Chroizo Smack Sandwich – TLT Foods, Westwood Blvd, Westwood

2013-06-25 14.04.44My last outing at TLT Foods was truly a bizarre one, but their use of cotija cheese ensured I’d be back. TLT Foods has a strong Mexican influence, and their use of cotija shows a commitment to the depths of that possibility. It’s not something that’s in widespread use, and it’s unlikely to impress most people on name or reputation. Therefore, we can reason, it’s there because someone put a fair amount of thought into the sandwich. So, senseless execution aside, TLT Foods is doing something right.

The “Chorizo Smack” is chorizo, pee wee potatoes, guacamole and oxaca cheese on a telera roll, all coated in a guajillo pepper sauce. That is to say, it’s a pambazo. A Mexican sandwich archetype seen less frequently than the noble torta, the pambazo is a classic combination where the flavor profile has long ago lost all rough edges. Everything involved works remarkably well together, and all that’s left to anyone is to see the standard setup through. This is where TLT Foods falters a tad.

css-tlt2The standard pambazo is grilled, but left too long on the flat-top and the pepper sauce will quickly scorch. That gives the flavor a bitter undertone, something not so objectionable as to ruin the sandwich, but still unwelcome. A pattern seems to be in place at TLT Foods, where very good ideas meet questionable execution. I’ll likely be back again, but what was once wariness has crossed into distrust.

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Cold Meatloaf – Clementine, Ensley Ave, Los Angeles

clementine-meatloafI’ve been to Clementine a number of times, and I usually come away quite pleased. The sandwiches tend to be simple affairs, well executed. That’s usually enough, but the issue with a simple sandwich is that when something goes wrong, there’s little left to support what remains. Take the above. The menu promises sliced meatloaf, caramelized onions, iceberg lettuce and their ‘10,000 lakes’ dressing on country white bread. That sounds like it would be just fine, but the actual sandwich I was served didn’t have much to speak of in the onion department. They weren’t completely absent, there was one bite towards the beginning that reeled me in and another towards the end that assured me I wasn’t crazy, but in between there was little of the sweetness that would have balanced the sandwich out. Without the onion, the remaining sandwich was a bit dry and altogether unbalanced, something from which few sandwiches can recover.

It occurs to me that I’ve never had a genuinely good meatloaf sandwich. I suspect that it’s simply a more difficult task than most expect, and so the general effort tends to miss the mark. That’s a shame. I think that there’s a lot of potential there, but it will have to wait for some other day, in some other sandwich shop.

Braised Lamb – Fundamental LA, Westwood Ave, Los Angeles

braisedlambfundamentalLABack to Fundamental LA, this time for something new to the menu. Gone is the short rib sandwich, and in its place is braised lamb with eggplant, arugula pesto, roasted red peppers and pickled red onion on grilled sourdough. Compared head to head the short rib is a bit more adventurous, but there are things here to enjoy. The pesto went down on both the top and bottom of the sandwich, preventing the flavor from being lost. Overall the flavors work well together, and pickled red onion with roasted red peppers is a pairing that doesn’t show up often enough.

It wasn’t without its issues. Given that the eggplant was given second billing I expected quite a bit more of it, but it’s just a few slim slices, much to the sandwich’s detriment. The lamb was a touch dry, but I imagine that’s something that varies from day to day. All in all, Fundamental LA keeps up the effort as one of the stronger places for lunch in or around Westwood, and the next time the menu gets something new I won’t hesitate to give it a go.

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.

On the Importance of Effort – General Sandwich Discussion

poblanofrescocornerbakeryThe above sandwich is the Poblano Fresco from The Corner Bakery. Chicken, roasted red peppers, avocado, white cheddar and a jicama slaw, with chipotle lime mayo on a Poblano Cheese Bread. The below is the Chicken Torta from Fundamental LA. Chicken, tomatillo salsa, guacamole, cotija cheese, crema, jalapeño peppers and iceberg on a bolillo roll. Neither of these sandwiches are particularly great, but only one is forgivable.

fundamentalLAchickentortaRegular readers will know that I’ve made this point before, but not so explicitly and in a single post. Put simply, it is perfectly acceptable to aim high and fail, but it is far from OK to aim for the middle. The top sandwich isn’t bad, exactly, it’s just boring. The chicken is bland, the bread more cheese than chili, and really the whole thing stinks of resting solely on the slaw. “Jimicia!” goes the thought process. “That’ll impress the rubes.” The slaw itself is also bland, and while chipotles and limes are both fine ingredients, it surely says something about vision if the only way someone thought they could be brought to a sandwich was to ensconce them in mayonnaise.

The bottom sandwich has shredded chicken that was re-grilled to give it a bit of a crust, but it didn’t hold together tremendously well and when combined with a slightly-too-soft roll the whole thing fell apart in the eating. The flavors were good but not quite up to what I’ve come to expect from Fundamental LA. Further, when you’re putting forth something like tomatillo salsa, the competition in Los Angeles is so strong that it’s tough to get away with anything less than great.

One thing this is not about is that one of these sandwiches is from a hip restaurant and the other is from a 150-location strong chain. The processed food industry is as advanced as any other these days, and any manner of product can be distributed in a stable form, at scale. Slow cooked chicken, for example, cojita cheese or crema, none of this is out of The Counter’s reach. They simply don’t think it’s worth the effort, or they honestly think that the top sandwich is a better concept than the bottom. That’s why it’s unforgivable. Because it’s lazy, because it presents nothing you have not seen before and it expects you to be grateful for that. There are a lot of ways to make a good sandwich, but there isn’t a single one that ends up insulting the person eating it.

