Wagyu Meatloaf & Winter ‘Shrooms — Mendocino Farms

mendocinomeatloafI have gone on record as saying that I’ve never had a genuinely good meatloaf sandwich, and I believe that’s because it’s a much more difficult sandwich than most people seem to think. To begin with, making a really good meatloaf isn’t easy, they’re far too often dry and bland. Beyond that the proportions in the sandwich are tough to get right, with enough meatloaf to matter you need a really fine balance of other ingredients, and it just wasn’t something I’d ever seen anyone pull off. Until, that is, I tried the meatloaf sandwich at Mendocino Farms.

In keeping with the typical offering from Mendocino Farms, it’s an upscaled meatloaf sandwich. Wagyu beef joins Japanese mushrooms, steamed kale, horseradish crema and herb aioli on a toasted sesame bun. Previously that kind of thing has missed the mark for me, specifically at Mendocino Farms, but here it seems to be just how to crack the meatloaf sandwich. The meatloaf was rich and not at all dry, the kale was bright and earthy, the mushrooms playing right between the two, earthy and rich. The crema  was sharp, and the toasted bun a nicely-yielding shell. As with all sandwiches containing horseradish it could have used more horseradish, but that’s really more a personal preference than any real rule. The last meatloaf sandwich I had nearly had me giving up on the whole archetype, so I am especially grateful for Mendocino Farms’ shining example. Let that be a lesson to me. The way we see sandwiches is as much about our eyes as it is about the landscape, and we’re better served by setting off exploring than by thinking we’ve seen it all.

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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.

Turkey Confit with Yellow Rooster Sauce – Mendocino Farms, Los Angeles, CA

turkeyconfitAlthough previous trips to Mendocino Farms (here and here) have been a tad disappointing, going back was never a question. It’s clear they put a lot of thought into the sandwiches and aim high, and even though I found previous efforts to miss the mark I knew that something would strike me. And something did! The turkey confit is part of the rotating, seasonal section of the menu, and it is a delight. A combination of pulled turkey leg confit with something they describe as yellow rooster sauce, with sesame ginger green papaya slaw, pickled red onions, their breadcrumb-esque krispies on a roll with a deep wheat flavor. Turkey, so often presented in bland, lunch meat form, is juicy and moist. The rooster sauce brings a level of heat neither insignificant nor overwhelming, and the slaw and the onions bring a tangy sweetness that works well inside the heat. The krispies were used in a much more sparing manner than in the not so fried chicken sandwich, and as a result they provided a nice textural contrast and were more than welcome. This is a very good sandwich, and it’s nice to know that Mendocino Farms has some real winners in its lineup.

Not So Fried Chicken – Mendocino Farms, Los Angeles, CA

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I can’t figure Mendocino Farms out. The bánh mì I had some time ago was less than satisfying, but they seemed worthy of a second visit. After all, it’s clear they’re putting a lot of thought into their sandwiches. Sadly, I can’t quite figure out what they’re thinking.

The “Not So Fried” chicken sandwich is sliced chicken breast, said to be rolled in something called “Krispies” and accompanied with herb aioli, mustard pickle slaw, tomatoes, and pickled red onions on toasted ciabatta. There’s a side of barbeque sauce, labeled as chipotle but running with a more generic smoke flavor than the particulars of chipotle peppers. Again, there’s ample evidence of a lot of time and effort, but in all of the consideration given this sandwich it seemed no one stopped and asked “Is sliced chicken breast and breadcrumbs a good combination?” Had they done so, they would have realized no. No it is not. The ‘krispies’ included on the sandwich are large and especially crunchy, but they end up scattered all over and not particularly pleasant. The crust-meat effect they are meant to mimic is largely absent, and the sandwich overall lacks harmony and cohesiveness.

I recognize that this is not a fried chicken sandwich, but if you’re going to offer a substitute, the implication is that you’re doing so because you’ve made some sort of upgrade. “I know a fried chicken sandwich sounds good,” you’re saying, “but wait until you try this.” That’s a perfectly fair proposition, but given that the this in question is sliced chicken breast and overdone breadcrumbs, it was hard not to get stuck on the fact that I could have been eating a fried chicken sandwich. The flavor profile was on-point, the mustard pickle slaw was delicious, but overall any sandwich that does nothing but remind you of what you could be eating can’t be considered a success. This likely won’t be the last time I eat at Mendocino Farms, but I’ll certainly cast a more jaundiced eye on their menu going forward.

Kurobuta Pork Belly Banh Mi – Mendocino Farms, Los Angeles, CA

This is either a pretty good sandwich or it’s a poor imitation of a bánh mì. I don’t think that’s what Mendocino Farms was going for, but as near as I can tell, that’s what they got.

You could disqualify this as a bánh mì strictly based on the fact that it doesn’t come on a baguette. Some might see that as needlessly pedantic, but you can’t expect to run around swapping in ciabatta bread and not have someone call you to account. Even ignoring the bread, though, this comes up short.

The flavor profile is off. Bánh mì come lots of different ways, but they all have a particular savory/vegetable/cilantro/heat balance to them. This sandwich doesn’t have that. The pork is incredibly rich and very, very juicy, which ends up dominating the rest of the sandwich. The sandwich is billed as having a “chili aioli,” and while I’d like to weigh that against buttery Vietnamese mayo, I couldn’t really make it out to be considered. The vegetables suffer the same fate.

But all of that that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad sandwich. The bánh mì depends heavily on balance, but not all sandwiches are so. It is the difference between an ensemble performance and a solo act, a simple difference of vision. If you take this as a pork belly sandwich, it’s delicious. The pork is front and center, and everything else plays quietly in the background, rounding out some bites but being pleasantly absent in others. It’s really high quality pork, rich and savory, and well worth its own sandwich. This is a sandwich well worth eating, but don’t mistake it for a bánh mì.