Anatomy of a Sandwich Meets Love, the Bus

“The importance of the sandwich to western habits of eating is incalculable.”

Oxford Companion to Food

We have all partaken in the convenience that a sandwich brings to a meal.  There are very few meals that can be eaten on the go, but you can almost always rely on a sandwich to feed you while, say, multitasking, walking, or driving (which of course, you should never do).  It is largely for this reason that I have decided to take Anatomy of a Sandwich on the road.  That’s right…for the next month, I will be driving cross country, taking down the best sandwiches America has to offer.

This all worked out because of my friends at Love, the Bus: Tyler, Seth, and Corey.  Last year, they converted an old school bus into a biodiesel RV, and then spent last summer traveling from Maine to Los Angeles.  The purpose of the trip?  To help people who deserve it (mostly youth organizations) by doing crazy activities.  They made the trip interactive by creating a web series where people could not only follow along, but also suggest challenges, places to go, and people to help.  Four months on the road, 2,300 donated dollars, and six months of re-padding the bank accounts later, the boys are driving Chartreuse back to Maine, and kindly invited me to join them!  Aside from following my eating adventures here, you can also follow our trip by clicking the link above!

And so, get ready for some serious American sandwich eating!

Sorrento’s and Pastrami

  • Sorrento's #1
  • Sorrento's #2

One beautiful winter day in Los Angeles, Chris and I decided that it was time for lunch, and, doggone it, we would find ourselves a delicious sandwich. One failed attempt later, Chris suggested that we check out an italian deli by his place that he had noticed.  Having already wasted quality eating time getting lost and being teased by unopened cafes, Chris and I were hungry enough to take down a zebra each by the time we parked.  And then we walked in.

It was the smell that hit us first.  You know that scene in Ratatouille, the one where the critic with no soul takes a bite and is transported back to his childhood in the French countryside?  That first aroma was just like that, except that it took me to an Italian childhood I never had (same for Chris, though that was actually his childhood).  But seriously, the smell hit us so hard that it stopped us just inside the doorway and held us there for a full thirty seconds, just breathing it in, until we looked at each other, grinning.

Our noses took us straight to the hot case, where a proud Italian matron was lording over the sandwich proceedings.  Above her, almost completely unnoticeable, was the sandwich menu.  A simple board with an even simpler list, it looks so old that our first impression was that it had been there since the deli opened fifty years ago.  What really confused us, you see, were the prices: this board proclaimed that the most expensive sandwich cost $5.50! After a good deal of questioning double takes, Chris and I decided to just go for it.

We immediately realized that ordering a sandwich can be quite an ordeal.  Though there is no hard and fast rule regarding what goes on one of these sandwiches, if the Italian mama doesn’t like your selection, she won’t hesitate to make her disapproval known.  On this first visit, Chris got a large, double meat pastrami, and I a large, combination sub.  And then I made a mistake — I asked for mayo.  Now you would think that by now, I would know to just take the food as it comes, but I am a sucker for mayonnaise.  Let me tell you, the look she gave me made me want to move to a place where they’d never heard of mayo.  After giving me a decisive “no” I decided that this was not a battle worth fighting, and took the footlong sandwich she handed me with all the gratitude and shame I could muster.

The shock that Chris and I received when we got to the register (a vintage metal till) and our two sandwiches and drinks cost about $12 was palpable. And though I must admit that the combo sub is not the best I’ve had, everything else is.  The pastrami is just outrageously tasty, the meatballs and Italian sausage both taste like your grandma just made them (and ohhh how I wish the sandwich matron was my grandmother), and the beef and peppers may even top the pastrami.  These days, I stick to a small sandwich (grand total with a drink is $4) because the bread is a little better and I can definitely take the whole thing down.  I also stick to the hot sandwiches because it’s all homemade and sitting right in front of you wafting its delicious aroma in your direction.

