Lomo – Marcona Restaurant, Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA

lomoIt’s not at all clear to me why the lomo comes with a full third of the filling spilled out between the two halves of the sandwich. Perhaps the bakery was short on properly sized rolls. I’ve griped before about being served a sandwich that has already surrendered to falling apart, but there was no fork in sight. It was simply a sandwich, plus a small pile of stuff. Maybe that would be enough to raise my ire on some days, but the day I visited Marcona wasn’t one of them. Of course, the fact that I was served a delicious sandwich goes a long way in mitigating any nosense in the serving. The lomo is spiced pulled pork, parsnips, onion, date mustard, arugula and manchego cheese on ciabatta. The cheese wasn’t really necessary, an issue I’ve discussed at length, but it also wasn’t objectionable. The pork is the real winner here, but really the whole lineup is worth praising. It’s always nice to see something like pulled pork out of its standard context, the date mustard has a pleasantly sweet backbone, the parsnips and onions providing a contrast in texture, but not aggressively so. The arugula has that peppery bite to it, which is more than welcome given the richness of the pork. Each ingredient played its assigned part, and together they made for well more than the sum of their parts. The first quality is balance, the second is harmony, and together they make for an excellent sandwich.

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Banh Mi – Ink Sak, Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA

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Here is a notable fact about this sandwich: I couldn’t taste the cilantro. This is a banh mi, ostensibly, and I couldn’t taste the cilantro. Forget the categorical distinction: This was something with cilantro on it, and I couldn’t taste the cilantro. It’s a mystery to me how one would even eliminate the assertive, floral taste of cilantro, but the sandwich world is nothing if not full of surprises.

This is another cute take on the banh mi, and instead of the traditional delight of a sandwich I got something that was cold, bland, and had chicharrónes on it for some reason. I’m not categorically against taking a sandwich archetype and re-imagining it, but for goodness’ sake if you’re going to do such a thing, do it well. Mendocino Farms also pulled this stunt and missed the mark, but at least they ended up with a decent sandwich. Ink Sak has quite a reputation, but nothing I sampled suggested to me that they deserve it.

Pork Philly – Simple Things Sandwich & Pie Shop, W. 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA

porkphillyWhile the previous sandwich from Simplethings had flaws in both concept and execution, it was clear that someone put a lot of thought into it. I’ve long held that I hold nothing against anyone who aims high and misses their mark, and the sweet potato sandwich is a good example of that. When that’s the case, I believe the establishment bears further examination. And so we arrive at the pork philly. The city of Philadelphia may be known for its cheesesteaks, but knowledgeable enthusiasts know that Philly boasts an even better specialty: The roast pork hoagie. Traditionally, this is sliced pork roast, broccoli rabe and aged provolone. It’s a simple lineup that works extremely well together, and each establishment has their own secrets in the roast that makes their sandwich stand out from all the others.

You may have noted that this sandwich is not labeled as a roast pork hoagie, and that’s because it isn’t one. It’s roasted (shredded) pork, manchego, dijon, sautéed broccolini and garlic aioli on a michetti roll. It’s clearly inspired by the Philadelphia standby, but it carves its own path, and I’m happy to say it does to to delicious ends. The pork is juicy and rich, the broccolini crunchy and bright, the dijon and the garlic round things out with a subtlety and prevent the roll from being soaked through. This is a great sandwich, and (combined with comments from associates) it leads me to believe that the sweet potato sandwich is the abberration on the menu. There’s lots more to try at Simpethings, and I look forward to doing so.

Kale Sandwiches Four Ways – Made At Home

I happen to find kale to be delightful. I recognize that it’s not for everyone, but it suits me just fine, and my diet and sandwiches are so much the richer for it. It’s not just one of those good-for-you-might-as-well-eat-it foods, but an earthy, full flavor that works well with a great number of things. Three of the sandwiches here are built to star kale, but it goes just as well in a supporting role, working behind other ingredients. It’s versatile and delicious, and what more could you want from a sandwich ingredient?

To start with, my method for all of the following was to separate the leaves from the stems, discarding the latter. The kale is blanched in boiling water for 4 minutes or so, then run under cold water until cool. You can eat it right then and there, if you prefer, or you can put it in a pan with a bit of fat, some spices, and some liquid (broth, wine, water all work) then cover it until the liquid is absorbed. That gives you a batch of kale ready to be deployed in virtually any instance.

First up, kale with hash browns and a fried egg. This went on sourdough, and is a good example of the sum of the parts being enough. Kale, hash browns and fried eggs are all delicious, and putting them together simply makes for a delicious combination. It’s not more than what you would expect, but since what you would expect is pretty stellar, there’s not much to complain about. Some hot sauce or a good dose of black pepper would also go well here, and adding onions, garlic, peppers or whatever else you like to the hash browns couldn’t hurt.

