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.


The Ace of Clubs — The Sandwich Smith, E 1st St, Los Angeles, CA

sandwichsmith-friedchickenThe Sandwich Smith is the daytime scene at a joint establishment, at night yielding to sister establishment Fickle. It’s not the kind of setup you see often, but in my experience such a thing bodes well for an establishment. More dishes being cooked (especially if one or the other is aiming high) means more flavors at play, more experiments, more discoveries that might make their way to your sandwich. It’s not without risks, though. Take a look at the lineup for the Ace of Clubs: buttermilk fried chicken, garlic aioli, honey bbq sauce, feta cheese, avocado and bacon with lettuce and tomato on honey wheat. That’s a fair number of ingredients, and it is no secret that the more things go into a sandwich the harder it is to maintain harmony.

To recap a point made previously, people often think balance is the key to a good sandwich. It isn’t. An anchovy and jam sandwich is balanced, as salty as it is sweet, but it’s also probably terrible. Harmony is what matters, the fact that there’s just enough of everything to work together. The more items involved, the harder it is to make sure that everything’s in proper proportion.

That was the issue with the above sandwich. All the listed ingredients were present, but they were spotty and scattered. That can be a good way to make sure a particular ingredient doesn’t dominate, but I was left without a single bite that encompassed the entirety of the sandwich. I don’t mean to damn the entire thing, there were bites of this that were very good, and even some that were unexpectedly great (fried chicken and feta, particularly). The Sandwich Smith gets points for effort, but the execution wasn’t quite up to the task.

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.

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.

Franklin Phenomenon – Locali, Franklin Ave, Los Angeles

localiThe Franklin Phenomenon is a very good sandwich, but in addition to being fine on in its own right, it also stands as a good lesson. With turkey, monterey jack cheese, spinach, tomato, red onion with a chipotle mayo on pretzel bread, it’s hardly anything fancy. But between the use of spinach (rather than just lettuce) and pretzel bread (over something a little more typical) it’s clear that there’s a bit of extra effort involved. It doesn’t take much, which makes it all the more tragic when you find yourself in an establishment that isn’t going to bother. Luckily that’s not the case at Locali, and as a result you have a well-balanced, simple, tasty sandwich.

Breakfast Sandwich – Chaumont Bakery, Beverly Ave, Beverly Hills

chaumontI suspect that if I were to list the best sandwiches I’ve ever had, breakfast sandwiches would be over represented on the list. There’s something a little cheap about them – between the bacon and the fried egg, it’s a little bit tough to make a bad one. That’s no excuse for not giving it your all, though! Take Chaumont Bakery, for example. The fried egg is joined by beef bacon, melted provolone, greens, mayo and mustard. That last item is no footnote, and the bright, tangy notes from the mustard made this a fine sandwich. And it doesn’t stop there! Chaumont Bakery, being a bakery, really has some stellar bread. In many places baguettes aren’t quite what they used to be, the stiff crust yielding to an American palate that prefers things a little softer. Not so here, where a stiff crust surrounded tender insides that made the perfect sop for the egg yolk. The average breakfast sandwich is already pretty good, when someone minds the details as well as Chaumont Bakery did it’s nearly perfect.

BBQ Jackelope Sandwich – Native Foods Cafe

nativefoodsbbqI eat more vegan/vegetarian cuisine than your average person for whom it is not a lifestyle. I think a lot of it is pretty tasty stuff, but given that I also consume a fair amount of meat I tend to be less impressed with it than my vegan or vegetarian associates. Much as I malign bacon around here, faux bacon is a sad, sorry copy of the real thing. That’s likely to be true no matter how tasty faux bacon is, and in my estimation that’s too bad. I’ve had more than a few things that probably would have been more enjoyable if I didn’t have an unfair comparison to make.

Which brings us to Native Foods, who, for this particular item, steer clear of the issue. Elsewhere on the menu it gets a bit problematic, but this here just lets jackfruit be jackfruit, and I’ll be darned if I wasn’t seriously impressed. The jackfruit has a real body to it, a good chew, and smothered in a smoky sauce and paired with an Asian slaw it makes for a fine sandwich. There’s some filling creep, but nothing beyond what you’d expect from the style, and the bun is soft enough that you can press down enough to keep most of it together. There aren’t many faux-meat sandwiches that are unqualified successes, but I’m very glad to have found one.

Slow Cooked Turkey Breast – Fundamental LA, Westwood Ave, Los Angeles

turkey-fundamentalLAHaving had a number of pleasant experiences at Fundamental LA in the past, I was curious to see what they might do with turkey. I don’t think much of turkey as a meat, usually finding it bland and its presence signalling an uninspired sandwich. The latter wasn’t quite a concern at Fundamental LA, as they put together roasted turkey breast on 12 grain with jalapeño apricot jam, arugula, and a lemon aioli. That’s a good lineup, a well conceived sandwich. As is too often the case at so many establishments, though, the execution was lacking. You can see it in the photo above, the big hump of turkey suggesting more of a domed construction than a proper stack. This isn’t pedantry or mere aesthetics; the construction of the shape has an immediate, direct impact on its consumption. There were too many bites of this sandwich that paired off a couple of ingredients at a time, robbing your humble enthusiast of the full, harmonious experience. Where everything could be tasted together this was quite good, though my personal preferences suggest more jam. But those bites were far too scarce, reducing what could have been a great sandwich to one that was just alright. I’ll find some exception turkey someday, but it isn’t here.

Lamb Burger – Alcove, Hillhurst Ave, Los Feliz

alcove-lambburgerThe lamb burger at Alcove is a fairly straightforward affair, ground lamb, kalmata olives, herbs, goat cheese and an olive tapenade. It also includes a ramekin full of mayo and whole-grain mustard, which I found benefited the burger to a good degree. A lamb burger is sort of a pass/fail enterprise, where you’ve either done things right and it’s a flavorful, herbal affair, or you’ve overdone it and it’s tough and bland. The folks at Alcove get it right, and the olive/goat cheese/olive combination is a bold affair but one that works.

This was good, but I couldn’t help but wonder something that raises a larger question about hamburgers: Would this have been better as a lamb sandwich? There’s no specific need for this to be a burger (over, say, roasted and slice or shredded) other than ease of preparation. I sympathize with the establishment on that front, but ultimately this is On Sandwiches, and not On Efficiency. I’m after the Best Possible, and I’m not sure that’s what I got.

French Dip – Roast Deli & Market, Barrington Ave, Brentwood

roast-frenchdipWhat’s the best French dip in Los Angeles? I have a particular affinity for the Frenchs dipped at both Phillipe the Original and Cole’s (in that order.) Some time ago I was surprised to learn that the general line on these establishments, at least in a certain crowd of Los Angeles eating enthusiasts, was that they weren’t that good. OK, sure, but far from the best French dip in town. So I’ve made it my business to try to find a representative sample of the sandwich. The early returns are in, and while I’ve yet to find a truly bad sandwich, most of them also aren’t great. The French dip is a pile of roast beef, some au jus, and generally some manner of horseradish or other peppery accompaniment. It’s delightfully simple and tough to screw up, which leaves it with a wonderfully high floor. But the fact that there isn’t a whole lot to it, which means it has a pretty limited ceiling. Which one is better than the other might just depend on the day, the context in which one eats it, or a host of other things that aren’t really about the sandwich itself. That’s not a tremendously satisfying conclusion, and it may be unfounded. Luckily, continuing research means eating more sandwiches, and I guarantee to you that I will do just that.