But regardless of what it is that you get, everything is delicious.  Coincidentally, we never would have found this place if our first choice hadn’t been deserted.  I suppose it just goes to show, having an open mind and trying new things really can lead to great places…and great sandwiches.

The Father’s Office Burger

  • Father's Office #1
  • Father's Office #2

It really is quite embarrassing that I haven’t posted about this burger yet.  Aside from the fact that the Office Burger is touted as being one of the best burgers in Los Angeles (if not the best), I am about as regular as you can get at this bar.  Between the awesome selection of beers and the amazing menu, Father’s Office is definitely a great place to be.

Though the bar has been around for decades, it didn’t quite become the phenomenon it is today until Chef Sang Yoon bought it in 2000.  With Father’s Office, he pioneered the idea of “no substitutions, no modifications.” Everything comes as is, and if there’s something in a dish you can’t eat, too bad, order something else.  And most importantly, don’t ask for ketchup.  There isn’t any and you’ll be given a look like you just walked out of the loony bin in only a jockstrap and fedora (seriously).  These days, a lot of places have started to adopt this mentality…after all, it is their job to know how to do what they do better than the average joe customer.  And let me tell you, Sang Yoon really does know what he’s doing.

One bite of this burger will change you.  The next will convert you.  Pretty soon, you’re out of bites and all you want is one more.  Though this burger has a lot of hype surrounding it, I can promise you that it will be one you remember.  Sadly, great dishes that are touted as being the best are often a let down when you finally get around to trying them, because how can the reality ever live up to the praise?  But the Office Burger breaks this cycle.  Of the countless friends I have take to Father’s Office to try this burger, not one of them left without a) being blown away, and b) finishing every last bite.

From the French baguette bun to the dry-aged beef patty, the maytag and gruyere combination, fresh arugula, and the amazing gooey mixture of caramelized onions and applewood smoked bacon compote, I start salivating just thinking about it.  In fact, I’m salivating right now and thinking about running out and getting one.  Though there is a lot to say about the Office Burger, and believe me, I could talk forever about it, this is just one of those times that I must tell you…just go try it.  You’ll understand.

On Olive Oil

Check it out! I spoke on olive oil recently at TedxSanta Monica.

Five Guys

Since I’m on the topic of the East Coast, I thought this would be a good time for a post about Five Guys.  Though Five Fuys is now a burger franchise all over the world, it started out as a little, family-run burger joint in Arlington, VA.  My first experience with these delicious burgers was during my senior year of college.  Somehow, I had made it almost all the way through my entire college career before I had even heard of the place.  Then, one lucky day, one of my friends decided that we were having burgers for dinner.  Words like “handmade patties” and “just like in-n-out” were thrown about, and even though I was extremely skeptical, I went with it.

Now, I am a Southern California girl through and through, and you just don’t compare any fast food burger to In-N-Out.  Period.  And this was no Double Double.  But, Five Guys makes burgers that could fit the description of an East Coast In-N-Out.  Plus, they have toppings (pictured is lettuce, tomato, pickles, cheese, and grilled mushrooms).  These toppings range from the classic ketchup, onions, lettuce, etc, to the more exotic A1 sauce and green peppers.  Furthermore, and this is what totally sold me on Five Guys, they have really good fries.  As much as I love In-N-Out, I just really don’t like their fries.  And not only are the Five Guys fries amazing, but they also have cajun fries, which are pretty much to die for.

I must say that I was slightly devastated to move back to Los Angeles and realize that my Five Guys days were over.  But then…I discovered that the closest Ikea happens to share an address with the closest Five Guys.  And since I was moving and obviously needed an Ikea trip, what better time to hit up Five Guys?!  The best part was the first bite…until I took another…and another.

So who’s heading out to Carson with me for another Five Guys trip?

Fred’s Shanty Fish Sandwich

I semi-recently took a trip to New York to see my brother and my college friends.  Now for those of you who have been following along, you will have noticed that I frequent the East Coast, and that I continue my quest for awesome sandwiches on these little vacations.  While I did have some great sandwiches on this trip, you’ll have to wait for future blog posts.  This post is about a little seafood shack in Connecticut and a fish sandwich that signified the change of the seasons, the beginning and end of the school year, and the promise of fun with great friends.

