The Club – Real Food Daily, Santa Monica, CA

real food clubWe’ve featured a vegan club sandwich here at On Sandwiches before, more than once, but this is a different non-animal. Where those were tofu and tempeh, respectively, this one is seitan. Joining the replacement protein are lettuce, tomato, avocado, and tempeh bacon.

There’s a bit of a hitch in being a non-vegan reviewing vegan food, namely that I both know what the actual sandwich tastes like and don’t mind eating it. That leaves a sandwich like the above struggling to get over the “good for what it is,” hump, held down by the soft bigotry of low expectations. Tempeh bacon is a good example. It’s tasty enough, and miles above soy bacon, but it hardly comes without shouting distance of the real thing. (If turkey bacon is ordinary bacon photocopied on to very heavy cardstock, soy bacon is a photo of turkey bacon screen printed onto a paper bag.)

By its own merits, this was a good sandwich. The construction was tidy (no surplus of veganaise), the flavors meshed well and overall it was quite tasty. I’m sure any of my vegan associates would be delighted with this sandwich, but for me it suffers from the same problem that plagued the Mendocino Farms not-so-fried chicken sandwich: it can’t escape being a reminder of a sandwich I’m not eating. I’m not saying you shouldn’t eat this  sandwich, far from it, just don’t eat it because you’re craving a club.

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Not So Fried Chicken – Mendocino Farms, Los Angeles, CA

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I can’t figure Mendocino Farms out. The bánh mì I had some time ago was less than satisfying, but they seemed worthy of a second visit. After all, it’s clear they’re putting a lot of thought into their sandwiches. Sadly, I can’t quite figure out what they’re thinking.

The “Not So Fried” chicken sandwich is sliced chicken breast, said to be rolled in something called “Krispies” and accompanied with herb aioli, mustard pickle slaw, tomatoes, and pickled red onions on toasted ciabatta. There’s a side of barbeque sauce, labeled as chipotle but running with a more generic smoke flavor than the particulars of chipotle peppers. Again, there’s ample evidence of a lot of time and effort, but in all of the consideration given this sandwich it seemed no one stopped and asked “Is sliced chicken breast and breadcrumbs a good combination?” Had they done so, they would have realized no. No it is not. The ‘krispies’ included on the sandwich are large and especially crunchy, but they end up scattered all over and not particularly pleasant. The crust-meat effect they are meant to mimic is largely absent, and the sandwich overall lacks harmony and cohesiveness.

I recognize that this is not a fried chicken sandwich, but if you’re going to offer a substitute, the implication is that you’re doing so because you’ve made some sort of upgrade. “I know a fried chicken sandwich sounds good,” you’re saying, “but wait until you try this.” That’s a perfectly fair proposition, but given that the this in question is sliced chicken breast and overdone breadcrumbs, it was hard not to get stuck on the fact that I could have been eating a fried chicken sandwich. The flavor profile was on-point, the mustard pickle slaw was delicious, but overall any sandwich that does nothing but remind you of what you could be eating can’t be considered a success. This likely won’t be the last time I eat at Mendocino Farms, but I’ll certainly cast a more jaundiced eye on their menu going forward.

Salt and Pepper Chicken Sandwich – Tender Greens, Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood, CA

tendergreensThe menu at Tender Greens is arranged around a choice of proteins, which you can then get on a plate or as a sandwich. Naturally, I went with the sandwich. The salt and pepper chicken jumped out at me for its simplicity with white and dark meat chicken supplemented with garlic, oregano and thyme. Getting it on a sandwich added roasted red peppers and aioli, but overall I was left with a rather simple sandwich. That presents a higher degree of difficulty, because if you don’t get it right there’s no hiding. And that, it pains me to tell you, is more or less what happened here. This sandwich falls squarely into the wasteland that is “tasty enough,” a kind of gossamer expanse where your mind starts to wonder and you forget you’re eating a sandwich at all. No one eating a sandwich should lose sight of the fact that they’re doing so, and any sandwich that can’t assert itself to the level of consciousness is no sandwich at all. I respect what they went for here, something simple and direct, but it was too subtle for its own good. It could have used the spinach that came on the side, it could have used red onion, it could have used the herbs coming in the form of an almond pesto. It had none of those things, and that left it as a rather unsatisfying sandwich.