PBAT – TLT Foods, Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles

PBAT-TLTI have earlier indicated that pork belly is far from my favorite, and that remains true. But as establishments continue to hold it in a place of prominence, I’ll keep eating it. Part of that is as a service to my dear readers, but part of it is because I never give up on an ingredient, and know that the world of sandwiches holds a great many surprises. Take the above. It was plagued by none of the overly-fatty, gristle-ridden issues that normally turn me off pork belly. The pork belly in this sandwich was firm but not tough, well seared but far from burnt, and altogether pretty good. Still wouldn’t be my first choice, but it worked well here. And that’s good, because if it had fallen short there wasn’t much that could have come to the rescue. The rest of the sandwich was arugula, tomato, red onion and aioli on a Parmesan crusted roll. The arugula was plentiful, similar to but not quite as extreme as what they’ve got at Clementine, but that would hardly be enough to carry the sandwich. Luckily it didn’t have to, as the pork belly was quite good and made for a fine sandwich.

Pork Banh Mi – Fundamental LA, Westwood Blvd, Los Angeles

banh mi - fundalemtalLAAfter two recent disappointing upscale bánh mìs (one from Mendocino Farms and the other from Ink Sack, both respected Los Angeles sandwich joints) I was hesitant to try another. My love of the bánh mì is well established, and I have no strong desire to sully my love of the archetype with a string of medicore attempts to upscale something that doesn’t need upscaling. But people keep making attempts, so I figure I might as well. After all, maybe someone’s going to get it right.

As it turns out, someone did! Fundamental LA, who I’ve discussed twice before, has a pork belly number they combine with a duck liver pate, some pickled root vegetables, and ajalapeno aioli, all on brioche. That’s no baguette, but as I discussed in the Mendocino Farms there are larger concerns than choice of bread. The flavor profile is of utmost concern, and Fundamental LA pulls it off. (The same things I said about pork belly previously still apply, but objectively speaking this is a very good sandwich.) The extra helping of cilantro helps cut through the richness of the pork belly, as do some well executed pickled veggies. The elements that were absent in the Mendocino Farms sandwich are fully present here, and as a result the flavor profile of a good bánh mì comes through. That’s crucial, and it’s the difference between an upscale bánh mì that seems like a betrayal of the sandwich and one that doesn’t. Fundamental LA continues to impress, even in matters so close to my heart.

Rare Roast Beef – Clementine, Ensley Ave, Los Angeles

clementine-rareroastbeef

I’ve visited Clementine before, and the quality of what I found the first time around ensured that I would return. This time I elected to try the rare roast beef: top round, roasted in house, matched with a horseradish mustard dressing, marinated onions and arugula on ‘rustic bread.’ I’m never exactly sure what something like ‘rustic’ means, but I in this case it seemed to mean a roll with a respectable but not overly tough crust, and that was a touch that made all the difference. A tough roll could have easily made eating this a chore, with all manner of filling creep. But the crust was chewy yet yielding, and it made the sandwich delightful overall. The beef is tender and juicy, the dressing spicy and flavorful, (but, as always, could have used more horseradish) and the arugula well present. Look at how much lettuce is in that sandwich! That’s no obligatory greenery, friends, that’s a part of the sandwich. The marinated onions were a bit more scarce, sadly, and in a lot of bites of the sandwich they were hardly there at all. In a different sandwich that might have bothered me, but this was fine with or without them.

Enough about what was on the sandwich, I’d like to note what wasn’t: cheese. I’ve spoken many times about the required slice of cheese, the inveterate sense that without a piece of cheese, something isn’t a sandwich. This is hogwash, of course, but I’ve been to more places than I can count who put cheese on everything in sight, practically throwing a slice at you as you walk in the door. Enough. Clementine is smart enough to realize that there’s enough here, that no cheese is necessary, that it would either be lost in the rest of the sandwich or simply gum up the works, and so they leave it off. That was downright decent of them, and I cannot thank them enough.

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

fundamental2

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.

Clementine, Ensley Ave, Los Angeles, CA

The Tony’s Veggie-Luxe at Clementine is corn, red and yellow peppers, mushrooms, garlic and three cheeses grilled on sturdy slices of whole grain bread, and it’s delicious. I was reminded of the sandwich I had at Bread Nolita, the one where the eggplant and the zucchini were hopelessly lost in the cheese. This sandwich was everything that that one could have been, a delightful melange of vegetables, heavy on the sweet but with mushrooms to provide a grounding influence. The cheese was present but restrained, and the bread grilled in a way that walks just to the edge of burnt and stops, peering over that line. That might not be your thing, but I think it provides a wonderful depth of flavor. There’s nothing fancy about this, it’s just a delicious sandwich.

The Fernando doesn’t disappoint either. A toasted ciabatta roll held tinga de pollo, coleslaw, avocado and something they claim to be a secret sauce, but whatever it is it’s lost behind the smokey adobo flavor of the tinga de pollo. There’s spice here, but not too much of it, the coleslaw has a fresh snap, the avocado is as wonderful as avocados are, and the chicken was moist and flavorful. I don’t know that there’s much of anything you could do to make this a better sandwich, and that’s a rare feat. It’s balanced, complete, and tasty as all get-out.