La Cubana – Tortas Boos Voni, Mission St, San Francisco, CA

I try to take all sandwich related requests and suggestions seriously, but time and opportunity often conspire to keep an establishment on the to-visit list for quite a while. Tortas Boos Voni is one such establishment: More than a year ago, I dined on a pair of tortas milanesa and began to think that there was a really special torta out there somewhere. In the comments, regular commentor Doug recommended Tortas Boos Voni. It was only last week that I visited, but mercy do I ever wish I’d gone sooner. Simply put, this was the best torta I’ve ever had. I decided to skip the milanesa and go for the cubana, simply because it’s a higher degree of difficulty. It includes two kinds of milanesa, that of beef and of chicken, as well as ham, hot dog, and a well spiced shredded chicken thigh, all in addition to the usual tomatoes, onion, and mayo.

Balance is important on a sandwich, but what the ideal sandwich really drives for is harmony. Balance is the easiest way to get there; making sure ingredients contrast each other and that one doesn’t stand too far above the others is an easy way of making sure everything works together. The route taken by sandwiches like the cubana is more challenging, but done right it’s perfectly effective. The recipe for the sandwich is meat, meat and more meat, but the harmony is there. The issue is that if something like this falls out of harmony, it’s a long way down. Should it go wrong, it is likely to go very, very wrong.

But the cubana at Tortas Boos Voni doesn’t go wrong. It’s worth noting that this was a massive sandwich, easily a foot long and more than six inches across, with no real taper to the bun. So you have a huge sandwich with five different kinds of meat; making this sandwich a success is not a task for beginners. Well, someone at Tortas Boos Voni has an experienced hand, because this was spectacular. Everything inside was hot and tender, the patties milanesa both crisp. The bread was well toasted and stayed crispy for the substantial length of time it took to eat the sandwich. There wasn’t enough avocado, the exact problem I had with the last cubana I ate, but it wasn’t enough to derail the overall quality. Given how good this sandwich and the one at Casita Chilanga were, I’m almost afraid of how good they would be if given a proper amount of avocado. That, I put it to you, is the mark of a good sandwich. It could be better, sure, but it’s a little scary to think about what that might mean.


Vege Smoked Duck & Vege Pepper Steak – Love and Haight, Haight St, San Francisco, CA

The smoked duck sandwich at Love and Haight is not actually made of duck. Similarly, the pepper steak sandwich involves no actual steak. They are meat substitutes, products where soybeans and other such things are processed to resemble meat. I’ve considered such things before, and ultimately I concluded that they say more about meat than they do about soybeans. (The short of it is that it says an awful lot about cold cuts that you can mash a bunch of soy together and get something that is more-or-less as good.) But what of the things in themselves?

If we consider the most basic question, I should say that the sandwiches are a success. They taste good. The pepper steak was tasty, and the duck was particularly choice. It had a deep, smoky flavor, and the success of the sandwiches definitively credited to how good these flavors were. The accompanying ingredients were lettuce, tomato, pickles, red onions, mayo, mustard and, in owing to the location and the style of the place, sprouts. That’s a classic deli sandwich, but if the main ingredient fails there isn’t much there for backup. In further evidence of the reliance on the fake meat, if one is going to attempt to pass off a facsimile as hey-I-guess-it’s-good-enough, one does not attempt duck. It’s not a fake-it-and-hope-nobody-notices move. That’s important to note, because it points at the whole problem with the sandwich.

I think there’s a framing issue at work here, and while both sandwiches were quite good I’m far from convinced they were everything they could be. Food isn’t just a question of taste and smell. We eat with our eyes, the atmosphere matters, the context has an impact. There’s a lot going into each meal, even if we’re hardly conscious of most of it. What I found myself wondering at Love and Haight was whether I would have enjoyed these sandwiches more had they not been pitched as fake meat. The fake duck was good enough that I was happy to be eating it, but it was a far cry from real duck. Smoked duck is juicy and tender, a product of abundantly fatty tissue. There are a lot of ways to make soybeans delicious, there are very few that will turn them into duck.

Above I asked what was the value of the things in themselves, and I’m not sure I have an answer to that question. I cannot consider them in a context apart from fake meat, they don’t exist in any other context. I don’t know what you would call it, and I don’t know whether I would have ended up there eating it if it wasn’t trying to emulate meat. Those are difficult questions, and I don’t have answers for them. It light of that, I cannot help but think I haven’t given these sandwiches the full consideration they deserve.

