Tomato sandwich

J + R + T = Love.

Some couples have their song. (“This is our song! We danced to it at our wedding.”)

Some couples have a place. (“We are going back to Cabo in the spring. It’s where we met!!”)

Jeff and I, we have a sandwich.

Ok, to be fair, it’s a sandwich and a side. So it’s really a meal. Our meal is the tomato sandwich and “dry” ramen.

Of course I’d had BLTs before, and everyone knows how I feel about ramen, but this combination is special. Early in our relationship, Jeff introduced me to this glorious partnership, which he and his brother had perfected during their college years. The sandwich requires juicy, sweet, still-warm-from-the-sun, vine-ripened tomatoes, which are so plentiful in Salt Lake. It’s not worth making if you don’t have this component (and I’ve griped about the lack of decent tomatoes since leaving Utah).

The focus on the tomato makes this sandwich different from a BLT, where bacon steals the show. This is a T sandwich all the way, and the other ingredients are supporting cast: Two pieces of toasted wheat bread, one topped with a leaf or two of lettuce (I like either iceberg or butter lettuce). The other piece of bread has a slather of mayo and Dijon mustard. Call in the tomato. It should be plump, sweet and juicy, not like the anemic grainy flavorless imposters you find in the supermarket. At home we grew Early Girls and Beefsteak, and both made lovely sandwiches. Lay two, three or four thick slices on the lettuce. Grind a little black pepper over the tomato and put a couple not-too-thick slices of cheddar on top. The other piece of bread sits on top of the cheese. (You’ll notice the cheese and the lettuce insulate the bread from all the juices from the tomato. Ingenious, I know.)

While one of us assembled sandwiches, the other started a little pot of water on the stove for the ramen, which is drained and dressed with a dash of rice wine vinegar, a drizzle of soy sauce, several good shakes of Tabasco, half the flavor packet and five or six grinds of pepper.

Sandwich and ramen

Beautiful.

Sandwich on the plate. Ramen on the plate. Nothing could be more beautiful.

During the summer in Salt Lake when the tomatoes were bountiful, Jeff and I would eat tomato sandwiches for lunch at least a couple times a week. We even considered serving it at our wedding, only half-jokingly, before we decided that Log Haven likely would not tolerate Top Ramen in their kitchen.

Every once is a great while we come across the rare tomato that is sandwich-worthy, like the ones Jeff found last week. We pounced and went through the delicious summer ritual of so many years ago. Hunched over our plates, tomato juice dripping down our chins, we thanked our lucky stars that we don’t have a song or a place. We have a sandwich.

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Cubano

Hello my friend, hello.

This sounds overly dramatic, but I mean it when I say a good sandwich can elevate my day. A bad one can ruin it. It’s a simple matter of good ingredients in the right proportion, and when I find a beautiful sandwich, it brings joy.

On a recent hot Saturday afternoon, we — Julie, J and I — set out on a walk that would lead us to Bunk Bar on SE Water Street. Bunk has earned a reputation of being the Mecca of Portland’s sandwich seekers, and that reputation has catapulted into the national spotlight through coverage on the Food Network and the Travel Channel. Bunk Bar, an outpost of the original, serves the same sandwiches but is open later, has a full bar and a music stage. Though we arrived in the afternoon, Bunk Bar still had a lively crowd and we barely avoided a mini rush that lined up after us. I grabbed a booth by the  window, while Julie and J placed our order: three pork belly Cubano sandwiches and mole tots.

A well-made sandwich strikes a balance among all its ingredients, and Bunk’s pork belly Cubano does that with casual precision. The ciabatta bread has the perfect chewy-to-crunchy ratio, enough to envelop the sandwich and add flavor and texture, but not overpower what’s inside. And what’s inside can best be classified as “oh my goodness”: salty slab bacon, melted Swiss cheese, tart pickle, a good slather of mustard and silky pork belly that dissolves on the tongue. Each bite deliciously proportionate. The tots, bathed in rich dark mole sauce, were a tasty accompaniment, but entirely unnecessary. The sandwich was more than enough on this trip.

Bunk gets it right. We knew that going in, but we were happy to have tried it ourselves, finally, and we can’t wait to go back. Sandwich joy. Is there anything better?

Steamers at the Hog Island Oyster Co.

Birthdays. Everyone has his own way of approaching them. Some revel in the attention and others rail at the injustice of the day’s annual assault. Not J, not this year. This June 26 we made plans to escape to San Francisco, a city we’d both spent time in but had never visited together.

Our goal was simple. We would hike the hills by day, reward ourselves with a memorable midday meal, nap in the afternoon, then eat some more.

