Mendocino Farms is known for its quirky sandwiches — the one that first got us was an addictive combo of duck confit with duck-skin cracklins — and its approachable farm-to-table lunch fare at its three locations (two downtown and one in Marina del Rey). Some of the more ambitious sandwich combos — poblano chorizo with dandelion greens, for instance — have been lost on its more mainstream diners.

For the rest of us, the owners will open Blue Cow, a full-service restaurant and “sandwich think tank,” early next year.

Blue Cow will replace Casa Cocina Y Cantina, the two-year-old Mexican restaurant that's also owned by Mendocino Farms' Mario Del Pero and Ellen Chen. First under chef Kris Morningstar then Alex Moreno, Casa, while popular for lunch and after-work drinks for the office crowd, never really found its footing at California Plaza. It will close in mid-December for a redesign by John Kim of Poon Designs. Expect “trees inside the restaurant, communal tables, a little wine country-meets-industrial edge,” says Del Pero. It will reopen, tentatively, by the end of January 2012.

Unlike Casa, Blue Cow is the sibling Mendocino Farms deserved. Billed as a “modern American restaurant,” it will offer lunch, dinner and cocktails, but it will also serve as a testing ground for the company, with a roster of guest chefs stepping in to create their signature sandwiches and dishes for the menu.

“At any restaurant, the soul, the beating heart, is the food,” says Del Pero. “And we just wanted to have a great, creative, New American farm-to-table restaurant that really has a point of view, which is sandwiches.”

Consider Blue Cow an atelier of sorts, a test kitchen where corporate executive chef Judy Han, executive chef Joshua Smith (formerly Church & State, Anisette and Milos at the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas) and visiting chefs will create inventive sandwiches and then some. First up: The burger, which they are taking very, very seriously. Sure, burgers are everywhere, but as Del Pero puts it, “It's the number one sandwich in America.” They'd be remiss not to have one, and they got chef Jason Travi to create it.

Not only did Travi, Del Pero and Del Pero's father, a third-generation butcher, go around town tasting the city's top burgers, but they met with several local butchers to find just the right meat and grind. They ended up with grass-fed beef sourced from Sonoma County, a blend created with, and ground by, Rocker Brother Meats. Then, they worked with Dolce Forno bakery for the customized buttermilk bun and consulted with the Cheese Shop of Beverly Hills to find just the right cheese, Point Reyes Toma.

Travi also created a pastrami burger, but not just a pastrami-topped burger. This one is made entirely of ground, house-brined pastrami. Yes, a burger patty made entirely out of pastrami. Served on rye, it will come topped with pickled cabbage and house-made Thousand Island dressing. There will also be Travi-designed sausages, like the Vietnamese-inspired one made from ground pork and lemongrass topped with smoke bacon pâté, ham, pickled daikon and carrots, and chile aioli.

Vietnamese sausage a la Travi; Credit: Blue Cow

Vietnamese sausage a la Travi; Credit: Blue Cow

The rest of the menu will be created by Han and Smith, with unique approaches to familiar fare like tater tots made of tofu. The other Travi, Jason's pastry chef wife, Miho, will make the ice cream sandwiches. Steve Livigni (La Descarga, Harvard & Stone) is developing the “soda jerk-meets-bartender” cocktail program, so expect house-made sodas and other elixirs, like an elevated Jack and Coke, to go with artisanal spirits.

It's all very communal and community-minded. Like Mendocino Farms, there will be a strong focus on using produce and products from local farms and food artisans. “For us to be able to take the relationships that Judy has built, like those with Soledad Creamery, Drake Farms out of Ontario and Sugarbird Teas, and showcase them in a bigger way is really exciting,” says Del Pero.

All of this isn't to say the group is done building the Mendocino Farms brand. The next location opens in the former Zeke's Barbecue space in West Hollywood (in the giant Target center, across from Formosa Café) on November 3. And next year, they'll open another location adjacent to the giant Trader Joe's going in on the corner of Third and Fairfax, across from the Original Farmers Market.

“We'll be at five locations come next spring,” says Del Pero. “But we don't want anyone calling us a chain.”

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