Horse & Hole — Top Round, S La Brea Ave, Los Angeles

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Continuing their habit of bringing culinary-geography-oddities to Los Angeles cuisine, the Top Round sandwich above features Provel cheese, a processed cheddar/swiss/provolone cheese that’s particularly popular in St. Louis. It has a loose, gooey texture and here it joins horseradish cream, roasted mushrooms and the namesake roast beef. That’s a fine lineup that works for all of the obvious reasons; it has a deep, rich flavor balanced by earthy, savory mushrooms and spicy horseradish. But more than a simple, well-designed sandwich, I’d like to point out a bit of execution here.

Eleven. I have featured 11 sandwiches on this blog that I said needed more horseradish. There were another half-dozen or so that I ate but never featured here. “Needs more horseradish,” I said again and again, and I had basically resigned myself to this being the case for every horseradish-containing sandwich I ever expected to be served. But the above sandwich changed that. It had a proper amount of horseradish, with a fine heat throughout the sandwich and a few bites that really took it to the palate. Horseradish is an assertive ingredient, but included halfway it only serves to tease. Some of the sandwiches at Top Round fall prey to this trap, but thankfully not the one with “horse” in the name. The Horse & Hole is a fine sandwich with plenty of horseradish, and I couldn’t be more delighted to pay such a rare compliment.

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.

Red Miso Short Rib – Lemonade, Barrington Ave, Brentwood

redmisoshortribA simple sandwich of mizuna, a peppery green a bit less assertive than arugula, pickled red onion, and ‘red miso short rib,’ which is to say beef short ribs pot-roasted with red miso. Deeper in flavor than white or yellow miso, it brings a saltiness and a rich umami flavor that would overwhelm lesser meats but pairs quite well with short ribs. The use of mizuna struck me as a bit curious, and I actually feel the stronger arugula would have been better suited to the sandwich. Was mizuna there just for the sake of being different, slightly fancier? I would have said yes, were it not for the large pile of mizuna that comes with the sandwich as a side salad. It would appear that mizuna is simply what they prefer to have on hand, and so in the sandwich it goes.

This wasn’t a bad sandwich, but I couldn’t help but feel like the short ribs deserved more. It’s almost too simple, and I think some notes of sweetness or something more spicy would have gone a long way towards perking it up.

Fried Green Tomato BLT – Good Microbrew and Grill, Sunset Blvd, Silver Lake

friedgreentomatoBLTHow’s this for fun: while waiting for an already-ordered sandwich, you see a neighborhood local walk by, point to the establishment behind you, and announce to his associates, “Food’s not great. Really good beer, but food’s not great.” Perhaps the name “Good” is less a boast and more an admission? In any case, soon enough my sandwich arrived and I was able to judge for myself.

The BLT is a simple enough sandwich, and tends to go wrong in one of two areas: too much mayonnaise or bland tomatoes. Neither problem came up here, although with the tomatoes being green and fried I couldn’t help but think they could have been much more than they were. The cornmeal breading wasn’t tremendously flavorful, which is really a shame. The BLT is such a simple sandwich you need to take advantage of every opportunity to get a really great one, and if you’re going to include some fried green tomatoes, it would be best if you didn’t simply coast on their being fried. The sandwich wasn’t bad, just not great. Let that be a lesson to me about not consulting passers by prior to my order.

Italian Bleu Jeans – Heywood, Sunset Blvd, Silver Lake

heywoodgrilledcheeseAfter having such a perplexing and dispiriting run-in with a grilled cheese at TLT Foods, I decided to see a specialist. Heywood is a grilled cheese shop (shoppe, in fact) that takes much care in sourcing their ingredients, so I figured they would also be keen on ensuring that they all ended up inside the sandwich. And sure enough, they delivered a sandwich in the standard configuration, ingredients surrounded by bread. Thank goodness.

The Italian Bleu Jeans is mozzarella, blue cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and a walnut pesto, and it is as good as that lineup reads. The mozzarella is a rich but unassertive base, and the blue cheese opens things up with a bright tang. The sun-dried tomatoes echo the tang of the blue cheese, and the pesto brings the whole thing together with nutty, herbal notes. The tomato bisque makes a fine side, and dunking the sandwich only added another layer of flavor. In short, it was everything one could ask of a grilled cheese, in both concept and execution.

BBQ Beef Brisket – Stone Oven, Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles

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If you’ve got any idea what the avocado in that sandwich is supposed to be doing, you’ve got more insight into sandwiches than I do. I suppose it’s a sign when the menu promises “avocadoes,” but I figured I’d give it a shot anyway. The avocado isn’t exactly objectionable here, it’s just barely noticeable, and there are fewer sins in sandwichdom more grave than wasting an avocado.

Aside from that, the sandwich wasn’t bad. I’ve been somewhat harsh on the so-called “fast casual” sector recently, singling out The Corner and accusing them of shallow tricks designed to impress consumers they see as rubes. I’d like to make clear that I don’t see every mid-sized chain trying to upscale things the same way, and Stone Oven presents a better take on the idea. The bread is the draw, baked in the namesake oven at regular intervals, leaving a fresh, tender loaf for one’s sandwich. In went beef brisket, cheddar, chipotle mayo, onion crisps and avocado. The brisket was capably executed, though far from the heights possible. The avocado may have been lost, but the rest of the ingredients went together well and, when combined with the really good bread, made for quite the tasty sandwich. Moreover, The Corner was on a street in a city, with much better options a stone’s throw away. Stone Oven was in a mall food court, and while “Best Sandwich in a Mall Food Court” isn’t too tall a trophy, it’s a trophy nonetheless.

