I have earlier indicated that pork belly is far from my favorite, and that remains true. But as establishments continue to hold it in a place of prominence, I’ll keep eating it. Part of that is as a service to my dear readers, but part of it is because I never give up on an ingredient, and know that the world of sandwiches holds a great many surprises. Take the above. It was plagued by none of the overly-fatty, gristle-ridden issues that normally turn me off pork belly. The pork belly in this sandwich was firm but not tough, well seared but far from burnt, and altogether pretty good. Still wouldn’t be my first choice, but it worked well here. And that’s good, because if it had fallen short there wasn’t much that could have come to the rescue. The rest of the sandwich was arugula, tomato, red onion and aioli on a Parmesan crusted roll. The arugula was plentiful, similar to but not quite as extreme as what they’ve got at Clementine, but that would hardly be enough to carry the sandwich. Luckily it didn’t have to, as the pork belly was quite good and made for a fine sandwich.
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.
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.
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.
The pork belly bánh mì at Cô Ba sells for $8, which made it the most expensive bánh mì I’d ever seen. In truth were I only pursuing sandwiches for my personal pleasure I’d scoff at such a thing and head over to Chinatown, where a sandwich almost certainly just as good can be had for nearly half the price. But I am in this not just for myself but for a community of enthusiasts, so I swallowed my objections and ordered the sandwich. Besides, perhaps it would be the best bánh mì I’d ever had, a sandwich that would change my life. In that case it might very well be worth the $8! Well, cutting to the chase, it wasn’t worth it. Were I not so accustomed to paying between $4 and $5 for a sandwich I might have no objection at all, but I am and so I do. It was a good sandwich, but no $8.
I would like to make clear, though, it was a good sandwich. Most everything was in the “pretty good” range, better than acceptable but not so good as to be great. The meat was the real highlight, a rich, fatty bit of pork belly. It’s a shame that the jalapeños you see pictured there are the only ones involved. Jalapeños fit better on this bánh mì than any I’ve ever had, the heat cutting the fat nicely. There was a lot more cilantro than average as well, but the pork belly stood up to that just as well as it did the chilies. In the end, it might not be fair to define a sandwich entirely by its price, but nothing exists in a vacuum. Pork belly isn’t something usually offered on a bánh mì, but all sandwiches exist in a larger context and when a short walk will net you a few bucks saved and a better sandwich, it’s hard to get too excited, pork belly or no.