Portobello Mushroom — The Village Bakery & Cafe, Atwater Village

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I’ve reviewed a fair number of vegan and vegetarian sandwiches on this blog, and if you dig into the archives you’ll find vegan reviews from a most trusted associate. The reason I do this is actually quite simple: they’re often delicious. At many establishments these sorts of sandwiches are shunted off into their own little corner of the menu, all too easy to ignore. Don’t make that mistake; go looking for meatless options, consider them, and I wager you’ll find a reward is quick in coming. Such is the case with the above, a marinated, grilled portobello mushroom with some white bean hummus. Sure, there’s a cursory bunch of lettuce and a slice of tomato with a bit of red onion, but this is really a two-note song. That’s a difficult thing to pull off, but if you’re surprised that it works I’d wager you haven’t dined on mushrooms recently. It’s a dense, rich flavor, one done a disservice by the frequently-applied “meaty” label. The umami notes that are so present in meat are present in well-prepared mushrooms, but it’s its own food. Let it be so, and enjoy it for such. While the mushroom was the standout here, the hummus was a bit sparse in application. That’s especially unfortunate in that what was there was quite good, garlicky and rich in its own right. I appreciate an establishment watching out for excessive filling creep, but not at the cost of the sandwich overall. This was quite good, but with a little more hummus it could easily have been great.

True Burger, Los Angeles, CA

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I’ve taken issue with hamburgers before, because I believe the form encourages excess which only in very rare instances actually excells. But I still go in for one from time to time, largely because the ideal of a hamburger is strong, and when someone makes one with that ideal in mind the result is often really quite good. Take the above burger: white cheddar, roasted tomato, fried onions, spring mix, bacon jam, ketchup and ginger mustard. As a lineup, that’s just a basic bacon cheeseburger. But each ingredient has been carefully considered and slightly upgraded: the onions extra crunchy, the tomato a bit sweeter for the roasting, the bacon relatively unobtrusive in jam form. There’s one apparent misstep and one actual one, and both are worth discussing. The bun looks large and likely to send half the burger out of the side, but it was soft and juice-absorbing and the whole thing held together without any issue. The spring mix looks sparse, and it was. I generally do not care for lettuce as an afterthought; if you think it’s worth having on the burger then put it on the burger. Burgers are generally quite rich, and can easily support an echo of richness in a respectable amount of lettuce. Regardless of the error with the spring mix this was a very, very good burger and a fine example of the form’s higher end.

Southern Fry – Plan Check Bar + Kitchen, Sawtelle Blvd, Los Angeles

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The menu at Plan Check isn’t very crowded, but everything on it seems to have the benefit of a lot of thought. There’s nothing simple, and the southern fry is no exception. It’s nost just fried chicken, it’s jidori chicken, a particular type of breed known for strong flavor. Bacon would be a popular addition but it’s also a lazy choice, and it’s not the one made here. That’s duck breast ham you see pictured, and spicy green pimento cheese and pickles round things out. I’m generally skeptical of the upscaled sandwich—after all, there’s nothing wrong with a simple fried chicken sandwich—but there’s a clear vision at work here and I respect anyone who thinks that they can make something humble into something genuinely special. It’s a successful effort here, resulting in a delicious sandwich. Exquisitely crunchy fried chicken with a strong, meaty flavor, plenty of heat, and a salty sourness from the pickles and the ham. It’s not Top 10 good, but it is well, well above average, and that’s always something worth celebrating.

OMG Lamb Sandwich — Community, Hillhurst Ave, Los Feliz

omglambCommunity is a restaurant in Los Feliz with no small reputation, and the OMG Lamb sandwich is another example of my faith in the top of the menu. It’s not an infallible rule, but generally speaking, whatever’s listed at Number 1 is likely to be a pretty good bet. I find it to be the item most labored over, the one that started someone dreaming. I don’t know if that’s the case with Community and to be honest…I hope it wasn’t. the OMG Lamb sandwich is good, quite good, but it doesn’t feel revelatory. In short, it isn’t OMG. Well marinated lamb joins cucumber-tomato salad, dressed greens and jalapeno yogurt, on ciabatta, slices so thin as to be flatbread. The lamb is juicy and well prepared but the dominant note of the sandwich is pepper, present with the lamb and echoed in the yogurt and overall there wasn’t much past that note. I’m being picky, because as I said this was quite good. But I’ve been at this long enough that I have to be picky and besides, I’m not the one making divine promises.

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.

Mr. Electric — Zelda’s Corner Deli, Westminster Ave, Venice

zeldaApologies for the wide-open shot, but the Mr. Electric didn’t come sliced and didn’t look like much from the side. But open it up and you get a clear look at exactly what makes this sandwich work: crispy prosciutto. The Mr. Electric is sliced turkey, prosciutto, avocado, provolone, pickled jalapeno, baby greens and tomatoes on a baguette, a lineup that could easily be something fairly pedestrian, were it not for the crisp on the prosciutto. It gave the sandwich a crunch it wouldn’t otherwise have, and together with the richness of the avocado and the saltiness of the prosciutto, things were well balanced and tied nicely together.