Before I get into details, a bit of context is necessary. First, we stayed at the Westin St. Francis on Union Square, and I was skeptical that we’d find good restaurants nearby that weren’t tourist traps. The second point is that we walked everywhere. We took a cab only once, and that was on J’s birthday night. This somewhat limited where we explored, and had we had more time, we would have gone further afield.

With that said and without further adieu, here are my favorite dining experiences in order of appearance.

Rouge et Blanc and Cafe de la Presse

Quiche and croque at Rouge et Blanc.

I am cheating a little by grouping these together because they are separate places and we went on separate occasions. But they are part of the same business, so the food is similar. The first occasion was on our first day in SF. We’d traveled all night by train and were exhausted from lack of sleep. After the unavailability of our hotel room forced us to wander for several hours, we finally landed at Rouge et Blanc, a little wine bar a few steps from Chinatown. Our fatigue was nothing that a bottle of wine and some delectable nibbles couldn’t relieve. Ham and cheese croque cut into bite-sized cubes, and mini quiche provided sustenance, while the view from our shaded sidewalk table made for irresistible people-watching.

Croque madame at Cafe de la Presse.

The second occasion was the next afternoon. We’d spent the morning taking in the feather- and balloon-festooned, clothing-optional spectacle of the San Francisco Pride Parade. Afterward we continued on our daily trek until we landed back in Union Square where hunger overtook us, and Cafe de la Presse, a quaint corner cafe, beckoned. We snagged a window table inside, out of the sun, and enjoyed oysters, a burger for J and a luscious egg-topped croque madame pour moi.  The cafe’s Francophile design — from the newsstand stocked with French magazines to the closely set tables — set a comfortable tone and the food was good. These two simple meals were among my favorites.

Little Delhi

Butter chicken.

Good to the last drop.

Sunday night and Market Street still hummed with energy from the parade and more than a few of those who may have over-imbibed. Our first dinner choice, Ajisen Ramen, had just closed and we were left to wing it, but luck was on our side when we stumbled upon Little Delhi. The place was packed and there was a waiting list, but the aroma of curry spices tickled our noses and persuaded us to wait.

We eventually got a table and ordered our perennial favorites (lamb rogan josh and saag paneer) plus one of the house specialties, butter chicken in a red curry reminiscent of a deeply smoky barbecue sauce. That sauce left us craving more — or at least more naan for cleaning the bowl.

Ajisen Ramen

Ramen for breakfast.

Thwarted the previous night, we set out first thing on Monday morning for a true noodles-for-breakfast experience. Located next to Panda Express on the lower-level food court of the Westfield mall on Market Street, Ajisen Ramen was an unexpected find. We arrived early and had to wait for the business to open, so we did not have the full dining experience. But if the clipboard near the entrance for first-come first-served seating is an indication, this is a local lunchtime favorite. The morning menu is limited to ramen, but that’s what we came for, so that’s what we had. J had the Premium Pork Ramen with tender pork belly bites. I had the Ajisen Spicy Pork Ramen, a warming bowl of delicious soup that made the lips tingle. The friendly, soft-spoken waiter also sold me. This was another of the trip’s standout meals.

The Alembic

Beer-battered fish sammy.

Our morning carb load propelled us westward to Golden Gate Park where we wandered the Japanese garden and the science museum until our stomachs rumbled. Nearby Alembic was recommended by a trusted source for its artisan cocktails and gastropub fare. Of course, it being Monday afternoon, we couldn’t possibly indulge in a cocktail. (Cough.) But after running the nouveau-hippie gauntlet currently occupying Haight Street … well, we were swayed. That, and we needed something to accompany the plump kraut dog with chicharrones, the jerk-spiced duck hearts and beer-battered rockfish sandwich. Free hugs!

Scala’s Bistro

Monday’s trek was long, and my only requirement for dinner was that it be nearby. Rather than stop at the restaurant in our hotel lobby, we went the extra half block up to the Sir Francis Drake and Scala’s Bistro. At 9 pm, the dining room was boisterous and the noise level difficult to shout over, but Italian food was just what we needed. Caesar salad, asparagus salad, pappardelle with sugo, and a salty prosciutto pizza hit the spot. And the service was impeccable. Sadly, it was too dark for photos.

Hog Island Oyster Co.

Words cannot do justice.

J’s birthday. We spent the morning climbing Powell and California streets, dropping down Lombard, scaling the stairs of Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower and from there cutting over to the Ferry Building for lunch. The arduous morning expedition demanded some reward, so we directed our buns of steel toward oysters.