Fried Catfish Po Boy – The Louisiana Territory, San Francisco Bay Area

The Louisiana Territory is another Bay Area food truck, and their Po Boy is a fairly standard offering: Fried catfish, lettuce, tomatoes, special sauce. All of that is perfectly satisfactory, the fish is moist and the sauce, bearing a strong resemblance to tartar sauce, pairs nicely. It was a tasty number, and I want to be perfectly clear about that. This was tasty. Here’s what it wasn’t: A sandwich. Let us return briefly to August of 2009, and our review of the now-closed Hank’s Eats:

The idea of what is and is not a sandwich comes down to the obvious and the intent. The obvious is the precious few simple qualifications that must be met, namely bread on the top and the bottom and some other ingredient in the middle. The intent is what makes it a sandwich and what ends up disqualifying the Porky’s Revenge. In order to be a sandwich the intent must be for the food to be eaten aligned horizontally. It is in this that we find sandwiches in harmony with our mouths and indeed our larger selves. It is in this that we find each bite encompassing the sum total of the ingredients in the sandwich, all of them represented in their proper proportions. It is in this that a sandwich becomes a sandwich.

It might not be clear from the photo, but the bread for the Louisiana Territory’s Po Boy isn’t sliced horizontally. It isn’t sliced at all. The loaf is hollowed out to a thin crust, then filled with ingredients. Now, I’m going to get a bit pedantic here, and if other people aren’t willing to join me I hold no grudge. That said: Whether this is or isn’t a sandwich is not just an academic distinction. In filling a hollowed out roll, everything is to be mixed together. You construct a salad, then stuff that salad into a casing. A sandwich, as we all know, is constructed in layers. A big part of what matters is what I mentioned above, that each bite (ideally) contains the sum total of the sandwich. A great many sandwiches do not meet this ideal, but similar to serving a sandwich with a fork in it, to stuff a roll with a salad is to surrender without even making an attempt. The torta I had recently at Casita Chilanga didn’t feature a bit of everything in every bite, but it is intention that makes that an honest failure and this a sin. The mixture at Casita results from an abundance of starring ingredients and enthusiasm. Here you’ve just got catfish and friends, all thrown together, taking your chances. You surrender all control over the arranged presentation of ingredients. If that’s the choice an establishment makes that’s their business, I simply ask that they not sully the good name of sandwiches with the lackadaisical attitude.

La Cubana – Casita Chilanga, El Camino Real, Redwood City, CA

A little while back La Casita Chilanga was the subject of a review by a fellow sandwich enthusiast, and I made a note to give the place a try myself. In order to keep the comparison strict I ordered the same thing, La Cubana. It’s a monster of a sandwich, as wide as the plate it comes on, stuffed with pork leg, ham, breaded beef steak, chorizo, and sausage, in addition to standard issue stuff like tomato, onion, avocado, and a chipotle mayo. From the linked review, I was expecting “an explosion of meat and crunchy grilled flat bread,” and so I was a bit surprised with what I got. Given such a physically wide palate, the Cubana is built not so much up as out. It isn’t a towering sandwich; there’s a lot going on but It handled well and was completely manageable. Altogether, the whole thing seems almost, well, restrained.

This isn’t all upside, as a single portion of avocado was not nearly enough to cover the sandwich. That’s disappointing, but not entirely unexpected. In a sandwich this size, it’s difficult to get coverage the whole way across, and you often end up with ingredients pairing off rather than working all together. You get a bite of ham and steak here, a bit of chorizo and pork there. The ham had been crisped up via hot skillet or flat top, and that made all the difference in both flavor and texture. The sausage listed was, near as I could tell, the humble hot dog, but I note that as an item of interest rather than a fault. In fact, I found the ingredient combinations that presented themselves as I ate to be highly satisfactory, and overall would rate this a fine sandwich.

