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.

Grilled Sweet Potato and Cherry Salsa – Made at Home

sweetpotatoAs any enthusiast knows, a great many sandwiches start with leftovers. I’d happened to make some grilled sweet potatoes with cherry salsa, going by a recipe I happened upon when looking for something delightful but vegetarian. The potatoes were grilled and then tossed with lime zest, cumin and chili flakes, while the cherries were combined with scallions, fresh ginger, a dose of lime juice and more zest. It was delicious, and a few days later I pulled the leftovers out of the fridge with a sandwich in mind. It would have been simple enough to just toss the two onto some bread and be done with it, but in my mind leftover sandwiches don’t end with whatever you have in the fridge, you start there.

The flavor profile already had plenty of sweetness from the potatoes and the cherries, and there was more than enough brightness from the lime. Not bad, but it all lacks depth. A deeper richness would really round things out, and for that two ingredients occurred to me. On the left above there’s a layer of peanut butter on the bottom bun, and on the right I went with avocado. Both are creamy and have plenty of fat, bringing that richness I felt was lacking. The salsa also hadn’t been as spicy as I’d like, so some hot sauce went on both sandwiches.

Ultimately, these weren’t spectacular. They were good, but some of the sandwiches I’ve made have really knocked me over, so it’s hard not to be a tad disappointed when something doesn’t gel completely. Maybe a different bread might have helped, the whole wheat kaiser rolls I had on hand were a bit dry and not so flavorful. Some sandwiches are a bit tricky to figure out, but luckily doing so is plenty rewarding.

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.

Vege Smoked Duck & Vege Pepper Steak – Love and Haight, Haight St, San Francisco, CA

The smoked duck sandwich at Love and Haight is not actually made of duck. Similarly, the pepper steak sandwich involves no actual steak. They are meat substitutes, products where soybeans and other such things are processed to resemble meat. I’ve considered such things before, and ultimately I concluded that they say more about meat than they do about soybeans. (The short of it is that it says an awful lot about cold cuts that you can mash a bunch of soy together and get something that is more-or-less as good.) But what of the things in themselves?

If we consider the most basic question, I should say that the sandwiches are a success. They taste good. The pepper steak was tasty, and the duck was particularly choice. It had a deep, smoky flavor, and the success of the sandwiches definitively credited to how good these flavors were. The accompanying ingredients were lettuce, tomato, pickles, red onions, mayo, mustard and, in owing to the location and the style of the place, sprouts. That’s a classic deli sandwich, but if the main ingredient fails there isn’t much there for backup. In further evidence of the reliance on the fake meat, if one is going to attempt to pass off a facsimile as hey-I-guess-it’s-good-enough, one does not attempt duck. It’s not a fake-it-and-hope-nobody-notices move. That’s important to note, because it points at the whole problem with the sandwich.

I think there’s a framing issue at work here, and while both sandwiches were quite good I’m far from convinced they were everything they could be. Food isn’t just a question of taste and smell. We eat with our eyes, the atmosphere matters, the context has an impact. There’s a lot going into each meal, even if we’re hardly conscious of most of it. What I found myself wondering at Love and Haight was whether I would have enjoyed these sandwiches more had they not been pitched as fake meat. The fake duck was good enough that I was happy to be eating it, but it was a far cry from real duck. Smoked duck is juicy and tender, a product of abundantly fatty tissue. There are a lot of ways to make soybeans delicious, there are very few that will turn them into duck.

Above I asked what was the value of the things in themselves, and I’m not sure I have an answer to that question. I cannot consider them in a context apart from fake meat, they don’t exist in any other context. I don’t know what you would call it, and I don’t know whether I would have ended up there eating it if it wasn’t trying to emulate meat. Those are difficult questions, and I don’t have answers for them. It light of that, I cannot help but think I haven’t given these sandwiches the full consideration they deserve.

Vegan Sandwich – Figueroa Produce, N Figueroa St, Los Angeles, CA

The "vegan sandwich" at Figueroa Produce in Los Angeles, CA

This was a fine sandwich. The bread was particularly good, large, tender sourdough bringing together fake chicken, fake cheese, lettuce, tomato, and a bit of avocado. I could go on a diatribe about the woeful inadequacy of yellow mustard, but that’s best saved for another day. The “vegenaise” was a more than acceptable substitute for the standard mayo, and that points at what is bothering me about this sandwich. The fake cheese wasn’t particularly good; you could see where it was aiming but it missed the mark. But the fake chicken, like the mayonnaise, was a fine substitute. Sampled alone, outside of the sandwich, it had a pleasing taste and a texture not at all unlike your standard cold cut. This was a good sandwich, I enjoyed eating it and would gladly return to Figueroa Produce and order another one. But even good sandwiches sometimes suggest larger problems.

I like chicken. It’s tasty, it’s versatile, it’s more-or-less good for you, and it makes a damn fine sandwich. You’ll find plenty of sandwiches here built around a chicken breast. But a lot of chicken sandwiches aren’t made with the breast. The same can be said for ham sandwiches, and turkey. These sandwiches are made with cold cuts, with lunch meat. This feels like a bit of a confession, but I don’t particularly care for lunch meat. Think about a chicken, and think about the kind of chicken you might get from the folks at Boar’s Head. Try as I might, I have trouble connecting that to an honest-to-goodness chicken. And that’s what this sandwich points to. What is done to meat that a couple of soybeans can cling together and stand in its place? Through the flavoring, the shaping, the retexturing, how does chicken get so far from itself that it’s just as easy and just as good to have such a drastically different ingredient? How might be the wrong question here, I don’t want the process explained to me. A better question is why? I understand the demands of cost and efficiency, but should we not aspire to higher ground? A sandwich can be a moment of delicious serenity in an otherwise chaotic life. Why let processing and preserving and stabilizing horn in on that?

I know I’m tilting at windmills. Let the supermarket delis exist, let franchise sandwich chains bury processed meat in salt. Let what was once an honest bit of pork sit, hopelessly round and absurdly pink, one side exposed to the air. Let it sit there for years, never going bad. I will be elsewhere, looking for a better sandwich.