Melted bliss.

As it was with most worthwhile places we encountered, there was a line to get into Hog Island Oyster Co., but it was worth the wait. We sat at the counter with the perfect vantage point for all the shucking and cooking. We shared a dozen oysters drizzled with the most balanced, delicious mignonette I’ve tasted. J had the clam chowder and I the steamers, both laden with in-shell little gems in rich, delectable broths. And of course we could not resist the grilled cheese sandwich oozing with melted Gruyere. By far, Hog Island gave us the most memorable meal of the week.

The Slanted Door

Yellowtail sashimi.

We had talked for a few years about taking a trip to San Francisco, and this restaurant had long been on our radar. Rave reviews and write-ups as one of SF’s most beloved restaurants had piqued our interest, and when I made dinner reservations for J’s birthday here, expectations were high. I won’t say we were disappointed, but it’s not the destination I had anticipated. It’s definitely a scene and was brimming with locals, tourists and young tech professionals. The new spin on Vietnamese classics resulted in well-seasoned, tasty dishes, and we chose based on recommendations from our waiter. The highlight of the meal was the four delicate slices of yellowtail sashimi we had as a starter. Grilled pork belly lettuce wraps garnished with delicately floral shiso leaves was a lovely first course. The Shaking Beef, cubed filet mignon on a bed of wilted watercress and red onion had nice flavors, but the meat was chewy. We were not agape. It didn’t help that the two young product developers seated next to us talked shop nonstop. Maybe that just made it all too workaday. Maybe our standards have changed after living in Chicago, L.A. and now Portland. Maybe we should have ordered more items to give it more of a chance. But we move on.

Gott’s Roadside

Paper-wrapped burgers, onion rings and fries.

Our last full day in San Francisco started with the all-too-familiar hills, and this time we headed toward the marina and the Presidio for a better view of the bridge. A harshly sunny day, the trek back to the Ferry Building seemed to take forever. Our intended destination was a ramen cart at the farmers’ market, but alas, the market was not there this day, nor was the ramen. The daily queue at Gott’s Roadside had been a favorable sign, so we grabbed a menu and took our place in line. Gott’s specialty is burgers wrapped in paper and fries served in paper baskets. J had the straightforward bacon cheeseburger (highly recommended). Of the skinny patty variety, Gott’s burgers are tasty and juicy on a toasted egg bun, with the toppings perfectly complementing one another — a delicious complete package. I had the blue cheese burger — good, but the cheese overpowered the flavor of the burger. I wished I’d kept it simple and had the cheeseburger as well. One surprisingly nice note about Gott’s: In addition to the sodas and shakes, there’s also beer and wine. By the bottle, even. So our late lunch was accompanied by a refreshing French rosé.

Bangkok Noodles

Spicy red curry noodles.

Our last night. How did it go so quickly? We noticed Bangkok Noodles down the street from our hotel, and noted the ever-present line out the door. So on our final night, we assessed the online menu and headed over to slurp last noodles of the trip. When we arrived, we were fortunate (?) enough to get a spot at the small counter — really just a wall with a narrow ledge attached and chairs for seating. Our knees jutting at awkward angles to avoid bumping into the wall or each other, we perused the noodle- and rice-centric menu. Unfortunately, we learned, the Powell Street location does not serve appetizers or beer or wine and we briefly contemplated going elsewhere for our final dinner. But the noodles were too tempting.

Beef noodle soup.

J had the combination sliced beef and meatballs in a spicy noodle soup. I had the sliced pork and egg in spicy coconut-milk curry. Creamy, warming, salty and sweet. For good measure, and to ensure a late-night snack or tomorrow’s breakfast, we ordered pad se lew to go: flat rice noodle with Chinese broccoli, egg and black bean sauce.

And poof, our trip was over. We’ve vowed to return soon when we feel the need for big-city fix, mountainous hills and another culinary adventure.

Tomatoes

Caramelized, roasted tomatoes topped with fresh rosemary and thyme.

In Salt Lake City, J and I lived in a sweet little Victorian cottage in the 9th and 9th area. The house itself was a charming brick structure with a large backyard, and a good-sized, sun-soaked garden perfect for growing tomatoes and herbs. I’ve never considered myself a gardener, but somehow growing delicious tomatoes in the hot, arid Utah summers took little effort or skill. As long as you got them in after Mother’s Day, kept them watered and guarded against late frost and pesky snails, they pretty much grew themselves.