Though there are two main seafood shacks in New London that have similar traditional menus, Fred’s Shanty is the place you go when you want a fish sandwich.  Simple, cheap, and fresh, there really isn’t much that’s better on a crisp fall day that’s reminiscent of summer.

In an earlier post, I touched on the idea of the connection between food and memory.  In the same way that a smell or sound can take you back to a previous moment in your life, food can also be associated with memory.  Just how I have many good feelings and memories associated with sea urchin, the Fred’s Shanty fish sandwich evokes visions of countless warm fall and spring college days spent outside – on the green, in the arboretum, at the beach – accented by trips to a small seafood shack on the Thames River.  And of course, these memories are attached to this sandwich not just because the consumption is recurring, but because of the strength of the emotions that the memories call up.  Yes, the fish sandwich from Fred’s Shanty is good, but it doesn’t stand out in a crowd of fish sandwiches.  In fact, the main reason to go to Fred’s Shanty instead of Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock (the other sea food shack in New London) is because it’s cheaper, not  because the food is better.  And though I have similar, and definitely more Lobster Dock memories, they involve a sandwich of a different sort.  It is this sandwich, the simple yet delicious fish sandwich, that carries ties to the lush life of college.

The Godmother

  • The Godmother #1
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If you think about some of your favorite (or not so favorite) restaurants, chances are, they probably have some sort of signature dish, or at least something they’re known for.  Though you will, of course, see this happen at many food establishments (especially big chains), it seems to me that places that have a very serious following (sometimes even cult-like) often have a dish that they are famous for.  At Bay Cities, a deli that has an obsessive customer base, The Godmother is this dish.

A signature dish allows competing businesses to define and separate themselves by creating a food (like a sandwich) that will represent the whole of the establishment.  This is the dish that people will choose most often, most likely due to exposure and hype, and the dish that customers will equate with the restaurant.  For example, anyone who has been to Bay Cities will at least know of The Godmother even if they’ve never eaten it.  In fact, the entire front of the market is covered in a sign that says “Home of The Godmother.”  And though the sandwich is really just a glorified Italian sub, the role it plays to Bay Cities is what makes it so much more than that.  Not only is it the food item that Bay Cities puts its name and reputation behind, it is also the food that customers will choose in order to become a part of the phenomenon.  If you go to Bay Cities regularly, but have never had a Godmother, other regulars will not only be shocked, they’ll probably also judge you and your commitment to the deli (yep, even those of you who don’t eat meat…sidebar, I ate this sandwich for years and years before I began eating pig products, and people would give me looks of astonishment when I told them my favorite sandwich place was Bay Cities, but no, I’d never had a Godmother).

There are definitely places that have signature dishes that don’t have such social response, but I think these are places that aren’t “signature” themselves.  This is what makes The Godmother iconic instead of being just another signature sandwich at just another deli.  The fact is, Bay Cities itself is a cultural phenomenon.  It has become, for Santa Monica natives especially, the ideal of what a sandwich should be, and The Godmother is the best of what this amazing place can do.  The consumption of this sandwich grants you entrance into the exclusive culture of those who know and idolize Bay Cities for their sandwich prowess.

So yes, The Godmother is a delicious and perfectly executed sandwich that deserves attention for its sandwichness alone.  But the following that it creates takes both Bay Cities and The Godmother to iconic levels.

