Beef on Weck – Top Round Roast Beef, La Brea Ave, Los Angeles

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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.

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Prime Rib Sandwich – Simple Things, Los Angeles

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It needed more horseradish. I have said that after literally every horseradish-containing sandwich I have ever had, and the prime rib sandwich from Simple Things is no exception. Let me get the bottom line out of the way: this was a tasty sandwich. Beef, greens, tomato, horseradish on crispy ciabatta is a winner, and sweet caramelized onions and horseradish are a fine pair to cap things off.

But. Needed more horseradish. It always needs more horseradish, and I’m starting to wonder how that can be. Is horseradish really an ingredient that people enjoy consuming in tepid measure? It is distinct, in the sense that anyone who goes in for it knows what they’re getting. I talk a lot about balance and harmony here and one could accuse me of promoting the opposite here, but what I’m actually advocating is the raising of horseradish to the role of starring ingredient. The lineup above describes a fine sandwich but it is also an exceptionally simple one. Why not let it stand out? Were it up to me I might triple the amount of horseradish involved, name the sandwich after it and be done with it. On Sandwiches, though, is ultimately an exploration of what sandwiches exist, not what sandwiches are possible. The prime rib at Simple Things stands as so many good-but-uninspiring sandwiches do: without enough horseradish.

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.

Rare Roast Beef – Clementine, Ensley Ave, Los Angeles

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I’ve visited Clementine before, and the quality of what I found the first time around ensured that I would return. This time I elected to try the rare roast beef: top round, roasted in house, matched with a horseradish mustard dressing, marinated onions and arugula on ‘rustic bread.’ I’m never exactly sure what something like ‘rustic’ means, but I in this case it seemed to mean a roll with a respectable but not overly tough crust, and that was a touch that made all the difference. A tough roll could have easily made eating this a chore, with all manner of filling creep. But the crust was chewy yet yielding, and it made the sandwich delightful overall. The beef is tender and juicy, the dressing spicy and flavorful, (but, as always, could have used more horseradish) and the arugula well present. Look at how much lettuce is in that sandwich! That’s no obligatory greenery, friends, that’s a part of the sandwich. The marinated onions were a bit more scarce, sadly, and in a lot of bites of the sandwich they were hardly there at all. In a different sandwich that might have bothered me, but this was fine with or without them.

Enough about what was on the sandwich, I’d like to note what wasn’t: cheese. I’ve spoken many times about the required slice of cheese, the inveterate sense that without a piece of cheese, something isn’t a sandwich. This is hogwash, of course, but I’ve been to more places than I can count who put cheese on everything in sight, practically throwing a slice at you as you walk in the door. Enough. Clementine is smart enough to realize that there’s enough here, that no cheese is necessary, that it would either be lost in the rest of the sandwich or simply gum up the works, and so they leave it off. That was downright decent of them, and I cannot thank them enough.

Beef Tenderloin And Turkey Breast – FOOD, Pico Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

FOOD is a small cafe on Pico that prides itself on using the finest ingredients. I do love a highfalutin sandwich, so that sort of thing is right up my alley and I was not disappointed with the first offering from FOOD. The roasted beef tenderloin is specified as Meyer’s, meaning it’s free of antibiotics and hormones and raised humanely. That’s the kind of thing that’s tough to verify on the consumer’s end, but it sure tasted like it was raised with care. (I question any definition of “humanely” that ends in slaughter, but that’s a debate for another blog.) It was tender, flavorful beef, well paired in thick slices with arugula, horseradish cream and roasted garlic-onion jam. The slice width becomes important, because the sandwich comes on a baguette that has a powerful crust, as a decent baguette should. That necessitates some serious chewing, and thick slices of beef are the kind of thing required to stand up to that effort. There was a good amount of horseradish here, and though I complain (as always) that it could have used more, I will say that it’s probably just right for your average sandwich enthusiast. The onion jam is sweet, well contrasting the beef and the horseradish. This is a fine sandwich, put together with care and consideration with a delicious result.

This was the oven roasted turkey breast, accompanied by Brie, arugula and cranberry chutney on ciabatta. Note the difference in bread, where a much softer roll pairs with the more yielding turkey. The pairing of cranberry and turkey is a classic, of course, extremely tasty in many instances. It was with the Brie where I felt this sandwich went wrong, and between this one and the French Bull at Bagel Maven I’m beginning to grow quite skeptical of about the role of brie on a sandwich. The BLT at The Oaks, while technically Camembert and not Brie, suffers from similar issues. The turkey was certainly overwhelmed here, and it seems to me that there isn’t much capable of standing up to any Brie that’s even slightly too far towards the ammonia end of the scale. It is possible that I’ve just not had the right Brie in the right sandwiches, but from here on out I’m proceeding with caution. Sans Brie this sandwich was quite tasty, and given the level of thought and care clearly put into each sandwich, it’s easy to forgive one that isn’t stellar. FOOD has a number of other sandwiches on their menu that look intriguing, and I wouldn’t hesitate to try any of them.

