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L.A.'s global sandwich offerings

July 22, 2009|Linda Burum

As soon as you place your order at Pita Pockets in Northridge, a cook slaps a soft round of dough onto the wall of a blazing tandoor-like oven. After a few moments, a bubbly disk of laffa, catacombed with air pockets and rich with yeasty char, is ready to be filled. Next a counterman slathers the chewy flatbread with lemony hummus, then loads it with grilled vegetables or juicy marinated kebabs.

The hefty hand-held feast -- just one culture's take on the sandwich -- doesn't quite fit the dictionary's narrow definition: "food between slices of bread," but in L.A.'s sandwich universe this stuffed laffa has lots of delicious company.

Take pav bhaji, the Mumbai street vendor's answer to burgers. The rich vegetable curry, mounded onto slider-style buns, draws droves of homesick expats to Little India's snack shops. Mexico's mighty pambazo, a chile-sauce-drenched roll heaped with chorizo and potato filling, then drizzled with crema, is finding its way onto more and more menus. And gua bao, a steamed round of flatbread folded over great slabs of juicy roasted pork -- the Chinese equivalent of a towering pastrami on rye -- was rarely found outside Taiwanese dives and Chinese bakeries until its recent appearance at Take a Bao in Century City, where the fillings run to spicy Thai peanut chicken and pomegranate glazed steak.

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Age-old tradition

L.A. sandwiches span the millenniums from wraps made with saj, a primitive Lebanese flatbread baked on a dome-shaped cast iron grill like the one at Cafe du Liban in Tarzana, to hip-ified cross-cultural experiments by the latest Kogi-inspired mobile vendors.

It's not only about trying something new. Sandwiches from the hands of dedicated purveyors are treated like revered works of art.

The Croatian pljeskavica, at Pavich's Brick Oven Pizzeria in San Pedro, is one such example. Owner Zdenko Pavic slides hand-size rounds of dough into the oven to bake somun, unmistakably a descendant of pita. The spongy bread drinks up savory juices from the cevapcici filling, a sausage-like beef and onion patty that's baked inside.

Being in California, Pavic endows his pljeskavica with burger-like qualities by adding roasted bell pepper, lettuce, tomato, pickled onion and dollops of a homemade garlic sauce that's potent enough to keep a crowd of vampires at bay.

To most Americans a pita sandwich means shawarma, falafel or maybe doner kebab. But two very differently constructed sandwiches -- both filled with raw ingredients and heated panini style -- still fly under the mainstream radar.

Arayes, the Middle Eastern cousin of pljeskavica and standard fare in many family-run Armenian and Lebanese restaurants, reaches perfection at Koko's restaurant near Van Nuys. Listed as Arayes-Maria on the menu, its fresh herb-laden chopped lamb and beef filling is sprinkled with toasted pine nuts before the arayes is grilled over an open flame. The pita crisps as the juicy meat and bread meld. Slivers of raw white onion, minced parsley and a lemon wedge served alongside brighten the richness.

At Bibi's Warmstone Cafe the oven burns all day, turning out the shop's baked goods and its Israeli specialty, tostees. These are based on pita-like Jerusalem bagels or on their slightly sweeter cousins, sesame-encrusted pitas, both typically sold from pushcarts beside Jerusalem's ancient city walls. Bibi's counterman slashes open the bread, stuffs in feta, olives and the house sauce or puts in mozzarella sluiced with marinara, then slips it into the oven until the molten filling nearly oozes through the pita's pores.

Asian food rarely brings to mind sandwiches, but roujiamo, a sloppy Joe-style pork sandwich from Xi'an, is a delicious reminder that large-scale wheat milling made its way along the Silk Road from the Near East, a technique that put all sorts of breads on northern China's menu. The typical street food version of the sandwich is a feather-light bun filled with juicy, fatty rotisserie pork and drizzled with a kicky chile sauce.

A more refined roujiamo surfaced at Three Family Village in Rowland Heights, listed on the menu with 40 other northern-style "pastries." Its crisp-topped baked bun is dense and layered. Rich carnitas-like roasted pork cubes piled inside are topped with tangy pickled leafy greens.

Neatly lined up in the take-out departments of Japanese markets are the inevitable Japanese paeans to the sandwich: the spaghetti sando, the croquet sando and occasionally chow mein in a French-style bun. The Japanese have clearly done their own thing with bread since the days it was used only for school children's lunches after the Second World War.

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