How good is half of a great sandwich? Not half as in sliced down the middle, as so many sandwiches are, but half in incomplete, lacking. That’s the question that confronted me at Ô Bánh Mì. They have a Friday special consisting of recently roasted pig, and I have to say as far as that goes it’s stupendous. It comes with jus and it’s unbelievably rich, and the tender pork is perfectly met with crispy skin. Anyone starting with that is well on their way to an outstanding sandwich, I figured, but that’s the rub: on their way.
I have long extolled the virtues of the bánh mì, and I have done so at length. The reason I love the sandwich so much is that I believe it to be the perfect example of what a sandwich can be. A good sandwich is about balance and harmony; it can’t have too much of any one thing, and it all has to work together. A central filling, pickled daikon and carrot, cilantro, jalapeño, cucumber and the wonderfully buttery Vietnamese mayo. It balances savory and sharp, richness and spice, sweet and tang. Often found on really great bread, a well-made bánh mì is perfect.18
But what if it’s not well made? What if, like the above, it is completely devoid of pickled vegetables and cucumber? What if some establishment had decided that their pig roast was so great the rest of the sandwich was superfluous? Well, friends, I put it to you that you’d be left with a sandwich that wasn’t really all that great. A sandwich, after all, is to be considered as a whole. In that light, I hesitate to endorse the above. It’s genuinely great pork, but long time readers will know that there’s little that cuts at me worse than a sandwich driven to mediocrity by a halfhearted effort. It didn’t have to be this way, I want to cry. This could have been a great sandwich.
I love the bánh mì. A bánh mì is the reason this blog exists. There are 28 separate bánh mì reviews on this site. If there’s someone who’s been to more bánh mì places than I have, they aren’t blogging about it. So when I look at the above…it’s wrong.
Marinated steak, pickled vegetables, a spicy coleslaw, fried onion rings, tomato, jalapeño, cilantro, a teriyaki glaze and sriracha mayo. That’s a far cry from what I know the bánh mì to be, what with the onion rings, the tomato, the coleslaw, the teriyaki. It’s just a mishmash of pseudo-Asian ingredients and the sort of fried indulgence for which Fat Sal’s is known, and they have the gall to call it a bánh mì. Teriyaki?!!?
The thing is, I’m not sure I care anymore. This was a good sandwich.. Sweet, spicy, tender and crunchy and really just balanced from top to bottom. I’ve held fast to dogma for a long time, claiming to be some arbiter of something I didn’t invent and can’t claim to fully understand, and maybe it’s time to be done with that. There’s room in this world for the pure experience, but there has to be room for the rest of it, no? This was a really tasty sandwich, and maybe that’s the last word.
Continuing their habit of bringing culinary-geography-oddities to Los Angeles cuisine, the Top Round sandwich above features Provel cheese, a processed cheddar/swiss/provolone cheese that’s particularly popular in St. Louis. It has a loose, gooey texture and here it joins horseradish cream, roasted mushrooms and the namesake roast beef. That’s a fine lineup that works for all of the obvious reasons; it has a deep, rich flavor balanced by earthy, savory mushrooms and spicy horseradish. But more than a simple, well-designed sandwich, I’d like to point out a bit of execution here.
Eleven. I have featured 11 sandwiches on this blog that I said needed more horseradish. There were another half-dozen or so that I ate but never featured here. “Needs more horseradish,” I said again and again, and I had basically resigned myself to this being the case for every horseradish-containing sandwich I ever expected to be served. But the above sandwich changed that. It had a proper amount of horseradish, with a fine heat throughout the sandwich and a few bites that really took it to the palate. Horseradish is an assertive ingredient, but included halfway it only serves to tease. Some of the sandwiches at Top Round fall prey to this trap, but thankfully not the one with “horse” in the name. The Horse & Hole is a fine sandwich with plenty of horseradish, and I couldn’t be more delighted to pay such a rare compliment.
Not 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.
Sometimes I wonder how things might have gone if the meal had been described as “chicken, then waffles.” Were it pitched as sequential instead of additive perhaps we could have avoided the chips, the drink syrup, the scented candle, and all manner of other things suggestive of chicken and waffles but really just twisted summation. What I’m driving at here is that in the past I have insisted that chicken and waffles may arrive at one’s table together but they are not meant to be consumed as such. Many people can and do switch back and forth from one part of the meal to another but I’ve never seen anyone flip the chicken on top of the waffle and go to down on both at once*.
