Monday, November 11, 2013

A Meal in Your Hand: Ojai's Celebrity-Worthy Sandwiches

As published in Ojai Quarterly Summer 2013

Photo by Bill Snider
Each summer, my family heads to the South Carolina coast - a tradition we’ve had since the eighties. We sprawl our pasty white selves across old rickety chaise lounges, down too many cheap beers from my brother-in-law’s Igloo or frozen lemonades from the push-cart guy and burn ourselves to a crisp. After we’ve had enough of the sun, the waves, the sand and a game or two of ski ball at the corner arcade, we take refuge from the sweltering heat in the upstairs condo’s air conditioning. My sister wrestles Kroger’s finest deli meats, cheeses and condiments from the fridge, and I join her in the assembly line, painting bread slices with mustard and mayo, and quickly doling out slapped-together sandwiches for her hungry kids. Then there’s the secret behind what we now call her famous Myrtle Beach Turkey and Cheese Sami: 15 to 20 seconds in the microwave. I’m not sure why lukewarm grocery store deli meat and weeping American cheese on softened white bread tastes so good, but it does. It tastes just like summer.
At home on the left coast, my husband, Bill, prefers to take his time building the perfect sandwich. One of his specialties is an adaptation of the classic BLT, taking full advantage of the local summer tomato haul. He layers crisp bacon, thick slices of heirloom tomatoes, chunks of fresh avocado, a slab of Buffalo mozzarella and piles of arugula, wedging the whole lot between slices of toasted sourdough wheat. The pièce de résistance is the addition of his own pickled shallots, thinly sliced and steeped overnight in one of his favorite vinegars with fennel, peppercorns and sugar. A pickled dill carrot from Ojai’s Kult Kitchen and a pepperoncini seal the deal. I call it the Bacon, Lettuce and Awesome! sandwich, and I’m not sharing. Well, on second thought, maybe I will. Here’s why:
Several months ago, my friend and local graphic designer, Evan Austin, invited me to join him in a campaign to get actor Robert Downey, Jr., who has visited Ojai once or twice, to join us for lunch. He’s a big fan of the Golden Globe winner’s movies, and I’m a big fan of the local food scene, so Evan figured we had a winning combination. He launched a Web site and pages on Facebook and Twitter, which we shared with a few friends. Soon, “I’m having lunch with RDJ” snowballed from a silly conversation into a crazy idea that resonated with more than just us. And it might be crazy enough to work. “It’s so Ojai,” they say.
We don’t do fanfare or paparazzi in this town, which actually makes us a magnet for real celebrities who aren’t looking to get their mugs onto magazine covers. That’s what makes this whole idea plausible, because it really is as simple as a sandwich – tablecloth and utensils optional – shared in good company on one of our town’s breezy intimate patios, packed to-go to enjoy on a bench on the Shelf Road trail, or devoured quietly while perched on a barstool at the local watering hole. Here’s where a celebrity – or an average citizen, for that matter – can get an opportunity to experience the real Ojai – and a damn good sandwich.
To me, a sandwich is simply perfection served between two slices of bread. A whole meal right in the palm of your hand – barbaric and sophisticated all at once. Ask any of the locals where to get a good sandwich – and I’m not including burgers, wraps or burritos here – and you’ll get barraged with too many excellent choices.
I’ll get some of the usual suspects out of the way right up front. The Pulled Pork at Feast Bistro, the Tuna Stack at Rainbow Bridge, the Tarragon Chicken Salad at Marché Gourmet Deli, the House Sandwich at Knead Bakery, the Caprese at Papa Lennon’s, the Jamon Serrano at Azu and the Carnitas Torta at Diaz Bakery are all amazing, but let me tell you about a few other gems.

Bonnie Lu’s Café
328 E. Ojai Avenue
            A quaint diner in the heart of the downtown arcade serves up the typical diner fare you would expect for breakfast and lunch, but with an Ojai spin. Most of the dishes are named after local celebrities (friends and family of the owners), including the Titus Scramble, made with egg whites, chicken breast, spinach and mushroom, and Bubba’s Benedict, served with sausage patties and poached eggs on flaky biscuits and topped with their hearty homemade sausage gravy. Lunchtime favorites include Joanne’s French Dip (I like it with turkey, but you can order beef if you prefer), Alicia’s Yuppie Hippie with no shortage of sprouts and veggies, and the one I dream about, Niles’ Monte Cristo with white bread, ham, turkey and Swiss, dipped in egg batter, fried until golden brown, dusted with powdered sugar and served with strawberry jam. A few dishes have yet to be named, so I’m sure there’s room for an RDJ special sandwich.

914 E. Ojai Avenue
A choice hangout for the local softballers, this casual sports bar at the far end of town has big screen TVs tuned to the big games, and they make their own dough and tomato sauce daily for their New York style thin crust pizzas. Their submarine sandwiches are all the rage because with any sub purchase, you can add a beer for a just a quarter. Now, that beer is limited to Budweiser, Bud Light or Coors Light, but you can certainly upgrade to any of their other 19 beers on tap. Popular sandwiches include the Club Double Decker one deck has turkey, ham and Swiss; another deck has bacon, lettuce and tomatoes – the Philly Cheesesteak, the Pesto Turkey Melt, and a traditional Central Coast institution, the Tri-Tip, marinated in their special Italian seasoning blend, slow cooked and bathed in barbecue sauce.

Ojai Coffee Roasting Co.
337 E. Ojai Avenue
            A coffee house is the last place I’d think of for a sandwich, and though they are best known for their small-batch in-house specialty coffee roasting, it’s the first place many of the locals think of for a great sandwich. With a lunch menu a mile long, some of the stand-outs include the Roast Beef and Brie, the Muffaletta with provolone, ham, salami and their own tapenade, and everyone’s favorite, the Messy Pita with turkey, onions, tomatoes, feta, greens and their own creamy yogurt tzatziki. This is the kind of place where if you’ve been in once, they’ll remember your name and what you ordered, and they’ll probably ask about your kids and your pets, too. It’s like most of the places in Ojai – you get treated just like a celebrity.

So what do you say, Mr. Downey? Will it be my sister’s microwaved turkey sandwich, my husband’s Bacon, Lettuce and Awesome!, or a proper sit-down at one of Ojai’s finest establishments? We’ll let you decide, but if it’s OK with you, we’ll get the check.