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.
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.
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.
Since I have posted on R + D before, I won’t go into too much depth about the restaurant itself, but this sandwich is more than worth mentioning.
I went to R + D one night after work with a coworker, and, like always, encountered one hell of a wait for a table. Luckily, the company was good and the Chimay was cold, and soon we were seated. As previously mentioned, the menu is not very large, and I had already tried that night’s sandwich special, so I took the opportunity to try the Reubenesque. Upon my recommendation, Aaron ordered the chicken meatballs, and we patiently waited for our food with a second round.
When the Reubenesque was set down in front of me, I knew that this was going to be a sandwich worth writing home about (or at least blogging). The Reubenesque is the epitome of R + D: a classic sandwich with a modern twist so subtle that it is simply more delicious than the original. Take for example, the corn rye bread. It’s still rye, keeping the basic component of the sandwich the same, yet the corn intensifies the flavor, augmenting the other ingredients, rather than letting them hide behind the taste of the rye. The corned beef is fantastic, and if you closed your eyes, you would think you were in a nice Jewish deli, albeit a time-warped modern deli. The baby swiss is mild enough to allow the rest of the flavors to shine, and unlike most reubens, is not melted. To top it all off, R + D combines the last ingredients, the sauerkraut and sauce (be it Thousand Island or Russian) into one fantastic creamy coleslaw. Furthermore, as you can see in the pictures, there is one obvious difference between the classic reuben and the Reubenesque: the coleslaw makes up most of the sandwich. This, in addition to the cheese, makes the sandwich cold and hot at the same time, since the bread is toasted, which is definitely different from the traditional grilled aspect of a reuben.
Basically, this sandwich is so good that despite the awesomeness of the chicken meatballs, Aaron stared hungrily at my plate, and one bite only made him want it more. So much more, in fact, that he went back the next day and got one.
The Farms is a Mom and Pop grocery store in Santa Monica that my family has been going to since we moved here 18 years ago. It’s one of those places where everyone recognizes you and where all the regulars have house accounts. My brother even worked as a bag boy there for a summer.
This sandwich doesn’t have any crazy ingredients, nor is it an innovation in the world of sandwiches. For me, this sandwich is a throw back to childhood: I probably ate it once a week in elementary school. I have a vague memory of my mom giving me the sandwich for the first time, and thinking that the combination of turkey, cheddar, lettuce, pickles, and mayo was not what I generally wanted out of a sandwich. I also have a fuzzy recollection of loving the sandwich from the first bite.
That nostalgia can play a role in food likes and choices is unsurprising. Many anthropologists choose memory as their topic of study, as it plays a huge role in the nature vs nurture debate. To use this sandwich as an example: my current food likes generally fall into the more unusual realms: I like foods that are different or unknown. I like to be adventurous in my eating, even though my father is a rather picky eater, and my mother has food restrictions of her own. By nature, I should not be quite as bold in my food choices, but I was nurtured into having a love for food, and I believe that my life experiences thus far have created this side in my eating habits.
This sandwich continues to be a meal I choose despite it’s simplicity. Though it is partially because the sandwich is delicious by being straightforward with no frills, a huge part of my enjoyment is due to the subconscious memory of enjoying it time and time again as a child. Though this connection between memory and food choice has been illustrated through this sandwich, it is by no means limited to sandwiches. Any food can induce this experience, which is one of the amazing things about people and their relationship to food.
What you see before you is the sandwich that I have been getting from Bay Cities since freshman year of high school, about 8 years ago. Though the other sandwiches from Bay Cities are phenomenal, this sandwich is my go to when I want something more refreshing, which, in Santa Monica, is very often. Who am I kidding: this sandwich is always my go to. The warmth of the bread combined with the cool crunch of cucumbers and shredded lettuce, added to the sweetness of maple turkey, the savory flavors of the swiss cheese and olives, plus, of course, the all important mayonnaise creates, in my opinion, a perfect sandwich.
Bay Cities Italian Deli has been a part of the Santa Monica food culture since 1925, providing delicious gourmet sandwiches and groceries from all over the world. From their cheese cases to the wine and liquor section, the olive oil aisle to the deli, Bay Cities offers some of the finest foods on the westside, or anywhere for that matter.
The idea of food as a way of creating social boundaries can be seen extremely well in this case: Bay Cities is a place that locals frequent: if you are new in town or visiting, there is little chance that you will find Bay Cities on your own. Thus, the people who eat and shop there are those that form an exclusive, elite group. This is not to say that “the other” (people who don’t know of Bay Cities or have never been there) cannot cross the boundary, but there is a hierarchy within the Bay Cities group based on the commitment of the individual in terms of the frequency of visits and how long they have been going there. Anthropologically, the “cult” of Bay Cities is a very interesting example of food forming an exclusive cultural identity founded in consumption.