Roast Pig — Ô Bánh Mì, Hyperion Ave, Los Feliz

obanhmiHow 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.

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Porchetta — Gjelina Takeaway, Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice

porchettasandwichThe 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.

Have A Ball — Bread Lounge, Santa Fe Ave, Los Angeles

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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.

Bánh Mì Saigon — Grand St, New york, NY

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“If my own voice falters, tell them hubris was my way of adoring you.” – Lucie Brock-Borido, “Freedom of Speech”

Earlier this week I told someone that Bánh Mì Saigon probably wasn’t worth a trip. I gave this very serious consideration before I said it, but in the end I knew it was the right thing to say. Bánh Mì Saigon used to have the best sandwich in America, but that probably isn’t true anymore.

Probably. I want to revisit what I first said about Bánh Mì Saigon, what occurred to me when I realized sandwiches were something worth writing about:

 I have not eaten every sandwich in America, and I do not aspire to. The conclusion that this sandwich is the best was not reached by poll, not by formula, not by proclamation. It simply is. The #1 from Bánh Mì Saigon is not an appeal to reason, it is an argument for sandwiches as a religion.

I first ate that sandwich more than seven years ago, and in the intervening years I’ve eaten at more than 400 different establishments. Of those, only a single one even made me so much as consider that Bánh Mì Saigon might not have the best sandwich in America. In the end, it wasn’t a challenger that unseated Bánh Mì Saigon, but the simple failure of a lazy monarch.

I knew things were in trouble when Bánh Mì Saigon started making the Number 1 ahead of time, leaving them to grow stale and dry on the counter. I tried to hold on, learning that if you got there early enough you could find a fresh Number 1, and if you could manage that it was still the sandwich I knew it to be. That might still be true, but ultimately that is more condemnation than rescue. If it’s good at 10 in the morning and lousy at two in the afternoon, that just means someone isn’t trying. And as I have stressed on this blog, repeatedly and at some length, there is no greater sin against sandwiches than lack of effort.

saigon-steakThat is the Number 7 from Bánh Mì Saigon, bánh mì bò xào, which is to say steak. It’s very good; a bright lemongrass flavor to the beef is a particular highlight. But it’s not as good as the Number 1 used to be.

The person who asked me if Bánh Mì Saigon was worth the trip happens to live in a city where they have regular access to a quality bánh mì, and that influenced what I told them. Bánh Mì Saigon’s rating on Yelp is still a respectable four stars, and the last time I was there the people I spoke to had nothing but praise to offer. Crucially, though, those people had also never been to Bánh Mì Saigon seven years ago, or even five.

“It simply is.” That certainty stood up to more than 400 sandwiches, and it was thrown away in the name of expediency. I could offer all manner of qualifiers; get their early, order something other than the Number 1, how good it is depends on your frame of reference, on and on I could go. But I dislike these sorts of calculations, and they have no place in the the question of best. Bánh Mì Saigon isn’t that good anymore. They no longer have the best sandwich in America. I don’t know who does.

The McRibster – The Oinkster, Colorado Blvd, Eagle Rock

oinkstermcribI have nothing but respect for the instinct that led to the above sandwich. I’ve eaten my fair share of questionable sandwiches, and each time I’ve spent time considering how things might be improved. More often than not, there’s a simple route. The McRib is a strong example here, where it’s only natural to look at that lackadaisical wonder of pork pricing and processing and think “Some quality ingredients, a little care, and  this should be easy!” This is a very understandable impulse, and as it turns out, it is also very wrong.

The Oinkster put together a big hunk of pork ribs on a bigger bun, with pickles and onions at once more plentiful than the actual McRib but still not plentiful enough. The pork was dry and a bit tough, and there was quite a bit more bun than there needed to be. It would be easy to say that they simply tried and got it wrong, but I think the issue here really is the format. After all, what’s the ideal here? Tender, pull-apart pork, to the edges or even spilling out of a soft bun, with a present but second-fiddle textural and flavor counter. In other words, a good pulled pork sandwich. No, I think this is a case where the baby ought go soon after the bathwater. The McRib is the McRib for a reason, and there’s little reward in trying to gussy it up.

PBAT – TLT Foods, Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles

PBAT-TLTI 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.

Roast Pork – Cafe Tropical, Sunset Blvd, Silver Lake

cafetropicalMustard! Isn’t it wonderful, friends? This is a roast pork sandwich, consisting of roast pork and Swiss cheese. That’s not quite enough, unless you’re dealing with the absolute best in pork, and what are the odds that any given establishment you happen to find yourself in is offering the best possible roast pork? Not very good, by my estimation. But mustard! A healthy application of mustard brings a savory spiciness that brings a drab sandwich all the way up to perfectly acceptable. Let me be clear: I am not praising the sandwich, which absent the influence of mustard I found to be rather unimpressive. Rather, I wish to hail the transformative power of mustard. And this was yellow mustard, the absolute least of all mustards! So many different types, each wonderful in their own way, and each capable of doing so much for a sandwich. In the quest for the rarefied air of the sandwich world, it’s easy to lose sight of the everyday pleasures, the sorts of things that are constantly at work in making the average sandwich so darned enjoyable. Take a minute sometime to appreciate mustard. It’s given you so much, a small thank you isn’t much to ask.

Additionally, don’t miss Jon Bois’ paean to mustard.

Pork Banh Mi – Fundamental LA, Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles

banh mi - fundalemtalLAAfter 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.

Pork Belly Sandwich – Little Chef Counter, San Pedro Sq, San Jose

pork belly - littlechefcounterA 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.

Real Cubano – North End Caffe, Highland Ave, Manhattan Beach

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This is what I understand a Cuban sandwich to be. Roast pork (incuding mojo sauce), ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. In a nod to my understanding, the above sandwich is designated the “Real Cubano” on the menu. That’s quite the bold statement, as many residents of Tampa would insist that a Real Cubano contains a layer of salami. What exactly defines the archetype is a matter of dispute, and I have neither right nor interest in settling the matter. My concern is always the sandwich in front of me, and the sandwich in front of me was delicious.

The pork is the real standout here. As I understand it there’s some smoked salt involved in the roasting. That smoke flavor comes through in the finished product and really adds a stellar layer to the sandwich, turning this from perfectly serviceable to notably good. Everything else is quality and works well together, as you would expect from such a classic archetype, and the result is a very good sandwich. As I don’t particularly care for ham, the Cubans tends to be a pretty rare sandwich for me. All the more delightful, then, when the one I do enjoy happens to be a great one.