The McRibster – The Oinkster, Colorado Blvd, Eagle Rock

oinkstermcribI have nothing but respect for the instinct that led to the above sandwich. I’ve eaten my fair share of questionable sandwiches, and each time I’ve spent time considering how things might be improved. More often than not, there’s a simple route. The McRib is a strong example here, where it’s only natural to look at that lackadaisical wonder of pork pricing and processing and think “Some quality ingredients, a little care, and  this should be easy!” This is a very understandable impulse, and as it turns out, it is also very wrong.

The Oinkster put together a big hunk of pork ribs on a bigger bun, with pickles and onions at once more plentiful than the actual McRib but still not plentiful enough. The pork was dry and a bit tough, and there was quite a bit more bun than there needed to be. It would be easy to say that they simply tried and got it wrong, but I think the issue here really is the format. After all, what’s the ideal here? Tender, pull-apart pork, to the edges or even spilling out of a soft bun, with a present but second-fiddle textural and flavor counter. In other words, a good pulled pork sandwich. No, I think this is a case where the baby ought go soon after the bathwater. The McRib is the McRib for a reason, and there’s little reward in trying to gussy it up.

The Oinkster – Colorado Blvd, Eagle Rock

My initial experience with Eagle Rock standout The Oinkster was something of a disappointment, but also something of a fluke. My esteemed associate Bill has since returned more than once, highlighting some of the things on offer at what is, by nearly all accounts, an outstanding sandwich shop. I found myself there recently and was able to sample some of those things, and I came away as delighted as anyone. I’m not breaking any new ground in praising the Oinkster, but I do believe the sandwich shop is a special thing and it deserves to be recognized as such. I’ve discussed this before, how many places sell sandwiches but the Sandwich Shop is a different thing entirely, and a good one is to be treasured.

The above sandwich was their special of the moment, a pork patty grilled and put between bread with provolone, peppers and onions, and marinara. There’s not much to complain about there, the pork was moist and tasty, the flavor combination tried-and-true.

The Oinkster sells a burger called The Royale, and it’s piled high with chili, bacon and pastrami. So I’m not sure if I can call the above Oinkster Pastrami the intended ne plus ultra of the menu, it shares the shop’s name and is built to highlight the pastrami upon which they pride themselves, but it isn’t listed first on the menu and it doesn’t carry the same mien that featured sandwiches from other establishments do. None of that has any bearing on its quality, I suppose, and it’s quite good. It’s pastrami, cabbage, grilled onions and Gruyere cheese. That’s tasty, and it’s presented in reasonable proportion, but I think the cheese gets a bit lost. Regardless, it’s tasty as heck and a reasonable contender in a town where “best pastrami” is no small contest.

Pulled Porkstravaganza — The Oinkster, Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles

We here at On Sandwiches have never made any bones about our deep and abiding love for the pulled pork sandwich. In August, we are showcasing some of our recent pulled pork experiences and seeing how they stack up against one another, and against our idea of what a pulled pork sandwich should be.

Some time ago, our esteemed founder had an unfortunate experience at The Oinkster in Los Angeles. His pulled pork sandwich did not include Carolina BBQ sauce and he was left wanting. This is understandable. If you order one thing expecting another, you will usually be let down. As park of Pulled Porkstravaganza, I am here to offer my own humble take on The Oinkster’s product.

I’m something of a regular to The Oinkster. I have reviewed one of their sandwiches before and I often find myself heading there rather than Dave’s, although the two establishments are in extremely close proximity. What I have gleaned from my many visits to the Oinkster is that they often forget to include containers of Carolina sauce with the pulled pork sandwich, particularly when the order is placed for carryout. On the surface, this seems like a gross oversight. The sauce is for the sandwich. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that this is something that should be tossed in the bag without a second thought?

In truth, I probably ordered and consumed half a dozen of their pulled pork sandwiches before I ever beheld a ramekin of the rumored sauce. It didn’t actually matter to me. I find the sandwich extremely satisfying on its own merits. The pork is savory, juicy, and chock-full of delicious bark. The included onion and cabbage, which seems on the surface nothing more than something to stave off boredom, actually adds immense flavor and makes the sandwich whole. My suspicion is that these two simple ingredients trick the employees of The Oinkster into thinking that the sandwich is complete after being assembled. And you know what? They’re right.

As I said, I had eaten a good many of these sandwiches before the sauce presented itself to me. Up until that point, it was my “go-to” pulled pork sandwich. An extremely filling meal with a very pleasing flavor. I admit to having an affinity for the fries at The Oinkster, but every time I ordered the sandwich, I looked forward to it immensely.

But then…the sauce. The sauce is always served on the side, never on the sandwich, and I imagine there are many customers, like our esteemed founder, who arrive home, find no sauce in the bag, and sullenly chew their drier-than-they-were-expecting sandwich. I can further imagine there are customers who dine in, receive no sauce on the sandwich, are not given sauce on the side, and assume there is no sauce to be had. Some of these people are bound to be let down, or else are unfamiliar with the tropes of the pulled pork sandwich, or assume this is a new “spin” on an old classic.

The sauce is, in a word, perfect. Not too tangy, not too sweet. It was made just for this sandwich, and this sandwich for it. Similar to the sandwiches at Philippe’s, one may, if one wishes, apply sauce to each bite, or take one side of the bread away and pour the sauce on the whole enterprise, or hold your wrapped half of the sandwich upright and allow the sauce to work its way down into the sandwich of its own accord. It’s up to the individual.