I’ve reviewed hundreds of sandwiches here by now, and if I’m totally honest this one seems destined to slip into the archives, never to be mentioned again. But before it goes I’d like to use it to draw attention to the slim gap between something like “pretty good” and something like “meh,” an ugly little word that nonetheless offers an honest assessment of much in life. This sandwich was only good because someone took the time to crisp up one of the ingredients, and it makes me wonder about every sandwich that’s ever failed to impress me. Did they all lack just one thing, some small change I couldn’t quite see? How far were they from what they could be, and how did they not make the step? How many of them are there, forever cemented as lost opportunities? No matter. This one was not, and all the more delicious for not being so.

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.

Anchovy Grilled Cheese – Made at Home

anchovygrilledcheeseI still had some smoked cheddar on hand after last week’s efforts, and what better to do with some leftover cheese than to place it between bread and grill it? A word, then, on some of the hows and whys of grilled cheese. Firstly, it’s going to be unbelievably rich. You’re filling it with cheese and frying it in butter (you are using butter, aren’t you?), that’s fat on top of fat. You need to cut that richness with something, preferably something spicy or sharp. Plenty of places think the answer to the cheese is meat, often something quite fatty, but that’s a mistake, it’s just more richness on top of same. (This is why short rib grilled cheese is usually disappointing, and kimchi grilled cheese is never less than wonderful.) In the above case, I went with a tin of anchovies. Salty little devils, there was no question they could stand up to the cheese. I happened to have some scallions that were on their way out, and in they went as well. They brought a brighter sharpness to things, although something along the line of red onion might have been better, just because it’s more assertive. Lastly, a note on technique: Keep the heat gentle, somewhere just a touch over medium. It doesn’t take much to melt the cheese and crisp the bread, so don’t use much.

Meat, Greens and Cheese – Made at Home

dandelionbeefWith an event to attend over the holiday, I happened to make up a batch of an associate’s smokey chipotle bacon pimento cheese, a dip based around smoked cheddar with two extra hits of smoke from the chipotle peppers and the bacon. It’s as good as its reputation suggests, and as I do with most delicious things my mind turned to how it might best fit in a sandwich. Another associate suggested some peppery greens, and from there I was off.

The cheese has a strong flavor, and I didn’t think just greens was going to be enough, so I included a decent (but not excessive) amount of sliced London broil (from the deli counter, not homemade.) That brought a flavor that was substantial enough to not be overwhelmed, but not so substantial that it would drown out anything else. The greens in question were sauteed dandelion greens, as I thought those might have the best chance of standing up to the cheese. A little hot dog cart style onion sauce added a note of sweetness, and the whole thing went between two slices of sourdough.

pastramirabeBecause there’s no good reason to make one sandwich when two will do, I also put together a number with the same basic outline, but a few differences: the flavor on the meat went up, from London broil to pastrami. Accordingly, the flavor on the greens went down, from dandelion greens to broccoli rabe.

Overall, I think the dandelion greens are the winner here. Originally my associate had suggested arugula, and I think that level of pepper would also work, but I prefer the more assertive dandelions. It manages to push back against the richness of the cheese in a way that turned out to be crucial. The pastrami, while flavorful, just seemed to obscure the overall dynamic. Sandwiches, after all, are about harmony as much as they’re about anything else, and the pastrami just didn’t play right. Still, all in all a decent sandwich and one that was quite good is a fine result from a little leftover dip.

The Red Baron – Vine Street Deli, Vine St, Los Angeles

vinestdeli-redbaronI tend to come at sandwiches from something of a traditionalist perspective. The standing archetypes of the world of sandwiches are what they are for a reason, and if you’re going to play around with them you should have a very good reason for doing so. The reuben is a good example, as it seems particularly prone to “takes” and “re-imaginings” and “total nonsense.” Picture, if you will, a standard reuben with a healthy dose of avocado along for the ride. The above sandwich is a far cry from such ghastly examples, and it is to Vine Street Deli’s credit that it is so. Their Red Baron is hot pastrami and red cabbage sauerkraut on pumpernickel, with the standard swiss cheese and Russian dressing. There are two reasons this sandwich works: The first is that they didn’t push it too far. The ingredients are straight 1-to-1 swaps with standard reuben ingredients, and not particularly imaginative ones at that. One might criticize them for sticking so close to the tried-and-true, but when the tried-and-true is so good you won’t find me among the critics. The second reason relates to what I said above, about the necessity of a good reason for futzing around with the thing in the first place. I don’t know if the hot pastrami was the driving force behind this sandwich coming together, but it more than justifies the effort. It’s peppery and immensely flavorful, walked back just enough by the cheese, dressing and slaw. The result is an exceptionally well balanced sandwich and a nice change of pace for any reuben enthusiast.