Alright, so I know it’s a bit weird to blog about one of Judaism’s most famous leavened breads during Passover (which, for all the non-jews out there, is a holiday where you abstain from leavened bread), but I’m not the best Jew, so this isn’t entirely out of character.
There are a few origin stories for the bagel. One, a myth that has since been debunked, tells the tale of a baker in Vienna in 1683, who created a bread shaped like a stirrup, in honor of King John III Sobieski of Poland, who prevented the Turks from taking over the city. This story even claims that the word bagel comes from the German word for stirrup, bugel. Though this story held sway for many years, we now know that it is totally false, since the Yiddish word beygl can be found in a 1610 document of rules for a Jewish community in Krakow. The rules state that bagels were to be given to women in childbirth as a gift. It’s believed that the bagel actually originated in South Germany, where it was named beugel, or bracelet. It then moved into Poland, where, some sources say, it was used as an alternative to the obwarzanek, a very similar bread, that was associated with Lent. Whether or not this is true, the bagel has quite a history in Poland. In the shtetls, hawkers sold bagels out of baskets or on long sticks, and were required to have a license. Even the illegal selling of bagels occurred, mostly by children with widowed mothers, though if they were caught, the police would often beat them and take away their goods.
However the bagel originated, with the diaspora of the Jews, it spread to Western Europe and the east coast of America, where it found a stronghold. Many Jews found employment selling bagels in their new cities. These days, the bagel is one of the more well known Jewish foods, and is intensely associated with New York. In fact, New Yorkers claim that they actually make the very best bagels, thanks to the high quality of the water. They even call their plain bagels “water bagels.” Another variety of bagels is the Montreal bagel, which is made with malt and is blanched in water with honey.
Bagels, in addition to being a famed Jew-food, also hold a lot of significance in Jewish culture. The shape of bagels symbolizes the circle of life; the loop of a bagel has no beginning and no end. Even more, they were considered to be a good luck token and it was thought they could fend off the evil eye. For this reason, it has held meaning in ceremonies that are life cycle events, like circumcisions, during childbirth (as mentioned above), and funerals. And as much of Jewish humor revolves around food, you can bet there are bagel jokes…namely “a bagel is a donut with rigor mortis.”
But really, while all of this bagel history is interesting, what is more interesting is how delicious they are. Bagels are made from an enriched dough with flour, water and yeast, though these days many people add eggs as well. The dough is then rolled out and shaped into the familiar rings, and are left to rise briefly. In order to get the fantastic crusty outside with the delightfully chewy center, the dough rings are blanched quickly in boiling water, and, after being drained, are then baked to bagel-y perfection. Of course, bagels don’t retain their freshness for very long, which is where that rigor mortis joke comes in!
But what really makes bagels so great are their ability to make delicious sandwiches. While much of bagel cuisine revolves around cream cheese and smoked salmon, the bagel is truly a versatile bread. Really, you could throw anything between a halved bagel, and chances are, it’d be awesome. Even better, is that the bagel is a very sturdy bread, so you can easily make open face sandwiches! Of the photos above, the sandwich ones are from Tompkins Square Bagels in New York City, which was around the corner from where my brother used to live, and was a place that necessitated at least two visits per trip to New York. The first open face bagel is a homemade sandwich, with lox from Zabar’s, and the second two are from The Wood in Los Angeles, a cute restaurant, and this, in my opinion, is the star of their menu.
But however you eat your bagel, (or for that matter, whether you’re a Jew or not!), bagels are definitely a part of both the sandwich and the breakfast culture of America. You can get a bagel with cream cheese at almost any grab and go breakfast place, and even many lunch places: Dunkin Donuts will put any of their sandwiches on a bagel for you. And these days, you can get just about any flavor of bagel you want, from plain to blueberry, to pumpernickel. Which really just gives you more options for your sandwiches.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
In the blossoming world of gourmet food trucks, the Nom Nom Truck is one of the most famous. After a great showing on the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, the Nom Nom Truck now has a super dedicated, almost obsessive, fan base.