Short Rib Grilled Cheese – TLT Food, Westwood Blvd, Westwood

TLTshortribgrilledcheeseI have no idea what happened here. The short rib grilled cheese was listed on the specials board at TLT Food, and having so enjoyed the last sandwich I got there this one sounded delightful. Braised short rib, caramelized red onion, lime-sambal sauce and a blend of cheese all between two pieces of sourdough that were crusted with cotija. That still sounds delightful, and I guess with all those ingredients there’s no room left on the sign for “WARNING: THIS ISN’T ACTUALLY A SANDWICH YOU CAN PICK UP AND EAT WITH YOUR HANDS.”

It just seems so senseless. Surely at some point during the assembly of this sandwich there was a point at which it did not yet have a top. Would that not have been the time to insert the sauce? What purpose does it serve, there on top? It makes the sandwich significantly less pleasant to eat, for one, and it places the sauce farther away from the tongue. It could be an aesthetic choice, I suppose, but surely whoever made this realizes that after properly appreciating one’s sandwich, one tends to consume it?

The sandwich was good, but it could have been so much better if I hadn’t had to grasp it by the edges, or if the sauce were let to mingle with the rest of the ingredients. It could have been good, but tragically the whole experience was laid low by one asinine decision, and that’s a fate no sandwich deserves.

Stall 239 – Vermont Ave, Los Angeles

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Stall 239 is a hole in the wall on Vermont, named after the number of the address. Street food is how it’s billed, and given that there isn’t a place to sit down I suppose that’s accurate. There are some classic deli sandwiches on the menu, but what caught my eye was the ‘specialty menu,’ with several interesting numbers listed. The Angry Bird caught my eye and is what you see above, a Taiwanese style fried chicken breast topped with a spicy coleslaw and served on a Hawaiian roll. I’ve seen some conflicting recipies on exactly what makes fried chicken Taiwanese style, but in this instance there was a distinct sweetness to it. That would be a nice contrast for a spicy coleslaw, but truth be told I found the coleslaw to be a bit bland. There’s a strong concept here, but the execution was lacking. Always tragic, that.

stall239-2I also went in for the Kalbi Smash, a combination of marinated Korean short ribs, grilled mushrooms, garlic, fried kimchi and mashed potatoes on ciabatta. I can’t really give this sandwich a fair shake, as the mashed potatoes weren’t ready when I stopped by and so I had the sandwich outside of its intended form. As it stands, though, it was quite good. I would note that that is Dutch crunch bread, and not ciabatta, but given how rare dutch crunch tends to be I’m not complaining. This one hit a good range of notes, sweet, savory, spicy, all playing well together. I’m curious about how it works with the straight starch of mashed potatoes included, so it seems that a return trip to Stall 239 is in order.

Bulgogi Cheesesteak (Gogi Hoagie) – Sandwich Shop, W 6th St, Los Angeles

sandwichshopI’ve talked before about the difference between something like a cafe, where sandwiches are on offer, and a sandwich shop. As you might imagine, I prefer the establishments were sandwiches are the sole focus, but I also hold them to a higher standard. When I came upon one literally named Sandwich Shop, I worried that I might be setting myself up for disappointment. That turned out not to be the case, though, as I found instead the best cheesesteak I’ve ever had.

Thinly shaved rib-eye is the cut of choice, naturally, and it has plenty of the sweet-salty-savory flavor from the bulgogi marinade. The provolone played smoothy in the background, and the jalapeños were just the right amount of heat. The cheesesteak is a simple number, and there’s no great revolution here. Just a few tasty things put together in a classic form, with a very very tasty end result.

Now, I have been known to get bent out of shape over the reinvention of archetypes, and most recently I have objected most strenuously to non-traditional bánh mìs. But I didn’t mind the updated vision on display at the Sandwich Shop, and I’m not sure I can state with certainty why that is. It is entirely possible that I am simply a hypocrite, that my attachment to the bánh mì takes over my head and, having no such attachment to the city of Philadelphia or its chosen emblem, I just don’t care. But there is another reading that is more charitable towards myself, and that’s simply that this was a very good sandwich. Of the two bánh mìs linked above, one fails at being a bánh mì and the other fails at being delicious. Those are fair grounds to cast them aside, in my estimation, and by that standard the sandwich pictured above is more than welcome. I can see no way in which it betrays the fundamental cheesesteak aesthetic, and as such I found it delightful. If some fan of Philadelphia wishes to point out some flaw that I have missed, I encourage them to do so.

Braised Short Rib – Fundamental LA, Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

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I’ve talked about Fundamental LA before, and what I found there last time was so delightful that a second trip was never in question. Thinking back to the braised short rib I enjoyed so much at Little Chef Counter, I elected for the sandwich of the same name at Fundamental. Aside from the name and the primary ingredient, though, neither sandwich has much in common with the other. In Fundamental’s case, it’s braised short rib with go chu jang, dandelion greens, pickled mung beans and garlic aioli on brioche.

That’s not your average lineup for a sandwich, and as with any stand-out sandwich lineup, there’s an implicit statement. In this case, I would venture that anyone who puts pickled mung beans on their sandwich is loudly proclaiming that they know what they’re doing. It’s a bold, almost pungent flavor and it would be all too easy for them to overwhelm a sandwich, even one anchored with the deep richness of short ribs. In this case, things are tempered by not only the beef but dandelion greens (an underrated source of richness when handled properly) and go chu jang, a fermented chili paste that brought exactly the kind of heat needed to corral the other flavors.

In short, the sandwich was phenomenal. Pickled mung beans on a sandwich are a promise, a pledge not to screw things up. Fundamental LA delivers.