This is kale with roasted garlic, sauteed red onion, and a mustard vinaigrette. This wasn’t bad by any stretch, but it’s the runt of the litter. It’s tasty, with a nice savory profile, but it doesn’t feel like anything special. The main advantage here might be that depending on what kind of pantry one keeps, this might be the easiest one to put together at a moment’s notice, especially if you just go with straight red onions and not ones that have been cooked down.

This is ricotta cheese and kale that’s been sauteed with butter and red pepper flakes. The idea for ricotta came not from the artichoke hearts sandwich, but was simply jacked whole from a Scanwiches post from some years back, which they credit to BKLYN Larder. Regardless of its providence, it is a fantastic concept. Simple, rich and creamy, this is the best way to highlight the kale. Ricotta is flavorful but not assertive, and it forms a spectacular background with which the greens can work.

Now, Kale not need be the exclusive providence of the healthy eating crowd. There’s no reason one can’t get some fresh chorizo, fry up a sausage patty, saute the kale in the sausage fat, and pile it all on some sourdough with some caramelized onions. There’s nothing preventing that at all, and I’m happy to report that if one does just that, one ends up with an incredibly tasty sandwich. The kale is as rich and earthy as ever, and the spicy sausage cuts through that just beautifully.

There it is. Ways to celebrate a delicious green in ways from fairly-healthy to not-so-much. It’s a delicious food in and of itself, and as is so often the case, that just means it’s capable of carrying some pretty tremendous sandwiches.

Cemita de Carnitas – Cemitas Poblano, Pico Blvd, Los Angeles

Cousin to the torta, the Cemita is a style of sandwich built around its namesake roll. Where the torta generally comes on a bolillo or telera roll, the cemita is sweet, with an exterior softer than your typical bolillo but tougher than your average telera. It has some chew to it, some body. The sandwich itself is fairly straightforward: avocado, onions, meat, a mild cheese, and a chipotle adobo that makes its characteristic smoke one of the more prominent notes in the sandwich. This one comes from a lunch truck that’s always parked on Pico just east of Sepulveda, but I’ve seen trucks scattered around the city with the same name.

I don’t know how much there is to be said. As a style of sandwich, it’s as tried-and-true as any classic archetype, it’s well balanced, and provided it’s assembled with fresh avocados and quality ingredients, you’re pretty much guaranteed to finish with a delicious sandwich. It’s not as widely available as the torta, but a delicious sandwich with the added zest of scarcity? Hunt one down some time, you won’t regret it.

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.

Pork Loin & Bourbon Apple Sandwich – Made At Home

If the world seems full of boring or stupid sandwiches, the only reasonable response is to head home and make your own. That’s exactly what I did, and the result was the number you see above. That’s a layer of black bean/garlic hummus, mustard/rosemary pork loin, and bourbon-spiced apples.

I more-or-less winged the recipes here, and I encourage you to do the same. I toasted up some garlic in a dry skillet and mashed it with some black beans, thinning with a little oil until I had a proper hummus. I mixed up some mustard, rosemary and black pepper until it seemed like I had something that was fit for a pork loin, and then I coated and roasted a loin. I sliced up half an apple, threw it in a skillet with a little butter and a little brown sugar, and I finished it with some bourbon. That’s about all there was to it, and I’m happy to say that’s all it needed. I put all that between some slices of hearty wheat and the result was delightful. Mustard pairs quite well with sweet, as anyone who has heaped pickle relish onto a hot dog can tell you. The bourbon brought woody, earthy flavors to temper that sweetness, and the black beans provided a rich background for the pork and the rest of it. This one was a winner, and I suspect it won’t be the long before some more bourbon-spiced apples end up on a sandwich of mine.

I wish I were as delighted with the other sandwich I made, and had I not made the apples number I probably would have been just fine with this. But I did, and so this one immediately became an also-ran, something I’d make if I were feeling a bit lazy or simply didn’t have something better on hand. Nothing fancy here, just the same slices of rosemary/mustard pork loin, some Gruyere cheese, and some marinated artichoke hearts. The artichokes were key here, bringing acidic notes that helped cut both the pork and the cheese. This sandwich wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t the delight the other one was. It’s also a bit less involved in putting together, and as we all know there’s many a day where convenience is at the top of what we look for in a sandwich.

The Oinkster – Colorado Blvd, Eagle Rock

My initial experience with Eagle Rock standout The Oinkster was something of a disappointment, but also something of a fluke. My esteemed associate Bill has since returned more than once, highlighting some of the things on offer at what is, by nearly all accounts, an outstanding sandwich shop. I found myself there recently and was able to sample some of those things, and I came away as delighted as anyone. I’m not breaking any new ground in praising the Oinkster, but I do believe the sandwich shop is a special thing and it deserves to be recognized as such. I’ve discussed this before, how many places sell sandwiches but the Sandwich Shop is a different thing entirely, and a good one is to be treasured.