What’s so interesting about the Nom Nom Truck is that they serve banh mi, which are vietnamese sandwiches. Traditionally, banh mi is made with ingredients that most Americans would cringe at: pâté and headcheese. And yet, the Nom Nom Truck has a following that defies all cultural logic. You can get a traditional banh mi from Nom Nom…it’s called “the deli special.” But the more popular options are the grilled pork (pictured), the lemongrass chicken, or the tofu. In addition to the meat, each banh mi has cilantro, jalepeños, mayo, a tangy relish of carrots and daikon radish called do chua, and, my favorite, cucumbers.
Banh mi is a great sandwich to look at in terms of culture for two reasons. First of all, banh mi originates in the French colonialism of Vietnam. The sandwich demonstrates how the co-mingling of cultures creates new, hybrid ideas. In banh mi, the French contribution can be seen in the baguette and the pâté, combined with classic Vietnamese ingredients like the daikon radish. Nn fact, food is one of the best ways to track the movement of culture: by identifying food traits unique to a culture and finding them in other places, you will often find other cultural constructs have moved as well.
Banh mi is also interesting in terms of popular culture. It seems to have become the new, hip thing in the food world, with fans of all types. The best way I can illustrate this is through an episode of The Great Food Truck Race. The trucks found themselves in a small town in the South. It seemed as though the Nom Nom Truck’s winning streak had come to an end; everyone expected the burger truck to win. The Nom Nom Truck pulled out a huge victory, even in a place where most of the people had never heard of banh mi. For whatever reason, this Vietnamese sandwich appeals to everyone. The New York Times has done an article about banh mi, and in it, lists the top ten banh mi spots in the country (coincidentally, a commenter adds Num Pang to the list). When the Nom Nom Truck shows up at a gathering of food trucks, a line forms immediately, and the other trucks lose business fast. Whether it’s the sandwich in and of itself, or the prestige of the Nom Nom Truck or both, right now, banh mi is a force to be reckoned with.
I went to FarmShop one afternoon with my mom and my aunt. At this point, they hadn’t yet started full meal service, and were just serving coffee, pastries, and three tartines (they now serve breakfast and lunch and will be opening their market in the spring).
My mom and my aunt had tried all three of the tartines, and recommended that I try the fresh and smoked salmon. I have to say, it was fantastic. The combination of the two different types of salmon created an interesting texture, and of course creme fraiche is just always great. The best part, though, were the caper berries. I had never seen or heard of caper berries before, and they blew my mind. I’m not generally one to seek out capers, but the caper berries were something else. The pink color on the inside visually complemented the salmon, and though caper berries are bigger than their more common counterpart, I thought the flavor was milder and less overwhelming.
This tartine was fabulous, but also very expensive. In fact, the whole of FarmShop is pretty overpriced, so be wary if you’re not looking to spend an entire paycheck on a meal.
Thus far, this blog has (hopefully) demonstrated my love of sandwiches, and it should be apparent by now that I just love food in general. The one thing that I don’t think is quite so obvious is how much I love to experiment with food; unfortunately, a sandwich blog can’t always illustrate this. Therefore, I give you the first, of hopefully many, posts that involve stranger foods.
The Bazaar is a restaurant that is, well, bizarre. Since this isn’t a restaurant review, but a sandwich blog, I’ll let you do your own research (just go there if you like awesome food in a unique setting). This post is more about my love affair with sea urchin.
Growing up, my mom would always order sea urchin, known as uni, at sushi restaurants, and to be perfectly honest, it freaked me out. I don’t really remember my first uni experience, but once I tried it, I never went back. Now, if anything has sea urchin in it, chances are, I’m ordering it. For me, sea urchin is a food that has more ties to memory and experience than most foods. Most notably, diving for sea urchins in Santorini, then cracking them open on the red sand beach and eating them right then and there. Though most people find sea urchin very off-putting, to me, it evokes the ocean and is unbelievably decadent and delicious.
THIS is why I will order sea urchin everywhere, and why I loved these uni buns so much. Not only was the sea urchin itself awesome, but the combination of Asian flavors combined into a mini sandwich made this dish irresistible to me. The soft doughiness of the brioche, the crunch of the tempura, the heat of the serrano, the hint of ginger, the cool creaminess of the avocado, the melt-in-your-mouth texture and saltiness of the sea urchin…now this is taking a sandwich to a whole new level.