Getting Closer

This week brings us two meaty gems, from new Portland venues reminiscent of the great market halls of Europe. We are truly lucky to live in this town.

Kim and I have fallen in love with Pine Street Market. If you haven’t been there yet, it’s a new food hall at the corner of Second and Pine downtown. Think of it as like an indoor cart pod. John Gorham’s empire has a stall in there called Pollo Bravo, and they sell Bocadillos, the delightful Spanish sandwiches that usually consist of meat and savory toppings on a horizontally-sliced roll (I’d call it a baguette, but I don’t want to annoy my Spanish friends).  Last night I had the Lomo, which has rotisserie pork loin, griddled Manchego, caramelized onions, and romesco. Sure enough, it was superb. The cheese was griddled to crispy perfection, the pork was delicious, and the romesco added a sharp, peppery tang. It was the best sandwich I’ve had all year, and it gets a deserved 9 out of 10. Better yet, they have roast beef and sausage Bocadillos on the menu too. As a wise man once said, I’ll be back.

Providore Fine Foods has been another great discovery. It’s a new multi-vendor food market at the corner of 24th and Sandy. There’s all kinds of good stuff there (I could go on all day about the rotisserie chicken from Arrosto, but that’s another blog), including some outstanding sandwiches from Pastaworks. I recently tried the Shooter, which has skirt steak, mushroom duxelle, Dijon mustard, and Calabrian chili on a toasted roll. It’s like someone took Beef Wellington, added some spiciness, and turned it into a sandwich. It was an excellent lunch, and it would have made an even better dinner paired with a big, hearty red wine. Providore is open until 9, and they have a wine shop where you can get drinks by the glass, so I just might have to give that a shot soon.

Missed Opportunities

For a fleeting moment, I thought I’d found the perfect sandwich in a chance encounter. We went to dinner at La Moule, the new French mussels joint on SE Clinton. I arrived looking forward to a steaming bowl of shellfish goodness, but then I saw the menu. They had a sandwich special on: a Ribeye and Frites sandwich, with smoked ribeye, frites, caramelized onions, aged cheddar, Dijon, and horseradish on a baguette. I ordered it, of course. I’m a sucker for fries on a sandwich. Throw in ribeye steak and aged cheddar, and I was sure this would be something special. But the finished product was a big disappointment. To melt the cheese, they wrapped the sandwich in foil and put it in the oven. That meant that both the bread and the fries were soggy. On a crispy baguette, with fresh fries, this baby could have been the perfect sandwich. Instead, it barely rated 6 out of 10.

Then there was a missed opportunity of a different kind. I’ve been getting a lot of suggestions on where to find the perfect sandwich, and about half of them have said the same thing: try the porchetta sandwich at Peoples’ Pig. It’s close to work, so I headed over there recently for lunch. Unfortunately, there was a small problem: they didn’t have porchetta on that week. So I had to settle for the pork shoulder sandwich instead. Fortunately, it was excellent. Pork shoulder, greens, and spicy vinegar on a perfectly-toasted sourdough roll. It’s a solid 8 out of 10, and I’ll be back for the porchetta. And there’s a bonus. People’s Pig is a small, poorly-ventilated place with the smoker in the back. That means it’s always full of a low cloud of meat smoke. When I left I smelled of smoked pork the same way you used to smell of cigarettes after a night in a bar back in the day. I spent the afternoon in a food coma, occasionally waking up to sniff my shirt.

On a final note, remember that there can be beauty in simplicity. We just got back from a great vacation in Europe. At a sunny outdoor market in Berlin, I followed my nose to a local sausage-maker’s stall, where I bought a grilled bratwurst on a toasted bun. Maybe it wasn’t a perfect sandwich, but on that day, in that place, it was damn close.

The search goes on. I’ve still got a good list of places to check out,so I’d better get back to it. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

Burgers and Banh Mi

I’m having a philosophical problem: is a burger a sandwich? On the face of it, the answer is obviously yes. Meat and produce between two halves of a bun. That’s as sandwich as it gets. But I don’t want to include burgers in my quest for the perfect sandwich. I don’t know why. I asked Kim about it, and she felt the same way. So I asked her why a burger isn’t a sandwich, and she couldn’t come up with a good reason either. Maybe it’s because a burger is already the perfect sandwich. Maybe it’s because burgers are an art form to themselves, and it would take a year just to find Portland’s best burger. I don’t know why, but I’m not including burgers in my quest. And besides, I need a resolution for next year.

