Argentine Steak Sandwich – Food Lab, Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

Food Lab is a sandwich shop, in the sense of an establishment focused almost entirely on sandwiches. There’s a selection of salads to accompany your meal, but this is the kind of place that doesn’t even bother with the often-obligatory side of chips or fries. Sandwiches are what they sell here, so if you can’t be satisfied without a pile of potato to stick your head in, head somewhere else. And that focus is well founded, because they’re putting out excellent stuff. The Argentine steak sandwich was a special of the day, and it’s just the kind of minimal sandwich that comes from someone who knows what they’re doing.

Grilled steak, arugula, and chimichurri sauce. There’s a bit of mayo on the bottom half of the roll, keeping it from getting soggy, but aside from that this is just steak and sauce. That’s a good thing, because steak and chimichurri is a phenomenal combination and there’s no need to fuss with it, just put the two together and let them sing. There wasn’t quite enough sauce here for my liking, and I think the sandwich would have been better served by spreading the sauce on the top half of the roll, rather than putting it directly on top of the steak, but outside of that this was still a darn good sandwich. The roll had a hearty crust, but not one so hearty that a bite sent things sliding all over or required a full pulling, head-twisting effort. I have a special place in my heart for the simple sandwich, and something like this could easily be duplicated at home by any interested enthusiast. I recommend you do so immediately; there’s a delicious sandwich just waiting for you.

 

 

Steak Torta — Porto’s Bakery, North Brand Boulevard, Glendale, CA

We’ve visited Porto’s before, and we’re certainly no stranger to either steak sandwiches or tortas. The last Porto’s sandwich featured here was a rare miss from an otherwise exemplary sandwich shop and bakery, and it’s nice to showcase a sandwich that really points out how much the establishment shines when it plays to its strengths.

The steak torta is grilled steak, cotija cheese, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, and black bean spread on a French round. The bread, baked in-house, is marvelous. The grilled steak is flavorful, even though it is the normal torta-quality steak you would expect. The true star of the show, however is the black bean spread. Porto’s uses this on several sandwiches, and the first time I took a bite of one, my mind burst into a fire of one vital question: “WHY ISN’T THIS  ON EVERY SANDWICH?” The black bean spread is something that, as soon as you taste it, you wonder why you haven’t thought of it before. It adds a welcome earthiness and savoury element that so many unneeded vegetables can only hope to aspire to.

This sandwich is nothing short of a delight, a wonderful balance of creaminess, firmness, and a wide flavor palate. The bread holds everything together perfectly and although the cheese may be a bit lost, you’ll find the experience pleasing in every way.

 

Western Tri-Tip Sandwich — Wood Ranch, The Grove, Los Angeles

We have spoken before about the very few different options for a steak sandwich. The Wood Ranch, known for its premium meats and barbecue, which you can order in large quantities to take home a la carte, offers only the “chopped meat” version of the steak sandwich, but thankfully does it well. There are two tri-tip sandwiches on offer, and the “Western” option is a bit more intriguing. Consisting of tri-tip, Monterey jack cheese, sauteed onions and peppers, it is served with what the menu boasts is “real au jus,” which makes one wonder what was in all of those other bowls of drippings we have been consuming for years, and more importantly, what is in this one.

When I first ordered the item, I missed the “real au jus” on the menu, so when the sandwich was delivered, I feared that I had mistakenly ordered nothing more than a gussied-up diner French dip. Thankfully, the onions and peppers were flavorful and provided actual taste to the sandwich, in stark contrast to a sandwich like the tepid cheesesteak of North Carolina. The Monterey jack also brought a fine element to the sandwich, rather than being lost. This was a surprisingly well-balanced sandwich, and tasted fine both with the au jus and without. (The au jus was just as flavorful as any other au jus I have heretofore encountered, regardless of its highly-touted authenticity.) Although this wasn’t anything ground-breaking, sometimes a pleasing sandwich experience comes down to whether you can taste the vegetables.

Cheese Steak — Outer Banks Cheese Steaks, Austin St., Corolla, NC

The esteemed founder of this enterprise had an all-too-common experience with a cheese steak in the Bay Area of Northern California. As I have said in the past, I am forever intrigued by geographically-famous sandwiches, and perhaps equally as intrigued by sandwich shops that appear to be a bit out-of-place.

Since I have never visited Philadelphia, I have never had the opportunity to have a “true” cheesesteak, or indeed even a tasty approximation thereof. Finding myself in North Carolina, and finding my initial destination of a deli closed for renovation, I spied Outer Banks Cheese Steaks tucked away in the back of a shopping center. I figured, since this was as close to Philadelphia as I was liable to get for the foreseeable future, why not give it a whirl?