Starting around mid-July, we’d start enjoying the ripening Early Girls, Beefsteaks and Roma tomatoes in salads, fresh tomato sandwiches and pasta sauces and by September, you couldn’t turn around without stepping on a tomato. Well, now, where did you come from, my pretties? So plump and delicious, the mouth waters. All the better to eat you with!

Sometime in the mid-90s, I came across a recipe for oven roasted tomatoes with fresh garden herbs. Perfect for the end of September when the cricket thrums slow to the tempo of a porch rocking chair, these tomatoes go in a low oven for at least three hours. As they slowly give up their juices, they fill the house with an aroma so herbaceous and now familiar to me, it is a powerful symbol for the arrival of fall, and the comfort of home.

I make these tomatoes at least once a year in the fall, even though it’s been more than 10 years  since we’ve had the “problem” of an exploding tomato population. What a shock it was moving to Chicago, and having access only to bland, waxy, hard grocery store tomatoes. Even so, this simple technique vaults even the most anemic tomatoes over the brink of caramelized deliciousness. Incredible on sandwiches, wrapped in a warm corn tortilla or munched straight off the cookie sheet,  these gems  don’t last for more than a few hours in our house. But if they did, I imagine they’d also be delicious on pizza, in pasta or atop crostini. Ladies and gentlemen: Welcome to autumn.

Slow-roasted Tomatoes

10 to 12 Roma tomatoes

4 tablespoons kosher salt or sea salt

4 tablespoons sugar

1 to 2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

1/2 to 2/3 cup finely-chopped fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary, sage, basil)

Pre-heat the oven to 250 degrees F. Line two cookie sheets with aluminum foil or a Silpat liner. Cut the ends off the washed tomatoes; cut into thick crosswise slices. 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide. (The thinner the slice, the more the tomatoes shrivel. I prefer thinner slices.) Arrange the tomatoes on the cookie sheets, and drizzle each slice with a bit of olive oil. Turn the slices over, and repeat on the other side.

Mix the salt, sugar and pepper in a small bowl. Sprinkle a large pinch of the mixture on each tomato slice. Sprinkle on herbs.

Roast for three hours or until the tomatoes start to dehydrate. (If your slices are thicker, they can stay in longer. Just don’t let them burn.) Or, roast for two hours , turn off the oven, and leave overnight.

Refrigerate in an airtight container — that is, if they last that long.

Mash Tun: Summer Edition

August 6, 2011

Mash Tun's Fried Zucchini

Fried zucchini sticks. (Careful: HOT.)

Saturday night in early August. The seasons have shifted, but our cravings remain much the same. So we head down the street for the familiar burgers,  amiable service and laid-back vibe at our fave neighborhood brewpub.

+ daylight.

Mash Tun’s new outdoor patio (wisteria-covered trellis should start to fill in next year) is a welcome addition to the neighborhood. And  with Pine State Biscuits’ outdoor seating just next door, 22nd and Alberta is a corner to be reckoned with. (Oh … and we discovered the fried zucchini strips. Not listed on the menu as an app; only as a sandwich. Ask for them. Good stuff. )

When J and I lived in Venice, we made a tradition of meeting my dad (Levi Mike) and his girlfriend Christie (collectively known as D&C) in Borrego Springs over President’s Day weekend. They make the trek each January to escape the frigid winter temperatures of Boise for two or three months. A 3-hour drive from Venice, Borrego Springs was an easy place to meet them, and a welcome respite from the workaday stress of Southern California life.

Last weekend, J and I resumed the tradition. We drove down from Santa Monica on Friday afternoon, made good time, and commenced with the desert relaxation involving golf, wine, home-cooked dinners and lunch on the town. Saturday’s lunch took us to the most unlikely spot: a quaint French bistro called The French Corner.

For years, Christie raved about this little spot, and everything was she described: a cozy, well-spaced dining room/gift shop with tables topped with Provence-style linens, walls lined with decorative signs (for sale) and shelves filled with antique enameled French coffee pots. The owners, two Belgian fellows who spend summers in Provence (what a life!), charm with their dry wit and wry sense of humor.

The food? Delicious. D&C had crab quiche, with flaky, buttery crust and generous crab filling. J opted for a steaming bucket of plump Basque mussels with a sop-up-able tomato and olive sauce. (When J commented on the deliciousness of the mussels, owner Yves quipped, “From the Salton Sea!”). I am always tempted by croque monsieur, but I prefer the ham-and-cheese sandwich topped with a sunny-side-up egg. When I asked if I could make mine a croque madame, Yves, with a half smile, ribbed me about the request, but complied. The result was melty, yolk-y perfection.

French Corner: What an unexpected surprise in a tiny desert town. Tres bien. Que romantique!