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.

Bali Bliss – Veggie Grill

veggie grill

Veggie Grill is a West coast chain, with locations throughout California and up into Oregon and Washington. It is, as near as I can tell, some kind of attempt to pitch vegetarian cuisine as a sort of All-American comfort food. I want to say “like Applebee’s except made of soy” but I think they’re aiming higher than that. I hope they are. You get the idea. “The perfect indulgence,” they say. Pitching tempeh as an indulgence is a new angle, and I wish them all the best in their quest.

The tempeh is joined on the bun by lettuce, tomato, red onion and chipotle ranch. That’s the official list from the menu, anyway, but what ended up interesting me was the garnish. As you can see square in the center of the above tempeh patty, there’s a bit of relish. It was as tangy and tasty as your standard relish is, and it would have gone a long way into making this something special. Lettuce/tomato/red onion is a storied lineup, but it doesn’t exactly make me think that there’s something special going on. And that’s about the summation of this sandwich; there wasn’t much special going on. A liberal dose of hot sauce brought some flavor to things, but the sandwich itself was a bit bland and rather disappointing. The relish may or may not have saved things, but sitting around and wishing for a condiment is no way to spend a meal, and the Veggie Grill didn’t do much to help me avoid that fate.

Mushroom Pepper Sandwich – Little Chef Counter, San Pedro Square, San Jose, CA

lilchef-mushroom

I had occasion to be in San Jose recently, and that meant another visit to Little Chef Counter. The menu there is constantly rotating, and the upside of this is that there’s always something new to discover. The downside of this is that sometimes something you love is sidelined in favor of something sub-par, as was the case when the mushrooms on toast was phased out and the smoked salmon sandwich appeared. That was a great loss by my estimation, as mushrooms are quite close to being a perfect food and are woefully underrepresented in the sandwich world. And so it was that I was delighted to return in the new year and find the mushroom pepper sandwich on the menu, a simple number consisting of cremini mushrooms, roasted red bell peppers and arugula in a marscapone sauce on a toasted baguette.

In the event that you’re one of the unfortunate souls who doesn’t care for mushrooms, I don’t imagine there’s much I can say to sell you on this sandwich. If you’re an enlightened type, I don’t imagine there’s much I need to say. The mushrooms are the star here, and deservedly so. The sauce could easily have been heavy and out of control, but it’s light and playing carefully in the background with a noticeable bit of spice to it. The peppers are sweet, the lettuce peppery, and the baguette is toasted such that each bite is yielding and there’s little need to go chasing stray mushrooms across your plate. In short, it is a well conceived, well executed sandwich. That’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from Little Chef Counter, and I’m delighted to report that they deliver.

Chicken Salad Sandwich – Little Chef Counter, San Pedro Sq, San Jose, CA

 

Just because running around eating my favorite sandwiches wasn’t the best way to pay tribute to San Jose before I take my leave doesn’t mean I didn’t do it. I dearly wish Little Chef Counter had been around before my last year in this city, because they’re doing really wonderful things with sandwiches. My last experience there was disappointing, but every one before and since has been anything but. The chicken salad sandwich is the latest example of their excellent offerings: big chunks of chicken join Shashito peppers, romaine lettuce, peach jam, and a few slices of bacon on a hearty roll. There’s nothing too fancy going on here, just a very good sandwich. The bacon (as is so often the case) wasn’t strictly necessary, but it didn’t detract from things. The sweet flavor of the peach jam was the dominant note in the sandwich, and the chicken itself was very lightly dressed, everything I could have asked for. I’m sure there are fine sandwiches to be found in my new city, but I can guarantee you that on some warm afternoon I will find myself wondering what new sandwich Little Chef Counter has cooked up, and wishing that I were there to eat it.

Bánh Mì Thịt Nướng – Phat Tri, Thien Huong & Aroma Coffee and Snacks – San Jose, CA

I wanted to say goodbye to San Jose. I’m moving to Los Angeles next week. I’m excited for that – regular access to Phillipe’s, to Original Tommy’s, to Canter’s. In my head I’m already there, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I owe San Jose something, and I hope I have done it justice. I could have gone around and revisited favorite sandwiches, but that didn’t feel like a fitting tribute. What did feel like a fitting tribute was to sit down to new sandwiches, because that’s what San Jose has always offered.

