Burbank is a strange city. It manages to feel at once both anachronistic and thoroughly modern, separate from greater L.A. and yet fully symbiotic with the film and TV industry that powers the region, mostly working class and family-oriented yet conspicuously populated with industry types in their power suits (or at least in the gingham shirts and pointy leather shoes that seems to be the biz-cas uniform of the moment). Baseball card shops and year-round Halloween supply stores sit side-by-side with post-production houses with bright, expensive-looking logos, and auto-body garages rub oil-slick shoulders with modern studio offices.
Despite the large number of people who work in the area, lunch destinations are neither as plentiful nor as luxurious as you might imagine, more Chili John's and Bob's Big Boy, less Bouchon and Gjelina. Like South Pasadena's comfortable and homey sandwiches with occasional fancy flourishes, the sandwich shops in Burbank are a reflection of the dominant personality of their neighborhood - stable, affordable, delicious, filling, quickly made but impossible to quickly consume.
We focused on a small-ish swath of Burbank, the area between Hollywood Way and the 5, most prominently defined by three parallel streets - Magnolia, Chandler, and Burbank - but in that tract alone there are five excellent sandwich shops. What follows (ordered alphabetically) is our Burbank Sandwich Report.
If you show up around the lunch hour, you should expect to see a line snaking out of the screen door of Giamela's, a squat little sandwich shop next to an aftermarket auto parts store right near the intersection of Magnolia and Victory. The line will curl out onto the patio and around its two beat-up picnic tables, but if you join that line you won't be outside for long: Giamela's is perhaps the most stunningly efficient sandwich shop in town.
When you get to the front, one of about three sandwich-smiths will request your order; you shout it at him, and within a minute he has loaded a thick roll with cold cuts or meatballs, pepper steak or salami, and he's back, asking you for your feelings on their three special toppings: chopped onions, pickles, and fresh tomatoes. If you get all three (and you really should get all three) they form a sort of giardiniera light, a salty, acidic, crunchy, messy fresh element that is the perfect complement to the heavy-duty sandwich below. We should also talk about the size of the sandwiches - they are massive, easily a two-mealer. Their sandwiches may not be anything fancy, the toppings may be neither locally sourced nor imported and the bread is freshly picked out of a bag, but if these aren't the heartiest, most physically and psychically satisfying sandwiches you've had lately, you may need a check-up. 216 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; (818) 845-6611.
Under a funny old-fashioned sign, next to an awkwardly narrow parking lot, and at the back of what at first appears to be a rather run-down little grocery store is a pretty remarkable deli counter. The selection of beef is outstanding, with weekly specials that are always an outrageous deal on cuts butchered in-house, and they also make some truly great sandwiches. All of the cold cuts are sliced to order in generous portions from quality pieces of meat, the cheeses are given a similar treatment, and though the bread comes from a bag, they claim it's fresh-baked and it does taste it. It may be the softest sliced bread in town.
On your way out, make sure you actually stroll the aisles, too. There is a surprisingly high quality assortment of craft beer, some of which is priced foolishly well (Crooked Stave's Surrette and Vieille were both $6.99), and great deals on all sorts of other items too, from vegetables to iced tea to booze. If you happen to come on a Saturday afternoon there is BBQ in the parking lot, and they'll make you an excellent tri-tip sandwich at the deli. Taking all of these things into consideration, Handy Market feels like a pretty good representation of Burbank itself - affordable, old-fashioned and a little funky, but if you're willing to explore, there are wonders to be found. 2514 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; (818) 848-3330.
Walking into the legendary Cuban bakery and sandwich shop Porto's can be a rather intimidating experience. At almost all hours of the day the place is incredibly busy, with multiple lines winding their way around the store, people waiting at tables lined up against the wall and in a separate seating area, and dozens of employees taking orders, boxing up pastries, carrying massive trays of sandwiches all over the store at breakneck speed. Opening the door feels a little like giving a beehive a good firm whack; just finding the end of the line can be a challenge. Like Giamela's, though, they serve a ludicrous number of people with shocking speed, thanks in large part to the brute force strategy of employing an entire apartment building's worth of people.
And there is a reason that they need to have half of Burbank on the clock at any given time - their food draws the crowds, and deservedly so. The baked goods are excellent, but we're here to talk about sandwiches. The Cuban sandwiches are (as expected) the ones that stand out, with rich slow-cooked pork and ham, cheese, pickles and a dash of bright yellow mustard. But you would be remiss to leave the rest of the menu unexplored. The pan con bistec is also spectacularly good, with a thin but well-seasoned and cooked steak on top of french fries and a generous smear of garlic sauce, and the vegetarian sandwich was a very pleasant surprise - a healthy portion of flavorful fresh vegetables that surpassed expectations. The bread, as you might imagine, is baked on the premises and is essentially flawless, and it's impossible to find a sandwich more expensive than $6.75. 3614 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; (818) 846-9100.
On our last visit to Santoro's we met a man who said he had been going there weekly for 20 years. He was the type of regular customer who no longer even needs to order - the sandwich makers saw him walk in, gave him a wave, and got down to building his lunch. It was a sight both unusual and familiar, like something pulled from your favorite TV diner, and it reaffirmed our affection for Santoro's.
It may not have the ramshackle charm of Giamela's or the beehive energy of Porto's, but Santoro's is exactly the kind of place you could see yourself going every week: straightforward and comfortable, clean, quick, and (most importantly) the sandwiches are excellent, gigantic and hearty. The setup is similar to Giamela's, with your standard selection of meats - cold cuts, pepper steak and the like - and those three vegetables, onions, tomatoes, and pickles, as optional toppings. Every sandwich filling is good, but there's one truly exceptional meat: the pastrami. It's outstanding, salty and smoky and texturally perfect, locally sourced and generously portioned. The toppings complement it beautifully, but as with the very best fillings it is delicious enough to stand entirely on its own. Yes, if you were to get one sandwich every week for more than two decades, Santoro's pastrami could be the one (we asked). 1423 W. Burbank Blvd., Burbank; (818) 848-8888.
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Tony's Italian Deli
Tony's Italian Deli doesn't look like much (perhaps you are sensing a theme in Burbank): just seven total tables, two outside and five inside, with a long counter on the left and a somewhat meager selection of imported goods on the right wall. It's long and narrow, a shotgun sandwich shop if ever there was one. It's in most respects a typical deli, with a wide selection of cold cuts and cheeses, each available sandwiched or by the pound, sitting in a glass case. In fact, until you receive your sandwich, very little stands out: the price is about average, the menu options are familiar, there will be enough people in the shop to keep you company, but not so many that it feels like you have to compete for oxygen.
When you do go pick up your sandwich, though, there is one excellent and very interesting twist - they cut their bread twice lengthwise, such that there is a generous slice of bread in the middle. (Tthis extra slice does not represent any more bread than a normal sandwich roll, it's just the way they cut it). This middle slice, in addition to its visual appeal and textural enhancement, acts as a flavor sponge, soaking up, blending, and gently redistributing whatever sauces or seasonings happen to get smushed into its crumb. On our last visit this middle slice worked especially well on a delicious BBQ chicken sandwich, absorbing the flavor of the sauce without getting soggy, and keeping the sandwich from falling into sloppy joe territory. Tony's has found the Middle Way. 1124 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; (818) 848-9000.