The Midnight Snack

 

  • Tuna Melt
    Tuna Melt
  • Tuna Melt
    Tuna Melt

Snacks are quite an interesting part of our eating culture.  We (at least in America) have a very defined eating infrastructure that separates our foods and consumption into four distinct meal categories: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert.  The snack, as defined by Wikipedia, is “a portion of food oftentimes smaller than that of a regular meal, that is generally eaten between meals.”  Though snacks are not inherently junk food, they very often are and thus have a reputation for being unhealthy due to their nutritional value (or lack thereof).  In addition, the quality of the snack has a lot to do with convenience.  Snacks come into play when a person is in between meals and suddenly finds that they are hungry.  If you consider the times of day that this happens, its usually not a time that allows you to prepare either a full-blown meal or even a healthy snack.  Often, it is much easier to grab a bag of chips and go on with your day.

On the other hand, there is another eating infrastructure that utilizes a six meal plan which incorporates the inevitable snack. This system encourages you to snack, but at the cost of that big fat steak and potatoes dinner you so cherish, as well as the bag of chips that gets you through your 2 o’clock meeting.  Instead, it asks you to opt for healthier choices all around, such as snacking on a handful of almonds and following it up with a dinner of chicken and asparagus.

But, you’re probably asking, what does this all have to do with sandwiches???  Interestingly enough, Wikipedia includes sandwiches among its list of snacks (which, by the way, includes both nutritional and junky snacks).  But when is a sandwich a meal, and when is it a snack?  I’ll use this tuna melt as an example to illustrate the three important things to consider in this meal vs sandwich categorization: the timing, the ingredients, and the mentality.

The timing:

A sandwich can be a meal if you choose to eat it at a mealtime, or, if you choose (as I did with this tuna melt) to eat it at a “snack time” it can be considered a snack.  This tuna melt was made after I got home from a night with friends to sit down on the couch and decompress with some good tv before bed…a classic midnight snack.  Had this sandwich been consumed around noon, or even 6pm, I would consider it a meal.  However, there is no meal associated with midnight, unless of course you count the Taco Bell Fourth Meal.

The ingredients:

This is another facet to the meal vs snack debate: what’s in your sandwich.  One of the great things about sandwiches is that they can be made with leftovers.  Thanksgiving sandwiches anyone?!  Unless the timing is at mealtime, I would say that a sandwich made from leftovers could be considered more of a snack, mostly because if it was a meal, it wouldn’t be in the sandwich form.  This tuna melt was made with the leftovers of a tuna salad my dad had made earlier in the day.  More importantly, though, is the size of the sandwich.  If your sandwich has eight billion ingredients, but the size of these ingredients create a bite-sized sandwich, I’ dont think it’d be hard to argue that it’s a snack.  But it’s not always this simple, and I think that more generally, sandwiches with fewer ingredients have a higher probability of being categorized as a snack then those with more layers.

The mentality:

The most important factor in the decision, however, simply comes from how you view the sandwich.  When I say mentality, I mean that every part of who you are and how you’re thinking at that moment really determines whether your sandwich is a snack or meal more than anything else.  Does your five-layer club sandwich feel more like a snack to you?  Then it is.  Can your PB &  J constitute your lunch meal?  Sure.  So really then, if it all comes down to how you feel, then what is the point of this debate (Chris kept asking me this as we talked about this post)?  The point is that you CAN debate this.  The fact is, food is enough a part of our culture (and not just our survival) that I can actually argue with you over the role that a sandwich plays in your day’s eating.  Though there are other foods that straddle the line between meal and snack, I think that the sandwich is among the most versatile of foods when it comes to defining its place in the meal system.  Some foods are considered breakfast foods, some are considered dinner foods, and some are considered to be just snacks, but there is no way that you can categorize a sandwich that easily.  Yet another reason why sandwiches are a great way to examine the way we eat and our relationship with food.

Fromin’s and Hot Pastrami

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I’ve known for a while that I wanted to do a post about Fromin’s because it’s one of those places that is the ultimate Jewish deli.  Growing up in Santa Monica, I think I ate Fromin’s almost every Sunday for about five years.

