get-out. I’ll even forgive calling it a sammich. (For the record, though, “Sammies” is a bridge too far.)
I want to specifically point out the difference between the eggs here and the eggs from Monday’s sandwich. Forget the spinach. One of these places is making an effort, and the other isn’t. And this isn’t a case of “well they aim for gourmet, and we’re just a cafe.” Scrambled eggs are scrambled eggs, and they aren’t tremendously difficult to do well. (Perfect scrambled eggs are hard. Good ones are not.) Bacon is more welcome than not on a breakfast sandwich, and the choice of roll was a subtle thing a lot of places aren’t going to pick up on. It’s soft and yielding, so the actual holding and consuming of the sandwich don’t send the eggs sliding everywhere. That, in turn, allows for softer, fluffier eggs. It’s the kind of touch that shows a bit of thought went into things, and if more folks were committed to doing just that, we’d all have more tasty, tasty sandwiches like this one. Little Chef Counter is now three for three with sandwiches, and if you’re a sandwich enthusiast in the bay area I suggest you give them a shot yourself.
Marinated portabella and cremini mushrooms in a mascarpone cream sauce, topped with arugula, on a crunchy bit of bread. That’s it. You don’t need much for a sandwich, but it’s tough to put together a genuinely simple one that’s also quite good. With the excellent experience I had the first time I stopped by Little Chef Counter, I decided to see if they were up to the task. I’ll cut to the quick: I was delighted by this sandwich, but I can easily see where others wouldn’t think quite so highly of it. I happen to really love mushrooms, and I’ve got a number of associates who are with me on that. Good mushrooms have a dense, earthy flavor that’s complex and subtle, with a sort of humble richness to it. The mushrooms were undoubtedly the star of this sandwich, and their flavor came shining through. The sauce was creamy and boosted the richness, and the arugula gave a contrasting bit of peppery bite. The bread was crunchy, but given that it was stuffed with creamy mushrooms and not much else, a little filling creep was inevitable. Still, it was manageable and well worth the effort.
If mushrooms aren’t your thing, then this isn’t the sandwich for you. There’s simply not much else going on; this sandwich is mushrooms for the sake of mushrooms. But if you feel they way I do about mushrooms, there’s everything here to love. Little Chef Counter is two for two as far as I’m concerned, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with in the future.
Little Chef Counter is part of San Jose’s San Pedro Square Market, a bid to create something of a public square in downtown San Jose. It sits to one side of a large open room, surrounded by other similar establishments and with little to it but a kitchen and a counter. I mean similar establishments in that they also sell food, because I would speculate that when it comes to quality Little Chef Counter is in a class of its own. Simply put, this is the best non-ethnic sandwich I’ve had in San Jose. That’s not an attempt to damn with faint praise, it’s just that most of San Jose’s stand out sandwiches are of the bánh mì or torta variety. There’s plenty of competition with standard American fare, though, and Little Chef Counter comes out pretty far ahead of any sandwich I’ve had thus far. The sandwich is braised short rib, crispy onions, a horseradish slaw and a cheese sauce. The short rib is juicy and flavorful, a succulent, tender base for the rest of the sandwich. The slaw is crunchy and has plenty of zing via the horseradish, the it joins the fresh fried onions as a wonderfully crispy counter to the texture of the short rib. Layered on the bread under the short rib, the cheese sauce is rich but never overwhelming, in no risk of drowning out the other ingredients. I have nothing but praise to offer this sandwich; it’s wonderfully balanced and tremendously flavorful. Little Chef Counter may be a sparse in appearance, but the sandwich they put together was a grand success.