Pulled Braised Short Rib French Onion Dip – The Oaks Gourmet Market, N Bronson Ave, Los Angeles, CA

Returning to Oaks Gourmet, let us once again consider a basic sandwich, upscaled. Aside from a heaping pile of pulled short rib, the Braised French Onion Short Rib French Dip from Oaks Gourmet contains braised onions, horseradish cream and truffled watercress on a toasted baguette, with the sherry au jus served on the side. That’s quite a sandwich, although not one that is entirely comprehensible. The question of how one truffles watercress is raised, for example. I suspect they mean that they’re using truffle oil, but the fact that they don’t just say that is rather suspicious. But aside from any nefarious truffling, this was was a really good sandwich. It wasn’t quite everything it’s supposed to be, I suspect, as it was not particularly earth shattering and wasn’t really a subtle, layered sandwich. But it was everything one wants a french dip to be, which is to say, a big pile of really rich meat. There wasn’t enough horseradish on it for my taste, but this wasn’t the first time that’s happened and it certainly won’t be the last.

Judging by this and the short rib sandwich from Little Chef Counter, I’m inclined to say that short ribs are a severely underutilized sandwich ingredient. It’s incredibly rich, savory, and it can be an incredible background for other flavors. Serving this sandwich with about half the meat present would have set up that background and left some room for the watercress and its truffling to play through, but as it stands it was all short rib. There are far worse things for a sandwich to be, though, so consider me satisfied.

Lunar Dip – Pluto’s Restaurant, Santana Row, San Jose, CA

Pluto’s is one of those establishments with a make-your-own focus, presenting a long list of ingredients and suggesting you simply get whatever you like. They only have four sandwiches listed on the menu, one of them a weekly special. The Lunar Dip is their take on a French Dip, with grilled tri-tip in place of roast beef. The spice-rubbed beef is accompanied by horseradish mayo and provolone cheese, and it’s served on ciabatta bread with a small cup of jus.

First and foremost, I’d like to know how far one man has to wander to find an establishment willing to put more than a scattering of horseradish on a sandwich. Regular readers will recall that I have bemoaned a lack of horseradish several times, and Pluto’s appears to be another place committing that particular sin. I’m half inclined to think that this is just me, that I happen to really go wild for horseradish and I should stop holding against innocent eateries that the general public doesn’t share my predilection. But the other half of my inclination insists that the horseradish on this sandwich was genuinely scant. I’ve discussed before that while it rarely happens in real life, the platonic ideal of a sandwich includes a bit of each ingredient in every bite. Well, in this case the horseradish was absent from far more bites than for which it was present, and I struggle to accept that. “But that would be too much horseradish,” I can hear people saying. But most often what we are given is not horseradish itself but creamed horseradish or horseradish mayonnaise. And I put it to you that that is the perfect opportunity for any enterprise to tailor an even amount of horseradish, at any degree. The whole thing is wide open, and there’s really no excuse for failure.

But enough of that. Setting aside that one issue, this was a tasty sandwich. The ultimate question governing any sandwich experience is “Was it satisfying?” and I have to say that this sandwich was. The ciabatta roll had a good crust to it but not so sturdy that every bite sent the sandwich sliding all over the place. Provolone is mild and was present in a respectable amount, and the steak was well spiced and tender. The jus was warm, though not particularly flavorful in its own right. What’s more, the sandwich was a bargain. Given that it comes from Santana Row, a downtown-before-the-mall-killed-downtown upscale shopping development, a tri-tip sandwich for around six and half dollars is a good deal. Someday I’ll find a sandwich with all the horseradish my heart desires, but until that day, the Lunar Dip isn’t so bad.

French Bull – Bagel Maven, 7th Ave, New York, NY

I’m always given a bit of pause when going for a sandwich at an establishment named for some other food. Plenty of such establishments offer fine sandwiches, but it’s always cause for the tiniest bit of suspicion. I should have trusted my instincts. The French Bull at Bagel Maven is roast beef, brie and watercress on ciabatta bread. Mayonnaise and horseradish round things out. That’s well and good in concept, but in execution there was much too much cheese. Believe it or not, what you see above is merely half of what was intended for the sandwich, and I actually broke with my own policy and offered instruction to the man assembling things. Watching it being made, I saw the pictured amount of cheese added and then saw the sandwich maker reach for anther handful. I found myself unable to hold my tongue. “That’s enough cheese,” I called, and the woman behind me wondered aloud just how much he had intended to add. That will forever remain a mystery, but I do know that so long as I was shouting instructions I should have called for some subtraction. The beef and the cheese are there in almost equal parts, which is hopelessly out of balance. The horseradish was completely lost, something that happens a lot more frequently than I would prefer. In more fitting proportions I think this would have been a fine sandwich, but as I received it it was no good. Balance is delicate, tremendously delicate, and it’s all too easy for one element to derail a sandwich. Any serious sandwich enthusiast knows this, which makes it all the more a shame that so many establishments seem so set on reminding us.