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

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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.

Pork Philly – Simple Things Sandwich & Pie Shop, W. 3rd St, Los Angeles, CA

porkphillyWhile the previous sandwich from Simplethings had flaws in both concept and execution, it was clear that someone put a lot of thought into it. I’ve long held that I hold nothing against anyone who aims high and misses their mark, and the sweet potato sandwich is a good example of that. When that’s the case, I believe the establishment bears further examination. And so we arrive at the pork philly. The city of Philadelphia may be known for its cheesesteaks, but knowledgeable enthusiasts know that Philly boasts an even better specialty: The roast pork hoagie. Traditionally, this is sliced pork roast, broccoli rabe and aged provolone. It’s a simple lineup that works extremely well together, and each establishment has their own secrets in the roast that makes their sandwich stand out from all the others.

You may have noted that this sandwich is not labeled as a roast pork hoagie, and that’s because it isn’t one. It’s roasted (shredded) pork, manchego, dijon, sautéed broccolini and garlic aioli on a michetti roll. It’s clearly inspired by the Philadelphia standby, but it carves its own path, and I’m happy to say it does to to delicious ends. The pork is juicy and rich, the broccolini crunchy and bright, the dijon and the garlic round things out with a subtlety and prevent the roll from being soaked through. This is a great sandwich, and (combined with comments from associates) it leads me to believe that the sweet potato sandwich is the abberration on the menu. There’s lots more to try at Simpethings, and I look forward to doing so.

Portobello and Sausage Burger – Native Foods Cafe, Gayle Ave, Los Angeles, CA

portobello and sausageI’m not certain how much of my audience I’m going to be addressing here, but I feel this is something worth saying all the same: Go eat some meat-free sandwiches. Eat ones with fake meat, eat ones that are just straight-up vegetables, eat ones with cheese and ones that are proudly vegan. It’s an entirely world of sandwiches, one that you miss out on if your primary conception of a sandwich is the meat/greens/cheese archetype.

In this case it’s a grilled portobello mushroom, house-made seitan sausage, caramelized onions, pomodoro, roasted garlic, pumpkin seed pesto and mayonnaise. That’s a symphony of flavor, and while I will be the first to admit that seitan isn’t actually that close to actual sausage, that doesn’t mean it isn’t tasty. In fact, it was quite tasty here, and given the strong base that is a well-cooked portobello, this was another delightful sandwich. (Mushrooms, as we know, are very close to being the perfect food, and as such you can do a lot worse than to start a sandwich from such a base.)

I’ve had some really good vegan food and some pretty bad vegan food, but the key thing is that it has never been boring. It’s always worth having, and I suggest to you that you seek out your local meat-free scene and see what they have to offer.

Duck Confit Sandwich – Fundamental LA, Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

duckconfitIn recent days I’ve grown increasingly tired of what I would call the Standard Cafe Lineup. Turkey pesto, chipotle chicken, caprese, tuna salad. Maybe a ham and cheese or some manner of roast beef. All of those sandwiches can be delicious, even stupendous, but by definition the average turkey pesto you encounter is unlikely to be spectacular.

It would be all too easy to get hung up on this, to grouse at length about atrophied imaginations and stunted vision. But there’s no need for that, because with a little extra effort you can find places like Fundamental LA, places that are taking atypical ingredients, combining them in interesting ways, and putting out stellar sandwiches. In the case of the above it’s duck confit, cooked up to a wonderfully crispy, chewy state.  That’s joined with chimichurri, pickled watermelon radish, butter lettuce and garlic aioli on a brioche roll. That’s a delightful lineup, and it all works together spectacularly well. The sandwich is bright and flavorful, with acidic notes from the radish and the duck cradling all other flavors in its savory depth. Brioche is an underutilized sandwich bread, and this sandwich is a good example of why it’s so useful. It’s a soft and yielding bread, meaning none of the ingredients slide anywhere, and you just get the sweet starch notes that are so essential to what we know as a sandwich. Little Chef Counter in San Jose made use of similar breads, to similarly successful ends.

This was a fine sandwich. A sandwich as good in execution as it is in conception is a rare thing indeed, and I was delighted to have this one.