Speaking of niche sandwiches, let’s talk Banh Mi. I discovered this Vietnamese masterpiece about ten years ago, and I’ve been smitten ever since. Here in Portland, we’re blessed with many great options, and (of course) some fascinating takes on the original form. If you’re after a classic, most people will send you to An Xuyen on Southeast Foster. They’re damn good, but I prefer Binh Minh on Southeast Powell. The sandwiches are superb, and as a bonus treat, they do a magnificent curry puff. Definitely my favorite PDX Banh Mi joint.

That being said, no matter how good a regular Banh Mi is, it will never be a perfect sandwich. So let’s talk about some places that riff on the theme. Coming in on the down and dirty side, there’s Huong’s Vietnamese food cart, downtown at 10th and Ankeny. Their take on the classic has plenty of seasoned meat (pork or chicken – go for the chicken), and an excellent Sriracha mayo. It’s a guilty pleasure that ticks all the right boxes, especially with the crispy, light baguette. A solid 7 out of 10.

Rua sits right in the middle. They’ve set up shop in the relatively new Zipper complex at Northeast 28th and Sandy. They tart their Banh Mi up with thick slices of pork belly, but it’s not all good news. The sauce is a bit too sweet, and the bun is too soft. 6.5 out of 10.

Meanwhile, the good folks at Double Dragon are trying to take Banh Mi all the way to the top. They have a range of fancy options, including their own take on pork belly, but the best choice there is the pulled pork. Fatty pig along with crisp acid flavors from the pickled vegetables, all wrapped in a toasted, crunchy roll. It’s excellent, and gets a deserved 8 out of 10.

So still no perfect sandwich, bit a growing list of damn good ones. I’m enjoying this resolution. I’ll end with a note of caution: be careful when texting others about your Vietnamese lunch. I did that recently, and autocorrect changed “Banh Mi” to “bang me.”

The Go To Sandwich

I want to talk about an important concept: the go to sandwich. I was getting lunch earlier this week when I realized that at pretty much every stage of my adult life, I’ve had a go to sandwich. This is the sandwich you grab when you want a good lunch and you don’t want to have to think or work too hard to get it. Obviously, it has to be close by; mine has varied as I’ve moved jobs. I’ve had some good ones over the years: the banh mi at Best Baguette when I did worked Beaverton, the ham and gruyere baguette from Addy’s Sandwich Shack downtown, and my current favorite, the build your own sandwich from Brass Tacks. It doesn’t matter what you put on it; you can’t go wrong with a sandwich from Brass Tacks. Bread baked fresh daily from Fleur De Lis, Thumann’s deli meat, and fresh local produce. The roast turkey is especially good. I eat there at least once a week – it’s always a good sign when you’re on first name terms with the folks at your local sandwich shop. It may not be the perfect sandwich, but I’ve never had a bad one from there. I’d love to hear about your go to sandwich. Hit me up in the comments.

Anyway, on to this week’s contender. One word. Bacon. Yes, I know the whole bacon meme has been done to death, but that doesn’t change the fact that good bacon is one of the tastiest foods in the known universe. Bacon will no doubt feature heavily in my quest for the perfect sandwich, and I kicked off with the latest offering from the sandwich gurus at Meat Cheese Bread. These guys have been doing sandwiches right for years now. They always have a bacon-based offering, and their latest is the bacon and apple sandwich. The MCB crew uses thick cut Nuestre’s bacon, which is a masterpiece of the cured pig art. The sandwich adds cheese spread, apple, rosemary and greens on toasted ciabatta. It’s a very good sandwich indeed. A couple of quibbles keep it from perfection: the apples were diced, rather than thin sliced, so they tended to fall out; and the bread was a little too soft to contain all that fatty juicy goodness. But it was still excellent. A solid 7.5 out of 10 that was a crusty roll away from getting a 9.

The First Contenders

My quest begins with two sandwich reviews: an early contender from a hidden gem, and a letdown from one of Portland’s biggest names.