Slummin’ It: Arby’s Classic Roast Beef


Arby’s was founded in 1964 with the desire to tempt consumers with something other than Hamburgers. It’s a window into what was available at the time that roast beef sandwiches were both a novel change and enough to propel a restaurant to moderate, then substantial success. I sincerely wish that I could consider this sandwich in that context, because by current standards it’s abysmal. Maybe that’s my fault, for selecting Arby’s classic offering instead of something new. I suspect, though, that the addition of three cheeses and bacon wouldn’t fix the underlying problem. The beef, which is apparently roasted in store and freshly sliced, tastes like it came out of a large can, with a white label reading “BEEF” in big block letters. I tried both the BBQ sauce and the “Horsey” sauce, a sauce ostensibly built around horseradish. I like horseradish and I think it’s underrepresented in American sandwich cuisine and so I had anticipating this sauce providing at least a few positive marks for the sandwich, no matter what else developed. Alas, readers, the Horsey sauce is…well, here’s how I picture it: Someone took a jar of mayonnaise and set it next to a jar of horseradish. They stared at both of them for a minute, maybe taking the jar of horseradish and pointing it at the mayo. Then they take the mayo and start doling it out as Horsey sauce. You could dunk your sandwich in the sauce and you wouldn’t approach a significant level of flavor, which is unfortunate. Horseradish is built around attacking the sinuses and if you dilute it to the level where you no longer have to be careful in its application you might as well not use it at all. The BBQ sauce I found a bit watery but basically inoffensive.

I ended the first Slummin’ It post with a hope that I would fine a really good sandwich where I was not expecting one. That is still my hope, but I now fear it may take much longer than I might have expected.

The Wild Wild West – Mr. Pickle’s Sandwich Shop, N. Santa Cruz Ave, Los Gatos, CA

The Wild Wild West at Mr. Pickles is roast beef, ham, horseradish, provolone cheese, and avocado. That’s a list of ingredients I wouldn’t think to put together, but for whatever reason it struck me as the sandwich to get. I’m not going to dwell on that, though, because the story is elsewhere. As is my custom, when the people at Mr. Pickle’s asked me if I wanted everything on my sandwich, I answered in the affirmative. Everything, I learned, was the polar opposite of the inadequate minimalism of The Garret. Here’s what was added to the sandwich: G-Sauce (a garlic sauce of some sort), mayo, mustard, pesto, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions and peppers. Looking at that list, it has a stealthy sort of insanity to it. A quick glance and you might miss it, but dwell on it and you’ll realize that something isn’t quite right. The pesto gives it away. Pesto? Pesto is part of your everything? Pesto is an appropriate addition to all of the sandwiches you sell? That just isn’t reasonable. I respect the right of every sandwich maker to go about their craft as they see fit, but I know where the bounds of propriety lie and I have no problem telling you when you’ve crossed them. Pesto? On everything? Pesto? I just can’t quite get my head around it. The G-Sauce is another red flag. If it were there on its own it would be a risky trademark, but in conjunction with the pesto it signals that someone involved took “everything” far too literally.

But lets ignore, for a moment, the concept at play here. Low-grade lunacy it may be, but is it at least well executed? Sadly, no. The pickles and peppers could best be described as “scattered,” the lettuce and tomato similarly sparse. Do they want these things to be part of the sandwich or not? If they’re going to include them then thought ought include them, instead of telling me they’re going to and then leave me to hunt them down in a sloppy mess. And it was sloppy, whatever the G-Sauce is made of it joined forces with the mayo to send the top half of the sandwich sliding all over the place.  I can respect someone who gives a 3 out of 10 concept everything they have, but there’s no forgiving poor execution of a lousy idea.

This was a weird sandwich. The avocado was completely obliterated. When the horseradish was present the sandwich almost seemed to come together, but then the next bite would be all pesto. The pickles and peppers played similar in-and-out games. I tried to make sense of it, but eventually I just had to throw my hands up. I would like to note, though, that the bread was really, really good. A sourdough roll of unknown provenance, it had a hearty crust and some really great flavor. Even given the racket it played host to, the quality of the bread made for a small redemptive note in an odd, odd symphony.