The Bobbie – Capriotti’s, Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA

thebobbieI’ve covered Capriotti’s before, and was not tremendously pleased with what they had to offer. The Bobbie is listed first and foremost on Capriotti’s menu, and as I’ve discussed previously, that’s a big signal. I had cause to return to Capriotti’s, so I figured it was only fair to take their best effort and give it a try. I intentionally avoided the Bobbie when I went previously, thinking that it wasn’t the right sandwich with which to judge the franchise. As a thanksgiving sandwich, it doesn’t have the highest degree of difficulty, and I thought it wouldn’t tell me much about Capriotti’s. Sweet mercy, was I wrong about that.

As it turns out, the Bobbie says a whole heck of a lot about Capriotti’s. Specifically  it says that they either don’t know much about a good sandwich, or they don’t care to make the effort. Two things really took this sandwich off the rails, one of which was expected and one of which was a surprise. To start with, apparently mayonnaise is an acceptable substitute for gravy, or at least the folks at Capriotti’s see it that way. I mentioned mayo in my guide to the thanksgiving sandwich, but any application has to be minimal. There’s no need to get to the level of slathering, and heaven help you should the mayonnaise announce itself. The Nobadeer at Jettie’s uses mayo, but it’s minimal and restrained. If you feel your sandwich is lacking moisture, well, that’s what gravy is for. If you aren’t willing to keep some gravy warm for the purposes of a thanksgiving sandwich, perhaps you should do some thinking on why you’ve placed it at the top of your menu.

The mayo fiasco was half expected, as the menu clearly states the sandwich comes with mayo. My policy is to take sandwiches as they are offered/designed, and sometimes this sort of thing happens. The second issue I had with the sandwich came as a surprise, and that was the fact that the cranberry sauce was stone cold. I wasn’t visiting first thing in the morning, and even if I were that wouldn’t be any kind of excuse.

This isn’t a tricky one to make. You get some tasty things that go together, and you put them all between bread. It’s the very essence of sandwich making. With the thanksgiving sandwich, all you really need to do is understand what’s going on and stay out of the way. Sadly, that seems to be a bit beyond the capabilities of Capriotti’s.

Wild at Heart – Kafe K, Main St, Santa Monica, CA

I picked this up not at the cafe itself but their farmer’s market outpost, and I must say it’s exactly the sandwich that fits with that environment. Everything involved was fresh and bright, an intermingling of flavors that carried a brightness and a vibrancy a good number of sandwiches lack. A well-baked ciabatta roll held artichoke hearts, arugula, fresh ricotta cheese and pesto. That’s a fine lineup, particularly the ricotta. Ricotta is an underused sandwich ingredient, but that’s not without cause.

The roll was well baked, giving it a pretty substantial crust. That’s the mark of a baker who knows what they’re doing, but it also means I’m going to have to give it a pretty substantial bite, and sadly that sent quite a bit of the ricotta out at the edge. This isn’t enough to get me to dislike a sandwich, it’s just a regrettable part of some sandwiches. Consider what might have happened if this establishment had gone with sliced bread, rather than a crusty roll? The pesto soaks in, the cheese soaks in, and then you’ve got a much better contained sandwich, only one you have to hasten to eat. There’s a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t dynamic at play here, and Kafe K elected to go with the tricky but quality ingredient, a fine choice. Besides, what kind of enthusiast would I be if I let a little sloppiness keep me from enjoying a delicious sandwich?

Cemita de Carnitas – Cemitas Poblano, Pico Blvd, Los Angeles

Cousin to the torta, the Cemita is a style of sandwich built around its namesake roll. Where the torta generally comes on a bolillo or telera roll, the cemita is sweet, with an exterior softer than your typical bolillo but tougher than your average telera. It has some chew to it, some body. The sandwich itself is fairly straightforward: avocado, onions, meat, a mild cheese, and a chipotle adobo that makes its characteristic smoke one of the more prominent notes in the sandwich. This one comes from a lunch truck that’s always parked on Pico just east of Sepulveda, but I’ve seen trucks scattered around the city with the same name.

I don’t know how much there is to be said. As a style of sandwich, it’s as tried-and-true as any classic archetype, it’s well balanced, and provided it’s assembled with fresh avocados and quality ingredients, you’re pretty much guaranteed to finish with a delicious sandwich. It’s not as widely available as the torta, but a delicious sandwich with the added zest of scarcity? Hunt one down some time, you won’t regret it.