Consider the sandwich. Generations of Americans would have starved if they hadn't.
The peanut butter and jelly (PB & J) we messed up mom's kitchen with. Thick slabs of ham on rye at family picnics. The bologna sandwiches we ate when times were lean. Grilled cheeses our sisters slopped together on Sunday mornings.
But don't go getting too sentimental, because sandwiches are very much a part of the '90s. The sandwich, once an identifiably American phenomenon, has managed to conquer the world in recent decades. Now, the world is repaying the favor, by making the choices more colorful and diverse than ever.
I've been out eating sandwiches for months now in a search for Orange County's best. I could easily go another season or two, but for now I've come up with 10 worthies (in random order) for you to chew on. Let me know if I've missed one of your favorites. I'm always ready to eat a good sandwich.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 9, 1991 Orange County Edition OC Live! Page 11 OC Live Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
In last week's cover story on 10 great Orange County sandwiches, we incorrectly identified the owner of New York City Deli in Fountain Valley. The owner's name is Paul Hortobagyi.
1. The Hamburger.
This is the big one, everybody's sacred cow. Many local burgers spring to mind; the In-N-Out Burger, the terrific cheeseburger at Zuni Grill and a host of others at neighborhood watering holes. But I'm voting for the meaty, messy burgers at Russell's in Seal Beach, sloppy, paper-wrapped ones on plain grilled buns with lettuce, tomato, pickle and a sweet, creamy dressing that drools out when you bite in.
The meat is ordinary ground chuck and never frozen, marbled with just the right amount of fat, and the burger just about falls apart when you pick it up. Eat one with the world-class french fries that can be had for only 95 cents additional, or a scoop of the excellent house cole slaw. Russell's has been a Long Beach institution since 1930, but the Seal Beach restaurant is less than six months old. No matter. Old-timers may find the atmosphere plastic, but the burgers are pure Americana. Great double-crusted pies and thick milk shakes too.
Russell's, 1198 Pacific Coast Highway, Seal Beach. (213) 596-9556. Open Sunday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11 p.m. Russell's Famous Hamburger, $3.75. 2. The Egg.
I probably don't need to tell you how simple and satisfying an egg sandwich can be. Anyone can cook an egg and smush it together with relish, mayo, mustard or whatever else there is left over in the fridge, and no two ever taste the same.
John Merlino, chef at a small cafe called Merlino's on 17th, makes the best one I know of. All his sandwiches are terrific, like his incredible confit of chicken sandwich (chicken preserved in its own fat on a French roll with sun dried tomato, Brie cheese and a moss green basil spread). So good I almost put it on this list. But nostalgia won me over. The egg sandwich here is served warm and is wonderfully fragrant, a scrambled egg with provolone cheese, Dijon mustard and Bermuda onion on good grilled egg bread. It's one you'll want to eat when you are feeling especially delicate, a comfort food to restore your strength. It makes an unexpectedly good breakfast, too.
Merlino's on 17th, 401 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa. (714) 548-1598. Open Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till 9 p.m. The Egg Sandwich, $4. 3. The Vegetarian.
Zov's Bistro, a lively boisterous cafe with a black and white checkered floor, is one of the area's more unusual restaurants, a Middle Eastern bistro with French and Italian overtones. Owner Zov Karamardian is Armenian, and although her menu is wide ranging, it is the foods of this region that she does best; baba ganooj, the grainy eggplant dip, or the Aram, cold roast beef with dill rolled up in cracker like bread.
But I come here for her grilled eggplant sandwich, a simple creation that is sublimely delicious. The eggplant is lightly floured and smeared with feta cheese, then stuffed into a crispy roll with tomato and lettuce. The result is something light, sensuous and healthy, an all-American sandwich with a Middle Eastern twist. I could eat one any time.
Zov's Bistro, Eiderle Center, 17440 17th St., Tustin. (714) 838-8855. Open for lunch Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, 5 to 9 p.m. The Vegetarian, $5.95.
4. The Cajun Fried Chicken.
You may not have an appetite by the time you get to the sandwich menu at A La Carte, a take away gourmet shop just south of downtown Laguna. That's because the shop is literally crammed full of hors d'oeuvres, pastries and other goodies, a few of which are always put up for tasting.
Sandwiches here tend to be creative, especially the ones with names like BBQ meat loaf and chicken Caesar, but I'm sold on the Cajun fried chicken, a spicy, breaded hunk of chicken breast on a grilled bun with lettuce and tomato. The sandwich is jazzed up by an exotic ingredient called jalapeno jelly and is all at once sweet and spicy, quite unlike anything I have tasted before. What's more, it's served with a subtle, al dente macaroni salad, making the perfect light lunch.