This month is National Sandwich Month. And although exactly how and why that came to be escapes us, it's as good a reason as any to celebrate a dish truly worth the celebrating. Mendocino Farms — and its six locations around Los Angeles — has carved out a successful sandwich-making niche in Los Angeles. Two more locations are scheduled to open this year and one more in 2014.
It's a recent Tuesday at lunchtime at the Marina del Rey location. A line winds through the shop and out the door, and it doesn't get any smaller for a couple of hours; the outdoor tables are packed. In one corner sits Mendocino Farms founder Mario del Pero, sharing his sandwich philosophy: what makes a great sandwich, why people pass other shops to eat at Mendocino Farms and where he can't wait to open his ninth location. Turn the page, and check out our ode to 31 local sandwiches. It's always lunchtime somewhere.
Squid Ink: What do you think makes a great sandwich anyway?
Mario del Pero: The very foundation of a great sandwich is great bread, and crafting the bread to fit the sandwich. We spend as much time working with our baker — which is Celestino Drago's bakery — as on the sandwich we're designing. We spent roughly a year developing the wheat bread on the Farm Club.
We either take great classics and ask, Where is this sandwich today? We look at the BLT to the turkey club to chicken with fresh mozzarella. How are we eating it today? What do we know about pickling? How can we add a different pickled vegetable instead of a classic pickle? So we're looking to update classics. And also, how can we take an upscale-casual to fine-dining entrée and reconceive it on the sandwich level? I think it's what set Mendocino Farms apart 10 years ago. Why does everything have to be turkey mayo with romaine lettuce? Let's look at veal osso buco with risotto alla Milanese. Can we make it into a sandwich?
In my household, we ate our leftovers as sandwiches. If we had a big Sunday supper, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we would eat braised meat and have it with whatever side dishes inside a trencher-type sandwich. We ate the original sandwiches that were probably being eaten circa the Earl of Sandwich.
The opening menu for Mendocino Farms had a couple sandwiches that were out there. We've tried some sandwiches that haven't worked. Like pork, grilled peaches and burrata cheese for summertime.
[Here two college-age customers approached del Pero to tell him how much they liked the sandwiches — and the friendly staff.]
M.d.P.: It's important, if you want to be a neighborhood sandwich shop, that you connect with the neighborhood.
Ellen Chen, Mendocino's director of growth and del Pero's wife,: When we do hire, one of our requirements is that a person smiles in the interview.
M.d.P.: Do you love people? Do you like sandwiches? That's important.
SI: What are your plans for expansion?
M.d.P.: Our Sherman Oaks location will open in one and a half months, in mid-September. And Costa Mesa by the end of the year. We're just starting construction. And we're in talks to do a Santa Monica location, somewhere between Second and Sixth streets, in 2014.
SI: Why do you think the “Mendo” concept has done so well?
M.d.P.: We keep reinvesting into relationships with farmers and into increasing the quality of our product. As our buying power has increased, we're offering better quality and more interesting ingredients. Right now, we're in talks to buy hundreds of cases of Scarborough Heirloom tomatoes to use in late September. And then we don't consider ourselves a gourmet shop. We're a neighborhood sandwich shop.
Chen: Everyone has an inner foodie, and I think some people are intimidated by fine dining. We provide a product in an approachable style. People always talk about our duck confit sandwich, which we created years ago.
M.d.P.: Every spring for three months we do a braised lamb, which is as complicated to do as it would be in a fine-dining restaurant.
SI: Where do you go when you want to eat a great sandwich?
SI: How do you get inspired to create new sandwiches?
M.d.P.: We do tasting tours in New York, Seattle, Portland and Northern California. We just came back from San Francisco for the eighth time. We try to Mendo-fy things, not to copy but to be inspired. Like Bakesale Betty's mustard slaw inspired us to do our own mustard slaw. We built a whole sandwich around it.
SI: Do you have a favorite sandwich here?
M.d.P.: My favorite one is whatever new one we're working on in R&D. Right now, I'm thinking about reconceiving the short rib sandwich, so all I'm thinking about is short rib.
Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. Learn more about Jessica Koslow.