When I went to Fromin’s with Sara, I decided to get the hot pastrami sandwich (on rye of course) which comes with a lovely little bowl of au jus on the side (not pictured).  As far as this sandwich goes, I don’t have a whole lot to say – this sandwich was even more simple than my last post and about eight million times better.  Perfectly cooked pastrami that juicily melts in your mouth, some swiss cheese, a touch of dijon mustard, and fluffy rye bread. Dip an already great sandwich in au jus, and of course it only gets better.  Which all goes to show that if done right, simple can be awesome.

The other interesting thing about Fromin’s is that it is only about four blocks away from another well known Santa Monica Jewish deli called Izzy’s, and the community seems to be loyal to one deli or the other, but not both.  This may also stem from the fact that the clientele at each restaurant is very different. Izzy’s is open 24 hours and is the kind of place that has a million pictures of the owner with various celebrities…the demographic here is much more varied and includes tourists, hoodlums, and a spattering of 10-13 year olds from the middle school up the street (in addition to the diner loving Jews of Santa Monica).  Fromin’s, on the other hand, has pretty much one type of customer: the elderly Jewish couple.  In fact, when Sara and I went, we were the youngest customers by at least 40 years.

Now, you may be thinking, why are you a Fromin’s customer instead of an Izzy’s kind of girl?  Wouldn’t you rather be among people who are closer to your peers?  Well let me tell you.  The Jewish deli is a place that I feel has been robbed of its true nature, especially in Southern California.  Instead of feeling like local spots where everyone knows each other and the food is just like grandma used to make, they give off a very commercial vibe.  It always seems to me like I’m caught in a tourist trap: welcome to SoCal, the land of the Jews…you must be this tall to ride.  Look!  Real Jewish grandparents eating knishes and borscht!  Fromin’s feels real – no show, no gimmick, just the same people working and eating day after day.  THIS is why i love Fromin’s.  Every single person seems to have an emotional connection to this deli, whether you grew up having their chicken noodle soup when you were sick, or it’s the place your grandparents took you every Saturday after your soccer game.

Sweet Lady Jane and Roasted Turkey

This is, I believe, only the second negative post I have done so far.  In fact, I would hesitate to call this a sandwich, instead opting for a much more accurate term: the BLANDWICH.

Now, to give Sweet Lady Jane a little credit, they are known for their cakes much, much more than they are for their lunch.  Yet I’d heard great things about their non-dessert offerings, especially this turkey sandwich.  What appealed to me about this sandwich was its simplicity: each sandwich from Sweet Lady Jane comes with lettuce, tomato, dijon mustard, and mayo.  The roast turkey is “baked with our own blend of spices, fresh in our ovens.” The most complicated thing about this sandwich is deciding what kind of bread you want (I went with sourdough).  With a sandwich this simple, what could go wrong?

Apparently a lot.  The turkey looked great – thick cut slices with spice-reddened edges.  Unfortunately, the actual taste of the turkey did not live up to the description.  It was dry and had very little taste at all.  The lettuce and tomato were were good quality, but if your meat is no good, there’s very little that veggies can do.  Mayo and mustard were nothing special but also nothing awful.  The biggest problem (aside from the turkey) was what this sandwich was lacking: CHEESE.  Now, I’m not saying that any sandwich without cheese is incomplete – I’m just definitely a cheese person.  In this situation, I’m not sure if cheese would have made up for any lost ground, but its absence was made more clear by the subpar-ness of the rest of the sandwich.

This sandwich was so disappointing that not even the company made this lunch better.  My roommate Sara had just gotten back from India, and we went to Sweet Lady Jane with our moms to welcome her back.  While Sara was sharing stories and pictures from her three week trip, all I could think about was how much I hated the sandwich in front of me.  People often comment on the power of “good company” – the people who you eat with have a very significant impact on how you experience your meal.  Good company can make great food better, and bad company can make bad food worse.  In this case, the company was fantastic, but even that didn’t help.

Basically, I ended up going to have a second lunch after this because I really needed to counteract the disappointment.  If youre looking for a great cake, go to Sweet Lady Jane…if you’re looking for a great sandwich, go somewhere else.