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L.A.'s global sandwich offerings

July 22, 2009|Linda Burum

For those with a love of Japanese flavors there's the miso-marinated Jidori chicken baguette at the maid-themed Royal/T Cafe in Culver City. Salty, yeasty miso never dominates the delicate meat, and a subtle tingle of heat from the red radish sprout garnish brings the sandwich flavors into perfect focus. Sushi lovers may be drawn in by the spicy tuna tartare, rimmed with avocado and wasabi on a raft of sourdough.

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Cultural fusion

The world's sandwich menu changed radically when colonialism united disparate ingredients from old and new countries. The milieu that inspired the now-familiar Cubano and the French-Vietnamese banh mi also spawned pav bhaji, the curry-laden buns beloved in Indian communities around the world. Fashioned after breads introduced by Portuguese merchants, the buns became the base for a quick lunch for textile millworkers. As with American burgers and hot dogs, pav bhaji's garnishes are an essential element. People spike up the flavor with chopped onion, tomato, fresh jalapeno slices and lemon juice according to taste.

Many Indian vegetarian restaurants and snack shops (Annapurna in Culver City and Tirupathi Bhimas in Artesia) sell pav bhaji, but Standard Sweets & Snacks in Artesia's Little India also adds the spicier pav vada to its small sandwich lineup. This tongue-scalding potato-bean patty, laced with fresh herbs on pav rolls and smeared with spicy chutney, puts chile lovers into a reverie.

One of Central America's greatest colonial mergings, the native wild turkey seasoned with local chiles and served on a European-style torpedo roll, is pan con pavo, El Salvador's national sandwich. Each day at the cheery Jaragua near L.A.'s Koreatown, the kitchen braises two whole birds in tenderizing broth. Great swaths of the meat pulled off the bone are piled nearly as high as a Mayan pyramid onto buns doused with pan juices. The addition of a creamy cabbage slaw and a final fillip of spicy homemade curtido -- pickled cabbage -- creates the ideal balance of richness and zing.

At Got Kosher? Provisions in West L.A., the snappy smoked andouille sandwich travels deep into uncharted flavor territory. Layered over two lean links, seasoned with no less than three pepper varieties, is a tart-sweet caponata of minced eggplant and sweet peppers sparked with capers, vinegar and plump golden raisins. Tunisian-born proprietor Alain Cohen says his sausage sandwiches recall the French-Tunisian tastes he grew up with in Belleville, the North African/Jewish quarter of Paris. The shop's many choices include a splendid Tunisian merguez sandwich. Perfumed with cinnamon and redolent of fennel, it comes anointed with a peppery harissa sauce. The substantial sandwich buns -- house-baked rolls with a shiny pretzel glaze -- are Cohen's offbeat update of French petit pain. Go figure.

In Mexico, French bread endures as an indelible symbol of European influence on the country's food. The French-style-rolls known as bolillos elsewhere go by pan frances in the Yucatan. As if to reinforce that connection, visionary Yucatecan chef Gilberto Cetina, at the Mercado La Paloma branch of his Chichen Itza restaurant, sends out his grilled pork poc chuc (and other sandwiches) on true French baguettes, preferring their firmer texture to sop up the sour-orange-and-garlic-instilled meat juice. The blend of char and tang (and a splash of fiery habanero salsa if you like) puts this sandwich over the top.

Tortas reach an evolved form at the misnamed Ya Ya's Burgers No. 2, a comfortable converted stand in Huntington Park. Ya Ya's sells 70 variations of the D.F.-style torta, an idea that might seem as gimmicky as the all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue. But each torta at this place is as precisely constructed as anything from a four-star kitchen. Choosing the best is impossible, but the Dagwoodesque Tepic-K, also known as the chile relleno torta, sheds light on the kitchen's baroque style. Atop a grilled roll loaded with avocado slices, a translucent smear of beans and crema, sits a beautifully roasted chile stuffed with melty Oaxaca cheese on a hefty slice of roast pork leg.

At Cook's Tortas in Monterey Park, the house-baked ciabatta-style sandwich rolls have a downright fancy pedigree. The owner's brother-in-law developed the restaurant's sourdough starter after a stint as head baker at Bouchon in Napa Valley's Yountville.

Cook's daily specials travel beyond the expected lengua and carne asada to include green mole, Spanish salt cod with sweet peppers and roast pork with Cuban garlic sauce. There's not a dud in the bunch, but the must-try masterpiece is the Veracruz-influenced pambaso. The roll, dipped in an intense chile sauce, holds a small mountain of potato cubes fried with dry-cured chorizo, revved up with chipotles and jalapenos and saturated with Mexican crema.

It would not be hyperbole to label Cook's sandwiches, or for that matter any of the Mexican sandwiches here, gourmet.

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