Pan con Chicharron – Sanguchon, San Francisco Bay Area

Sanguchon is a Bay Area food truck providing Peruvian street food, and I was excited to try their wares. At a glance, the Pan con Chicharron seems like an extraordinarily appetizing sandwich. Sliced pork loin joins fried yams, salsa criolla and aji rocoto aioli on a roll baked (they say) exclusively for their truck. Those aren’t ingredients you see every day, and though I enjoy a good torta, too much of anything gets old. Salsa criolla is a salsa with a red onion and cilantro base, and aji ricoto is a chili pepper with more heat than a poblano but not as much as hot jalapeño. So you’ve got savory pork,  a crispy sweetness in the yams, a sharp salsa corralling things a little heat playing over everything. That’s a potentially great sandwich, and I strongly suspect that there are days when the sandwich Sanguchon serves lives up to that potential. Sadly, the day that I got my hands on it it failed to meet its mark. I will say that the bread was very good, chewy and with a flavorful crust. There was no disappointment there. I have neither a strong affinity for nor a strong grudge against food trucks,  but I can’t help but wonder if the fact that this sandwich came from a truck had a lot to do with inconsistency. There’s an urgency in serving food from a truck, especially when it’s busy (and it was busy.) People stand around waiting, it doesn’t lend itself to conversation or nursing a drink, and so you want to get them their food as fast as possible. Sometimes that means the food comes out terribly unbalanced, with large, meaty pieces of pork crying out for salsa and aioli, yams delightful when present but unaccounted for in far too many bites. Had someone taken a bit more time putting the sandwich together I suspect it would have been a very different result. Alas, one cannot dine on possibility. It is reality we dig in to, and the reality at Sanguchon was a disappointing sandwich.

Roast Pork – Saigon Sandwich, Larkin St, San Francisco, CA

Saigon Sandwich Shop is spoken of as a hole-in-the-wall, but it’s really more of a place that just stuck their counter right at the top. There are a pair of seats facing out of the front window, but you’re really meant to take your sandwich and be on your way. That’s precisely what I did, picking the roast pork from the simple menu board and heading to a local park to enjoy. Before that, though, I watched the sandwich being assembled and wasn’t particularly thrilled with what I saw. Most bánh mì sandwiches have a bit of a rakish angle to their construction, built from the inside out on bread that isn’t sliced all the way through, this can have a negative impact. Sometimes it’s enough to just poke things around a bit and get a perfectly acceptable construction, but other times things stray too far from ideal and there’s no getting them back. Sing Sing was too far gone, and though Saigon Sandwich Shop was not, it wasn’t through the effort of the person putting it together. The construction was quite haphazard, with the sandwich being stuffed at lightning speed, a bunch of each ingredient grabbed with a pair of tongs and stuffed into the sandwich, only secured by the next bunch coming in after it. Luck was on my side, though, and the sandwich came together fine.

Perhaps the luck carried through from the construction, because this was a pretty good sandwich. The bread was some of the best I’ve had in a bánh mì, with a very strong crust but a moist, full bodied interior. Many bánh mì baguettes become efficient husks, minimalist wrappings to celebrated interiors. The baguette at Saigon Sandwich Shop stands up on its own. The meat was moist and there was plenty of it, and the mayonnaise had a nice flavor to it. The veggies & cilantro could have been more flavorful, but taken as a whole the sandwich had good balance and was mighty tasty. Eating so many bánh mìs the quality spectrum begins to blur, and it takes a particularly good sandwich to stand out. Saigon Sandwich Shop has just that kind of sandwich.

Chả Lụa – Sing Sing Sandwich Shop, Hyde St, San Francisco, CA

Sing Sing was a bit of an odd experience. Stepping into the store, I saw a few tabl
es covered in plastic checkered table clothes a few scattered cigarette holes burned in each one. A refrigerated display case stood opposite the tables, stacked with foil logs marked chả lụa. The back wall of the room stopped three quarters of the way across, and behind it sat another room. It was unclear whether that was somewhere a customer might venture. Absent any staff and any further instruction, I just stood there a moment. Soon enough, someone came from behind the wall. “Yes?” they asked. I told them I’d like a sandwich. “Pork?” they asked. I told them pork was fine. “Stay or go?” they asked. I told them I’d take it to stay, and I sat down. They moved behind the refrigerator case, slid a baguette into a toaster oven and began to make my sandwich. That was it. No menu posted, no menu handed out. As far as I know, Sing Sing only serves one sandwich. Chả Lụa is pork roll, meat ground to a paste, flavored a bit, then wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed or boiled. It has the texture somewhat akin to roast beef, rather than the unsettling unified texture of a ham. The flavor is closer to a roast as well.

Sing Sing Sandwich Shop is located in “Little Saigon,” and that’s ultimately what damns the sandwich. It’s not very good, and given that there are much butter, significantly less disorienting options just down the street there’s no real reason to make this your destination. The typical bánh mì is usually loaded a bit skewed, but a bit of shifting a poke here and there set things right. Not so at Sing Sing, where one half of the sandwich had mayo and pate, and the other had cilantro and vegetables. Short of cracking the sandwich all the way open and reassembling it, I couldn’t figure out any way to keep from dealing with a bite of all mayo and pate, then a bite of all everything else. I have no doubt that chả lụa has its devotees, but I’m not one of them. A cold cut by any other name, in my estimation. Many a bánh mì has a crisp crust, but this was the first one that I’ve felt was genuinely sharp, sharp enough that a corner of the bread cut a small hole in the roof of my mouth. Should you ever find yourself on Hyde street, in the mood for a bánh mì, walk past Sing Sing. Or turn around. Or cross the street. Really, anything other than stepping inside should set you right.