My first order of business was to find out how authentic an operation this was. I inquired as to the use of Cheez-Whiz. The woman manning the counter and the grill (for they were nearly one and the same) replied, in moderately offended tones, that the cheese in use was provolone. I opted for the classic cheesesteak, and further opted for onions and peppers, as I feared a large roll filled with steak and mild cheese would be too monotonous.

As it turned out, the roll was the tastiest part of the sandwich. A true grinder, it held the sloppy components admirably and provided pleasing flavor and texture. The rest of the sandwich was bland, bland, bland. The grilled vegetables had nearly no flavor at all, and the cheese was somehow lost, even though the steak appeared to have been minced and cooked with no seasoning whatsoever.

It was sustenance, to be sure. But one wonders as to the value of a large amount of nearly-flavorless food.

 

Pizza Steak – Mick’s Sub Shop, Lindley Ave., Encino, CA


Many times, when at a new establishment with an eye toward a sandwich to review, one must opt for the road less traveled. One cannot always expect a sandwich counter to offer anything beyond “Roast Beef Sandwich” or “Turkey Sandwich” or “Cold Cut Combo.” Thus, while scanning the board at Mick’s Sub Shop, the words “Pizza Steak” jumped out at me and I was forced to inquire. I was informed that the sandwich consisted of “steak,” grilled onions, pizza sauce, and mozzarella. Intrigued by what sounded like a beef parmigiana sandwich, I placed my order.

The end result was, perhaps, less than it could have been. But it could also have been much, much worse. The first notable aspect of the sandwich was that the large was cut into thirds, an anomaly if there ever was one. The grilled onions were hardly more than warmed, and if they were properly browned and caramelized, I feel it would have contributed a great deal toward making this a better sandwich.

As I elaborated in last week’s post, too often is sliced roast beef presented as “steak,” but in the case of presented a sandwich called “pizza steak,” one can forgive the euphemism. This was a greasy and strange sandwich, although not actively bad. I cannot in good conscience recommend the item, but I will say this: the third of the sandwich that I took home with me was immensely better two days later, eaten cold out of the refrigerator, than the two thirds I consumed fresh and hot inside Mick’s.

8 oz. NY Steak Sandwich – Smalley’s Roundup, South Main St., Salinas, CA


There are two distinct families of steak sandwich. The first is sliced or shaved steak, which is normally seen either the heading of “tri-tip” or is a roast beef or French dip sandwich that is gussied up and putting on airs. The second family of steak sandwiches is generally about as honest as a sandwich can get: a steak on bread, typically with some sauce. That is the beast we are dealing with today.

Smalley’s roundup is the most famous and tenured BBQ establishment located in the home of the California Rodeo. Beloved for its sauce and grilled selections, I hoped the quality would translate well to the sandwich medium. There are three steak sandwich options: the 8 oz. NY, the 5 oz. Filet, and a “BBQ Beef” option, which is sliced tri-tip. When dealing with the steak sandwich family that is “a steak on
bread,” I feel the key to a fine sandwich lies solely with the tenderness of the steak. Since the filet would be a more naturally tender cut than any New York strip, I wanted to put Smalley’s through its paces, as it were. You can often gauge the overall quality of an establishment by its basest offering.

I am pleased to report that the steak was tender and did not necessitate my tugging at it as though I were a dog with a chew toy. The sauce was flavorful and applied with just the right amount of gusto. The bread held up nicely without being anything special. The overall experience was one of a hearty, pleasing, and filling meal. Simplicity can often be richly rewarding.

Baguette Charm – Loving Hut, Matlock Rd., Arlington, TX

Baguette Charm, Loving Hut, Arlington TX

Loving Hut is a 100% vegan chain of restaurants with locations across the nation. That is a wonderful reality. The question of, “is it hard to be vegan?” should be eliminated from our dialogue. A short drive from our home base in Austin to Frisco for a game of Major League Soccer included a stop at the chain’s Arlington location, located in a strip mall across from a placed called “Sports Burger.” The juxtaposition was delicious, but not as delicious as the Baguette Charm, Loving Hut’s answer to the cheese steak sandwich.

The sandwich boasts succulent soy protein, bell peppers, onions, homemade veganaise and melted vegan cheese on a toasty baguette. It succeeds because it aims so low; often, vegan cheesesteaks are too ambitious, forgetting that the joy of an omnivorous cheesesteak is in its corruption, in its badness. A “good” cheesesteak, as defined by popular culture, involves enough grease to seep through a brown paper bag. Vegan cheeseteaks emphasize taste — the Baguette Charm emphasized a smoky flavor with sticky, molten hot cheese. Despite being homemade and vegan, it tasted bad for me. This made the sandwich extremely good. It’s a tricky line, and possibly one born from a childhood lived in poverty.

The true stars of the meal were the side dishes, vegan cole slaw (a rarity, at least in this style) and potato salad. They were perfection by any taste’s definition.