Phat Tri charges $4 for the above bánh mì, which would be steep for the east side if the above picture weren’t merely half of the sandwich. The thing is a monster, bigger than your forearm. There’s no quantity-for-quality switch going on either, this is a fine sandwich. Quality bread, fresh veggies, the meat is tender and has a strong garlic/lemongrass/soy savory quality to it. There are a dozen of these sorts of shops in San Jose, places that are always mentioned in the never-ending best bánh mì discussion.

I noticed Thien Huong while eating at Phat Tri. The had a “Grand Opening” sign out front, and I figured anyone with the guts to open across the street from a place with Phat Tri’s reputation had to have a lot of faith that their sandwich was something special. I don’t know if that’s what Thien Huong thinks about their sandwiches, but it should be. The meat here was piping hot, freshly seared and bursting with the sweet & salty notes of the classic thịt nướng marinade. For every place like Phat Tri, with a reputation and a leigion of devotees, there are a dozen places like Thein Huong. They’re upstarts, latecomers to a crowded market, people with something to prove. Some of them back it up, some of them don’t. They come and go, becoming almost haunting. Maybe the next one is better than this one. You won’t know until you’ve tried it.

Aroma Coffe & Snacks is three and a half miles from the other two establishments. That wouldn’t be so far, if the distance weren’t stuffed with more sandwich shops. Aroma is tucked in to the back half of a shopping center that sits perpendicular to the street, it’s a little tough to see even when you’re looking for it. Seeking it out is worth the effort. Their thịt nướng is deeply caramelized, chewy and full of flavor. For every Thien Huong, there are another handful of Aroma Coffee & Snacks. Great sandwiches that leave you unsettled over how good the sandwiches might be at all the places you haven’t made the time to try.

I’ll be able to get a bánh mì in Los Angeles, but it won’t be like this. I could go try a new sandwich every weekend for a year and I wouldn’t have to double back. Most of them would be pretty good. The bánh mì is going places, and some day it will be widely popular and too big to really get a head around. When that happens, I’ll remember a city that did its damnedest to give a wonderful sandwich everything it deserved. Thanks for all the sandwiches, San Jose.

Winston’s Vesper – Big Word Cafe, Saratoga Sunnyvale Rd, Saratoga, CA


Here we have a fine counter example to Monday’s meager offering of a sandwich. All the way on the other side of town, nearly a dollar and a half less than what I paid at Caffe Frascati nets me a much more satisfying sandwich. A few hearty slices of cumin spiced roast pork, a house made mango ginger chutney, roasted red peppers, cucumbers and spinach all pile on a white roll and come together quite nicely. This was clearly a sandwich from a coffee bar; it was served cold, and alltogether wasn’t quite everything it could have been. It was also missing the clear freshness that benefited the recent sandwich featured from Coach House, but despite all of that it was still quite good. The pork was well seasoned and tender, the chutney sweet with clear hints of ginger cutting through, the spinach a nice earthy undertone. This was just a good example of what I wish places like Caffe Frascati understood: A good sandwich isn’t hard, you just have to try. A little effort goes a long way, and at Big Word Cafe it went all the way to a delicious sandwich.

Mortadella and Goat Cheese Panini – Caffe Frascati, S 1st St, San Jose, CA

Just last week I mentioned that context has an inescapable impact on the sandwich. How it looks, the surrounding atmosphere and our own expectations all influence how we feel about a particular sandwich. That may not be fair to the idea of sandwiches in and of themselves, but we never eat sandwiches in and of themselves. We eat them in the real world.

Some may consider me boorish for it, but I feel obligated to talk about price. The sandwich above retails for $7.95. Now, I’m no country mouse. I’m not at all categorically opposed to paying $8 for a sandwich, provided I get $8 worth of sandwich to enjoy. Sadly, at Caffe Frascati that simply wasn’t the case. I try to sympathize with people trying to make it in an industry that’s ruthless in the best of times, but this is a cafe and not a charity. This was a sandwich with a lot of potential, tangy goat cheese and subtle flavors working together, but with scant few slices of mortadella and the thinnest application of red pepper pesto the whole thing just failed to come together. I can accept a failed sandwich, but it’s hard to be satisfied with a failed $8 sandwich where those eight dollars ended up everywhere but on the plate.