Pressed Cubano Sandwich — Public House, AT&T Park, San Francisco

AT&T Park, located at the corner of 3rd and King, has been the home of the San Francisco Giants since its construction was completed in 2000. Since its gates have opened, it has become the hub of a brand-new downtown. Eateries, bars, clubs, shops, and other tourist- and family-friendly locations have sprung up for blocks in all directions surrounding the ballpark, and even within it. The “front” of AT&T Park proper is Willie Mays Plaza, a wide expanse of brick and palm trees, statuary, plaques, and two restaurants. One of these restaurants is Public House, which contains a bar and its own entrance to the ballpark.

I was pleased to find several sandwich options on the menu, and picked the most intriguing and, I felt, promising option: the Pressed Cubano. The sandwich included both roasted pork and Niman ham, and was augmented by both Provolone and Gruyere. The finishing touch was a few stray pickles, and the complete sandwich was griddle-pressed and served without further augmentation. The end result is a simply fantastic combination of complimentary flavors. The head chef at Public House is a classically-trained chef with a long pedigree, as is often the case with most eateries in San Francisco. I have learned long ago that when you find a legitimate head chef has placed a sandwich on their menu, you will almost certainly not regret ordering one.

The sandwich contents all blended together into a delightful creaminess, masterfully offset by the occasional snap of a fresh mild pickle, whose flavor simply added as a grace note to the palate, rather than an overpowering and unwelcome crescendo. The true star of the show, however, was the bread. It was, in a word, perfect. It is a rare gift to find a bread that truly completes the sandwich while providing the perfect containment for the ingredients and an ideal texture for biting through. I was over the moon at having been able to eat this sandwich before a lovely evening of baseball. I only hope that someday, all of you can experience the same.

Buffalo Stew Sandwich, Tommy’s Joynt, Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA

The so-called Buffalo Stew Sandwich at Tommy's Joynt, San Francisco

Tommy’s Joynt is a fairly notable establishment, and has been serving their particular brand of comfort food for a long, long time. (The decorations include a flag with only a few dozen stars, a wagon wheel, and an inflatable football promoting the Bud Bowl. Exact age would be hard to pin down.) With age, though, they have yet to find wisdom. I’ll start with the punchline: Tommy’s understanding of sandwiches is about as solid as his spelling. I would try and show more patience, both with Tommy and my own meager joke, but I’m tired of this nonsense. Tired, just dog tired of getting my hopes up for a fine, interesting sandwich, and having those hopes stomped back down by some no-account restaurateur who can’t understand that, at the very least, you eat a sandwich with your hands.

Every so often after I write something about eating a sandwich, someone will point out to me that it could have gone differently. There was a topping bar, they’ll say, or tell me that I could have asked for no cheese. It’s all true, but that isn’t the point of my endeavor. I want to find the wonderful sandwiches where others have dreamed them, exactly how they have dreamed them. To search for dreams, though, leaves one open to finding nightmares.

I ordered the Buffalo Stew Sandwich because it was, by far, the most interesting thing available. Think of it: A sandwich wherein the main ingredient is stew! It’s exciting! The french dip demonstrates that a sandwich can handle liquid, even a considerable amount. I could think to myself how I might go about making a stew sandwich, and I was intensely curious about how the tinkerers at Tommy’s Joynt had carried out such an idea. But my curiosity turned to dismay almost immediately. After slicing a french roll in half, the man making the item took the top half of the roll and sliced it in half again. I was shocked, and as has happened before, that I did not storm out immediately must be chalked up to that state of shock. That extra slice left me in stunned silence, knowing that whatever other steps were taken in preparing this so-called sandwich, they would be a waste. It turned out to be fairly simple, just a ladle full of stew over the bottom of the roll. I was issued a fork and a knife, a rattling mockery of the obvious fact that I could not pick up and eat what had been sold to me as a sandwich.