I got an early start on my resolution by hitting Tails and Trotters for lunch on New Year’s Eve, and my search was almost over before 2016 began. As often happens, I found myself in the mood for spicy cured pork products, so I went for the Grinder. T&T’s take on this classic features their house cured coppa, lonza and ham, with shredded iceberg lettuce, spicy fennel relish, aged provolone, and garlic aioli on a toasted Ciabatta roll. And what a treat it was. Delicious house-cured meats, perfectly toasted Ciabatta, and just the right amount of spice from the relish. This was a truly great sandwich. I had to search hard to find fault, and the best I could come up with was that the provolone could be a hint sharper, but otherwise it was superb. I’m always amazed that there isn’t a line around the block for T&T’s sandwiches. Yes, it’s primarily a butcher’s shop and retail outlet for their own pork products, but I’ve never had a bad sandwich from there. And this one was the best yet. Not quite perfect, but not far short either. A solid 8.5 out of 10.

For my next sandwich, I went for the heavyweight champ. Google “Portland’s best sandwich,” and one will appear on every list you find: Bunk’s Pork Belly Cubano. If you’re reading this blog, you probably know all about Bunk already (and if you don’t, you should). The Cubano has been featured on TV and in numerous articles nationwide. It’s a simple yet brilliant recipe – take a classic sandwich and add pork belly to it. This should have been a winner, but I went away slightly disappointed. The sandwich was good, but not great. A touch greasy, and the cheese was too sweet. I’m surprised, because I love Bunk generally, and I’ve had many great sandwiches there in the past. They did a porchetta special a couple of years back that had to be tasted to be believed. But this one didn’t cut it. Given its great reputation, I’ll probably try the Pork Belly Cubano again later in the year and update the score. But for now, all I can do is give it 6 out of 10.

So there you have it. The first two of what will no doubt be many fascinating sandwich experiences in the coming year. Leave your suggestions for my next sandwich in the comments.

Finding the Perfect Sandwich

A few years back, I made the greatest New Year’s resolution in the history of mankind: eat more sausage. It had everything: simplicity (three words!), achievability, and purpose. For too long, I had shied away from the noble sausage for health reasons. No more – I was determined to savor the world’s vast, majestic array of delicious meats in tube form. I figured that as long as I exercised and ate well on my non-sausage days, I’d be fine. And so far, so good. I can still get into the same pants, and my health is great. (Actually, my cholesterol is higher than my doctor would like, but why let the facts ruin a good story?). And best of all, I’ve enjoyed (and even made) lots of great sausages.

But that resolution had a downside. I peaked too soon. Ever since, I’ve struggled to come up with a New Year’s resolution that I was even interested in making, let alone sticking to. I’m not the sort to make the “drink less, exercise more” kind of resolutions, and everything fun I thought of paled in comparison to the greatness of “eat more sausage.” Now, though, I’ve found the answer. In 2016, I’m going on a quest to find the perfect sandwich.

I love this resolution. Sandwiches, like sausages, are a culinary art form. Every great food culture in the world has its own take on both the sausage and the sandwich (often, superbly, together). And here in Portland, we’re blessed with a vast array of sandwich options. Does the perfect sandwich live here? I don’t know, but I’m going to do my best to find out.

So what makes the perfect sandwich? It starts with the bread, which must be fresh, and appropriate for the type of sandwich, as anyone who’s tried to eat a burger on a soft bun can attest. Next, there’s the meat, which anchors the sandwich, and gives it the base flavors that the other ingredients build around. Vegetarians will tell you that there are good vegetarian sandwiches too, and they’re right – as comfort food goes, it’s hard to beat a good grilled cheese and vegemite sandwich. But the perfect sandwich has to have meat. Other ingredients can vary, depending on the sandwich. Cheese will no doubt feature heavily, but it isn’t required. Whatever brings out the best in the meat and bread is fine with me.

Kim says my quest may be doomed, because I’ve already had the perfect sandwich and it isn’t available anymore. She’s talking about the Marseilles from the now-defunct Carafe restaurant. And she might be right. The Marseilles – Merguez, harissa, and French fries on a crispy baguette – was indeed a masterpiece of sandwich art, and might just have been perfect. But I’m an optimist. I’m going to seek out the perfect sandwich from what’s available today. I’ll report back periodically on this blog, with ratings and comments on the contenders. And I’d love to hear your suggestions.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. It’s lunchtime, and I’m in the mood for a sandwich.