The Kaiser – Coach House Liquors and Deli, S De Anaza Blvd, Cupertino, CA

I recently read Tyler Cowen’s An Economist Eats Lunch, and I found it to be an interesting book. It presents a certain way of thinking about food with a heavy focus on thinking about inputs, demand, and how other such market forces might influence things. One of the suggestions is to seek out restaurants where the cost of operation is subsidized by a related enterprise. A family run restaurant attached to a motel owned by the same family is one example, restaurants at the back of a casino another.  Upon realized that Coach House had a well stocked deli counter stuck in the middle of a moderately upscale liquor store, I thought back to Cowen’s advice. The reasoning here is that liquor stores tend to do good business, and therefore there would be less pressure on the restaurant to squeeze the maximum profits out of everything. That’s where you run into pre-packaged avocado spreads, tired and wilted veggies, that sort of horror. And indeed, that’s what I found: the gentlemen manning the sandwich counter told me everything was cut fresh for the day, nothing was packaged. Subsidized by the surrounding liquor, the risk of wasting some food isn’t such a dire threat to the owner’s margins, and a better sandwich than might otherwise be had is the result.

The Kaiser is corned beef and pastrami, swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato and pickled jalapeños, and it was a fine sandwich. What seems logically reasonable holds true in practice. The ingredients were fresh, the price fair, everything you might expect from an establishment with some relief from the pressure faced by most. Thinking about it, this isn’t the first time this thinking has yielded me a fine meal. Bibo’s NY Pizza, one of the better places to get a slice in San Jose, was formerly located off the back of a liquor store. My own beloved Bánh Mì Saigon is in the back half of a jewelry store. This isn’t your average way to find a fine sandwich, looking around for something that might be riding some other business’ coat tails, but I suggest to you that if it results in a sandwich as tasty as the above it’s as fine a way to search as any.

The Drippin’s – Poor House Bistro, S Autumn St, San Jose, CA

I talked about the Poor House Bistro some time ago, and what I said then still stands. It’s a fine outpost, a respectable po’ boy in an area where such a thing isn’t in abundance. The reason I bring it up again is to draw a contrast to the Braised Onion French Dip featured on Monday. Both are very good sandwiches, both centered around a big pile of meat, but the things that accompany the Drippin’s are doing something very different than the French Dip from Oaks. Oaks had each ingredient trying to make its own mark: truffled watercress, sherry au jus and braised onions are all an ingredient plus an additional bit of spin. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it makes a sandwich significantly harder to balance; featuring six things is always going to be harder than featuring one thing.

Poor House Bistro takes a more simple approach, in which the support is the support. In addition to the roast pork the sandwich features tomatoes, pickles, shredded cabbage and mustard. That’s not the default “everything,” most sandwiches at Poor House Bistro include mayo by default, but they leave if off the Drippin’s, much to the sandwich’s benefit. Leaving the mayo off gives the cabbage a crisp freshness that pairs quite well with the richness of the pork. This isn’t a question of laziness, it’s just a matter of understanding the sandwich. You’re there for juicy, tender, savory, and just peppery enough pork, and that’s exactly what you get.

I have also tried the BBQ Shrimp Po’ Boy at Poor House Bistro, and it struck me as one of those sandwiches where if it’s your thing, you’ll love it, but if not there isn’t much appealing about it. It’s incredibly heavy on the pepper, and while I do enjoy spicy foods I felt like this was a bit much, one strong note without much support at all. If pepper is your thing, by all means. If you lack that enthusiasm, though, the Drippin’s or one of the fried numbers is likely to set you right.

Roast Chicken And Pepperoni – Ace of Sandwiches, El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA

There’s something unsettling about a place that boasts gourmet sandwiches and serves mostly cold cuts. I have mixed feelings about cold cuts, as I have discussed before, but surely even their boosters would admit they hardly jump to mind when one thinks “gourmet.” With some 50 or 60 sandwiches on the menu, most based around cold cuts and spreads, Ace of Sandwiches really comes off as an excellent deli more than anything else. There’s no shame in being a deli, of course, unless you’re running around claiming to be something else. I don’t know how I’m supposed to have faith in your enterprise if you don’t.

The sandwich above was listed as the special of the day and came recommended by the staff. It’s sliced roast chicken, pepperoni, mozzarella, red sauce, and red onions on a wheat roll. That’s a tasty if not particularly daring lineup, but I can appreciate a simple classic. Or I could, anyway, had the quality been a bit higher. I found the chicken to be dry, and the red sauce insufficient to cover that up. That makes two strikes against the gourmet idea, and I’m disinclined to wait around for the third to show up. There are too many sandwiches in the world to be tried, too many other eateries to explore, to sit down more than once with any joker insisting it’s an ace.