What I find myself thinking over, again and again, is how this just wasn’t necessary. Get a roll with a good, sturdy crust. Scoop a bit of the bread out of one half, give yourself a pocket to sit your portion of stew in. Serve me that with a few extra napkins and you’ll hear no complaint. It isn’t hard! Tommy could go to sleep at night knowing he understood and respected sandwiches. The extra napkins might cut into the margins a bit, but it’s tough to put a price on a good night’s sleep. The last time this happened I expressed a bit of shame over my own mistakes. Not being careful in my reading of the menu, making unwarranted assumptions, etc. I’ll take on no such blame here. Going forward I will make no changes to how I conduct myself. I am not in the wrong here. Invite me over to watch cricket, I’ll blame you when we sit down and tune in to handball. It maybe a lovely game, but for the love of god, I wanted a sandwich! Is that so much to ask!? I’m getting away from myself. It comes down to this: I believe, and I refuse to stop believing, that a person should be able to walk into an establishment that purports sells sandwiches, order a sandwich, and be served a sandwich.

Elvis Keith – Ike’s Place, Market St, San Francisco, CA

The Elvis Keith sandwich at Ike's Place in San Francisco

Ike’s Place is a sandwich shop. Plenty of establishments serve sandwiches. In finer dining they can be an afterthought, in something like a bistro they can occupy a respectable portion of the menu, and in something like a deli they can be the only option. The deli is the closest cousin to the sandwich shop, but they differ in attitude. I do not mean to malign the institution of the deli, but many of them present the sandwich as something you might as well eat. There can be a fine selection of breads and meats, but leaving the emphasis on the standard set of options and the interchangeability of ingredients seems misplaced to me. This is not the case at a sandwich shop. Where a deli might list a handful of specials, Ike’s has over 50 named, specific sandwiches on the menu. Where a deli has an obligatory veggie option, Ike’s has a full 20 vegan options and over 30 vegetarian sandwiches.

What I see in this celebration of sandwiches is the realization of a dream. I see years and years of a man making sandwich after sandwich, exploring seemingly contradictory, seeing how he can take a good flavor to great, how far he can push great before it falls apart. Sandwiches at Ike’s come with his Dirty Sauce standard; this is a man who has done the legwork in making amazing things and now wants to share them with the world. And the world is happy to share in those sandwiches: Having arrived in only 2007 Ike’s is in 3 locations currently and will soon add another 3. Their sandwiches are widely praised by both press and public.

When I see a place like Ike’s, where I detect a long road of love culminating in a realized dream, I look at the first listed special. In that sandwich one often finds the favorite child: The sandwich loved longest, made most often, the sandwich in which someone’s dream begins to take form. It was with that in mind that I ordered the Elvis Keith, and it was there that I grew unsettled.

The Elvis Keith proceeds along a fairly predictable but likely satisfying path: Chicken breast, a fine base if ever the was one, teriyaki sauce, a strong sweetness, and wasabi mayo, reigning the sweetness back in. Were it to stop there, you would have a fine balanced sandwich, albeit a simple one. But there is one more ingredient: Swiss cheese. I was wary, but trusting. I ordered the sandwich and retired to a nearby park. The sandwich was good. It could have used more wasabi, but that might just be a matter of taste. All in all it was the simple, balanced sandwich I had suspected it could be, sweet and savory. What struck me is that the cheese was completely lost, obliterated by the teriyaki, unnoticeable. So if it was totally absent in flavor, what was it doing there?

Of the over 100 sandwiches listed on the menu, only three are genuinely free of cheese, two of which are more-or-less the same sandwich. (One has meatballs, the other vegan meatballs.) The third is the Unoriginal, apparently so named because it is nothing but meat on bread. Think about that; whether these sandwiches are all the design of Ike or some process of committee or community, essentially only two are deemed appropriate without cheese. That…I can think of no word for it other than lunacy. It is lunacy. The first conclusion is that a person or persons who love sandwiches has reasonably concluded that less than 3% of the sandwiches in their life should be served without cheese. I refuse to believe that. I simply reject it outright. Ike’s shows a blatant love of sandwiches, a respect and an understanding, and I cannot accept that with that kind of obvious passion comes such a stunning ignorance as to throw cheese onto every damn sandwich they see. I am not unequivocally opposed, I have said in the past that with a skilled hand cheese has its place. But that place cannot be everywhere.

So if it is not madness, it is mandatory. I don’t know exactly when it was established that a sandwich included cheese, but it seems to be the accepted standard. But enough is enough. I am not even suggesting that the default be thrown the other way, to making every sandwich without cheese. I’m just asking that together we take each sandwich as an individual, and ask ourselves whether cheese is needed. Whether you’re making yourself a quick lunch or you own a shop with 100 sandwiches on the menu, we can all take a moment to ask that question. Ask it, and it is in a fair and honest answer that we will find our way to better sandwiches.