The above sandwich was their special of the moment, a pork patty grilled and put between bread with provolone, peppers and onions, and marinara. There’s not much to complain about there, the pork was moist and tasty, the flavor combination tried-and-true.

The Oinkster sells a burger called The Royale, and it’s piled high with chili, bacon and pastrami. So I’m not sure if I can call the above Oinkster Pastrami the intended ne plus ultra of the menu, it shares the shop’s name and is built to highlight the pastrami upon which they pride themselves, but it isn’t listed first on the menu and it doesn’t carry the same mien that featured sandwiches from other establishments do. None of that has any bearing on its quality, I suppose, and it’s quite good. It’s pastrami, cabbage, grilled onions and Gruyere cheese. That’s tasty, and it’s presented in reasonable proportion, but I think the cheese gets a bit lost. Regardless, it’s tasty as heck and a reasonable contender in a town where “best pastrami” is no small contest.

#1 – Bánh Mì Saigon, Grand St, New York, NY

The last time I was at Bánh Mì Saigon I was handed a sandwich that had been sitting on the counter for an undetermined amount of time. This is crime enough in and of itself, but it’s especially bad for the bánh mì, and it’s especially especially bad for the bánh mì from Bánh Mì Saigon. This is the sandwich linked at the top, the one that I claim to be the best sandwich in America. And on that day where I was handed one prepared well in advance, it was dry. The bread wasn’t crispy. The vegetables were limp. In short, it wasn’t the sandwich I’ve spent years praising to anyone who would listen. This was deeply, deeply unsettling.

It took me more than a year to get back to Bánh Mì Saigon. I entered the store that day extremely wary, and trying to prepare myself to come before you and offer an apology and a retraction. I would be completely lost in a world in which the No. 1 at Bánh Mì Saigon is not the best sandwich, but if that’s the world I live in then so be it.

It is not the world in which I live. The sandwich I was handed a few weeks ago was warm, the meat tender, the vegetables bright and fresh, the whole thing balanced and flawless. It was everything I could ever hope the sandwich to be, everything I remember. It was perfect.

There is, tragically, a catch. I was there at 10 in the morning, just two hours after they opened. I waited a minute after ordering as my sandwich was prepared fresh, but along the back counter I could see stacks and stacks of baguettes halfway through an assembly-line process. That would be one thing if the place were packed, but at that hour it was limited to myself and two other people. These were sandwiches that were going to sit for a while. How long, no one can say. If you snuck in just before closing you might get a sandwich that was more than eight hours old. That sandwich may or may not be tasty, but it is not the sandwich that I urge associates far and wide to seek out.

The last time I was preaching the virtues of this sandwich to an associate, I tacked on a bit of advice. “Get there early,” I said, without bothering to include an explanation of why. That may have been a mistake on my part, but it breaks my heart to have to offer a conditional endorsement at all. I’ve sent a good number of people to try this sandwich, and every time I’m afraid they will try it and think I have oversold it. “That’s it?” is my biggest concern. It has not yet happened. Yet.

I wish I had a more conclusive answer for you. I can’t rightly say that the sandwich linked at the top of this and every page is no longer the best sandwich. That isn’t true. It’s just a little harder to find. I hate that this is where I leave you, with me left mealy-mouthed and bereft of certainty, assuring you that it really is the best but you should probably show up on Tuesday, bring an umbrella, try to approach the counter at an angle of 40 to 45 degrees, and say a Hail Mary (but not an Our Father) as you walk in the door. But hating where I stand does not move me.

Get there early.

Porchetta Sandwich – Porchetta, E 7th St, New York, NY

Porchétta [por’ketta] n. roasted pork with crispy skin, highly seasoned with aromatic herbs and spices, garlic, sage, rosemary and wild fennel pollen. Typical plate of the Roman cuisine. Slow cooked Italian fast food.

I admire anyone willing to offer nothing but meat and bread. There are plenty of situations where I would decry such a thing, where the meat clearly can’t carry things, but when you have enough faith in what you’ve roasted that you serve it plain, I’ll gladly line up to try it. I feel like I could list a dozen things that would go well with the porchétta, but that isn’t what’s on offer here. What’s on offer is just meat and bread, and that’s no small risk.

It works. It’s a delicious sandwich. The herbs are front and center, the pork is tender and juicy, the bread is soaking up every bit of juice the meat lets loose, and the crust on the bread is enough that despite a total lack of supporting ingredients, the sandwich feels substantial. It’s not perfect; I felt the skin wasn’t so much crispy as just hard, and there were a few places where I might have thought I was chewing on a small bone. They can be dealt with, though, and everything around them is wonderful. I would say that I’d like to see one ingredient sandwiches more often, but the establishments capable of succeeding with such a sandwich are sparse. Let them instead rest as rare islands, surrounded by a sea smart enough to realize all it has to offer is water.