I feel this is what truly sets this sandwich apart from most other pulled pork endeavors I have encountered: the sandwich is good with any amount of sauce, or without any at all. Depending on the amount of sauce you apply, you can have a different experience every time. This is fantastic. From the first time I encountered the sauce, this was transformed from my “go-to” to my favorite pulled pork sandwich. Try it both ways. Then try it a few more. You won’t be sorry.

 

Old Fashion Chicken Salad Sandwich, The Oinkster, Colorado Blvd, Los Angeles, CA

Chicken Salad sandwich from the Oinkster. A chicken salad sandwich sliced into two triangles, piled with nearly equal portions of chicken salad and pickles.The Oinkster is an eatery of moderate fame in the north end of Los Angeles proper, in the Eagle Rock area. It is famous for its pastrami sandwiches and its peanut butter-and-jelly cupcakes. I have a particular affinity for neither of these items. I visit The Oinkster frequently, but my “regular” item of purchase is their pulled-pork sandwich, which my esteemed colleague has written about, at length, but which I find more than agreeable.

I felt that my first foray for On Sandwiches should not be a well-traveled road, so I selected the “Old Fashion” Chicken Salad Sandwich. Chicken salad is a very interesting sandwich star: underrepresented, little thought-of (at least on the West Coast, and among those under 40), and potentially pleasing under ideal conditions and when in a particular mood. In my mind, chicken salad has two defining characteristics: the first is that it is the classier older brother of tuna salad; the second is that it is the very definition of the “Oh, ______ sounds good” menu item. An item you see on a menu that you hadn’t considered before sitting down, but darn if that doesn’t sound tasty on a fine Spring afternoon.

So it was with the thought of giving time to the neglected Chicken Salad that I ordered. As is customary for On Sandwiches, I ordered the item as presented on the menu. The only item that gave me pause was the inclusion of pickles. I am traditionally averse to pickles, but pressed ahead, eager to file my first column. My eagerness turned to dread when confronted with the sandwich itself, which, as you can see in the above photo, was fairly inundated with pickle.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must relay the following information: on the menu board at The Oinkster, the ingredients were listed as follows: “pulled roast chicken, housemade (bread and butter pickle), mayonnaise, tomato and onion on focaccia bread.” I had never before encountered the term “bread-and-butter pickle,” so the wording of the sandwich ingredients was beyond baffling to me, particularly when the placement of parentheses were considered. What was housemade? The pulled roast chicken? The bread? Some sort of “butter pickle?” Perhaps it’s my West Coast location, perhaps my picky eating as a child, or maybe due to my unfamiliarity with pickled cucumbers and their briny ilk, but the term had passed me by. All I knew was that it was a chicken salad sandwich, and pickles were involved.

I hefted the sandwich and took a bite, expecting an overwhelming burst of briny, acidic pickle dwarfing everything else. It was at this moment I learned that “bread-and-butter” pickles are sweet, rather than the salty tang of your standard dill. And this element, ladies and gentlemen, is truly what made the entire sandwich sing. I can only imagine how my eyes must have lit up upon that first bite. What an experience! The creamy, savory chicken salad was the yin to the sweet pickles’ yang. Joining the two as a splendid accent was the crisp bite of the onion, which was administered with skilled hand in just the perfect amount. The focaccia bread was, in a word, the perfect vessel, a spectacular firmness without being hard or crunchy, and without soaking up the moistness of the components within. If there was a fault to be found with this sandwich, it was the inclusion of tomato, which truly added nothing to the experience. It has been written about on this blog before, but it has come to the point that the watery fruit is, more often than not, added to a sandwich out of a perceived necessity than paying attention to the needs of the individual sandwich. “Making a sandwich, eh?” the unwashed masses must say to one another, “Better make sure you throw some tomato on there.”

I can scarcely remember a time I have so enjoyed a new sandwich. This experience serves as an excellent reminder to not only myself, but to all of us, that you never know which run-of-the-mill sandwich base  may allow an architect to create something around it that will truly knock your socks off.

BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich – The Oinkster, Colorado Blvd, Eagle Rock, CA

The BBQ pulled pork from Oinkster, which for some reason was served without sauce.

A few weeks ago while in Los Angeles, my associates and I were all set to venture to a local sandwich shop to pick up lunch. It turned out, though, that there simply wasn’t enough room in the car for all of us. Having reviewed the Oinkster menu online, I felt secure in what I wanted and so I simply told them to bring me back a pulled pork sandwich. Having heard tell of The Oinkster’s reputation, I spent the wait imaging the sandwich I was soon to relish, stuffed full and singing with a fine Carolina sauce. That is not what I got. A quick glance at the picture above will tell you that something, somewhere went wrong.

It is hard for me to not get angry. When ordering a sandwich, it is an exceedingly rare occasion where I will make specific requests. I trust in the person who has come up with the sandwich that they understand balance and layering and that their desire to create a fine sandwich matches my desire to eat one. I trust that they will do right by me. I have been let down before, certainly, some yahoo will load up on the cheese or go wild with the chilies. But those are understandable sins, products of misguided enthusiasm. This…I don’t know how this came to be. It was a pulled pork sandwich served without sauce. Pork is a fine, fine meat, but a half pound of it sitting naked on a roll is, dare I say, bland. This sandwich was a movie with the last two reels missing, a season of baseball cut short by strike. The cabbage and onions were both tasty, but the lack of sauce was so distracting it was hard to enjoy anything about the sandwich.

The simplicity of the sandwich allows for a lot of latitude. There are a million different things you can do, and it excites me to see people explore new territory. But this isn’t a vision, it’s a mistake. When you stand up and claim you’re taking a shot at an archetype, there are rules. There are lines there to guide you, and this sandwich fell well outside. Next time I’m in LA I intend to return to the Oinkster, to see if they can’t right this wrong.