It will not surprise long-time readers in the least that I can be a bit of a curmudgeon sometimes, and the above notion is a good example. What does it harm me if folks want to have their chicken and their waffle in one bite? Not a bit, as it turns out, and maybe there’s even a point to it. The above sandwich is a waffle, a fried chicken breast, coleslaw and a mustard/mayo combo, and it is quite tasty. I’m not sure it’s as tasty as they would be separate but combined, or whether there isn’t a better bread to use, but in and of itself it’s really not bad. The waffle is sweet with a bit of crunch to it, echoed in the crunch of the chicken, with the sweetness playing well against the mustard and the coleslaw. It still feels silly to me but, in the grand scheme of all the sins a sandwich can commit, silly really isn’t so bad.
*Perhaps this is just me and my associates, though? Maybe everyone at Roscoe’s dumps it all into the same bowl the second I step out the door.
The last time I had a porchetta sandwich it was the high-wire act of nothing but meat and bread. Not so at Gjelina, where the porchetta joins rosemary, fennel, garlic, salsa verde, and arugula on a bialy. I’ll cut to the quick here: this was fantastic. Perhaps top-10 fantastic. Bialys are rare in Los Angeles so it’s a delight not just to find one but to find a good one, with all the crunch that comes from the bagel’s non-boiled cousin. The pork is exquisitely prepared, savory, rich and crunchy. The garlic, rosmary and fennel are an aromatic, herbal delight, and the salsa verde brings enough heat to bump up the rest of the crew. This was rather modest in size and not quite so modest in price, but such things are to be expected in Los Angeles. That said, I think the size is just right. I’ve dug into some really rich sandwiches only to find myself overwhelmed less than halfway through, and I’ve come across more than one rube who thinks that if some is good than surely too much must be great. There’s a restraint at work at Gjelina and the result is a finely tuned sandwich, delicious from first bite to last.
Simple Things has been featured at On Sandwiches a few times, and they’ve become a trusted source for a good sandwich. My point with this post isn’t about this specific sandwich, which was in fact good. (Sliced ribeye, roasted cherry tomatoes,
onion jam, arugula and chimichurri on ciabatta. A fine lineup.) My point here is to talk about chimichurri. In its simplest form nothing but parsley, garlic, oregano, olive oil, and vinegar it can be tweaked a thousand different ways. It’s delicious, and as I ate this sandwich I wondered why on earth we don’t see it more often. I can’t count the number of sandwiches I’ve seen that are meat, greens, and horseradish. That’s fine, I’ve loved more than a few of them, but surely we would be better off if the vibrant notes of chimichurri were not so hard to find. It can’t be logisitcs, chimichurri is something of a cousin to pesto and that’s everywhere, in grocery stores both freshly prepared and in lesser, shelf-stable forms. Simply put, I can think of no reason this sauce shouldn’t appear much more often than it does, and I salute Simple Things for working to change that.
Bread Lounge is a bakery on the far side of downtown LA, and they’re serious about what they do. With an on-site bakery it’s hard to go wrong, and the olive loaf ciabatta the sandwich came on was outstanding. Great bread can bring a sandwich a long way, but it’s never the whole story. Thankfully, the sandwiches at Bread Lounge seem to have received as much attention as the bread. The Have A Ball is so named due to the starring meatballs, made from a mixture of pork and beef. They’re joined by a smoky aioli, cherry tomatoes, arugula and a healthy dose of Emmentaler cheese. A simple lineup but an effective one, as the meatballs and the cheese come together for a different take on a classic, with the Emmentaler’s contribution of a deep, rich tang an especially welcome contribution. The arugula cuts the richness with just a bit of pepper, and the aioli and the tomatoes round things out. Sandwiches at Bread Lounge come on your choice of bread, and I went with the olive loaf at the suggestion of an employee. It was delightful, and I can’t wait to try it again on one of their other offerings.
A beef on weck in Los Angeles! The beef on weck is a specialty of the greater Buffalo area that, sadly, hasn’t gained much traction beyond western New York. The last time I saw one was more than five years ago, at the All-Star Sandwich Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I ordered it without hesitation then, and I ordered it without hesitation when I saw the menu at Top Round. In both cases I was well rewarded.
The beef on weck is all all-time great as far as doing a lot with almost nothing. Roast beef on a roll sprinkled with kosher salt and caraway seeds is all that’s really there, though usually with some horseradish. And that’s all it takes; the herbal notes from the seeds balance well against the richness of the beef, the salt ramps everything up, and the horseradish brings a pleasant heat. (Like all sandwiches with horseradish, this did need more horseradish.)
I don’t know how long it will be before I see another beef on weck, but I know that when I see it I’m going to order it. I heartily recommend you do the same.
All 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.