July 13: Claro’s Italian Market
1655 N Mountain Ave Ste D Upland
I’m going to shortly cop to a bit of anchoring bias here. First, though, Claro’s. Claro’s is the second Italian market we’ve been to during this the Summer of Sandwich, a southern California mini-chain (six locations) with the closest to us in nearby Upland. Claro’s is great. About the size of two convenience stores, it feels more like a full grocery than our first Italian market, Padua Pasta Makers…but also because of this it has a little less intimacy. Padua Pasta Makers is so small and surprising, tucked into a neighborhood a few blocks from downtown Upland. While from its mini-mall parking lot, you can tell right away that Claro’s means business. And it delivers: top notch Italian goods, all the homemade everything, pastries, catering, cooking classes…and sandwiches.
Claro’s has 16 (plus a build-your-own option), and they all feature family names—Grandpa Frank, Cousin Kara, That Weird Neighbor, etc. This is entirely nitpicky, but the names are a little too local for our taste—family names are exclusive, right? No matter, because Claro’s is legit. We got: the Angry Joe (a very large large, $9.49), which features hot capocollo (their spelling), mortadella, hot salame, pepperjack, lettuce, tomato, sliced pepperoncini, and spicy oil dressing. Our second sandwich was the Auntie Nicole (also a very large large $9.49), which comes with fire roasted peppers, lettuce, tomato, oil dressing, and our choice of up to three cheeses. Here we went with caciocavallo, a new-to-us Italian cheese that’s supposed to be similar to provolone (it ain’t) and Havarti. The caciocavallo was our choice, so it’s also our blame: this is a veryveryVERY strong cheese, presented less in slices and more in shavings (like a parmesan). It entirely overwhelmed the sandwich. But the ingredients were all good—the sandwich bread is home-baked, we think, simple but delicious Italian sub rolls—and the Angry Joe we happily and highly recommend, a slow glow burn version of a standard Italian.
Do we feel like we like Padua Pasta Makers more than Claro’s? We do. Do we have reasons? Sort of. Like: it’s not a chain. It’s smaller. It surprised us more. And, of course, it was our first. But taking a step back and critically comparing the two reveals our inherent bias, sadly, and the truth of the matter: Claro’s is just as good, and might even be better. We’ll be back.
- Overall Balance/Taste: +1 point
- Quality of Ingredients: +2
- Bread: +2
- X-factor: ?:
Overall: +5 points, or a perfectly tasty Pat’s Philly Cheesesteak (wit)
July 16: Tortas Sinaloa
2252 S Euclid Ave Ontario
- Overall Balance/Taste: +1 points
- Quality of Ingredients: +1
- Bread: +1
- Integrity: -1
- X-factor: milanesa?!: -1
Overall: +2 points, or a perfectly tasty Pat’s Philly Cheesesteak (wit)
We got three tortas at Tortas Sinaloa, a local mini-chain recommended to us by not one but two different friends (yay, friends!). The occasion here was getting food to match a pretty amazing and hefty mezcal tasting hosted by a friend. (Put the tequila down, people. Pick up the mezcal.) So I drove the eleven miles, following a route created by the Casamigos of mapping systems (Hey Google), and it led me on an amazingly bizarre route, following railroad tracks for through Pomona and then Ontario for about six miles along First Street. It was like a mini-highway in the middle of the urban landscape, hiding in plain sight. Did I speed? No! (I wanted to but too much traffic, oh well.)
Tortas Sinaloa has like sixty different tortas—no joke, look again at the photo of the menu above. We picked up the #28 ($7.75: carnitas, frijoles, and Oaxacan cheese), the #33 Culiacan ($8.95: steak milanesa…that wasn’t breaded!!!!!!!…panela, beans, avocado), and the #48 Insurgentes ($8.95: carne asada, frijoles, avocado). Putting aside the insane non-milanesa steak on Culiacan—WTF?!?!—these were very good tortas. The carnitas was reported to be excellent—the carnitas were top notch—and the Insurgentes was amazing: chopped carne asada grilled to carbonized perfection, and, surprisingly, not too messy. Will we go back to Tortas Sinaloa? Almost definitely. It’s true that these weren’t the very best tortas we’ve had this summer, but they were close, so we highly third the recommendation.
Let’s trivia detour a moment before arriving at a grand sandwich observation. Sinaloa is a state in Mexico, on the Pacific side of the mainland, just southeast of the tip of Baja. It includes Culiacan and Mazatlan. I’ve been to Mazatlan but haven’t really been to Mazatlan. It’s where Pacifico is or was brewed. Isn’t it a fishing port? How are Sinaloan tortas different from other tortas? I don’t know! But I do know that tortas (or cemitas, anyway) were supposedly first made in Puebla. That what my sister says. She’s been to Puebla, she knows. Also it’s very, very likely that tortas are a product of French colonization, as we’ve covered before.
The thing about tortas is this: they’re simply unfair to compare to other sandwiches.
Picture if you will two plates of food. On one is a pile of sliced deli meat. You can even choose the meat—want turkey? It’s turkey. Roast beef? Sure. Mortadella? Now we’re talking.
Now let’s look at the second plate. It features something less…pre-shaped. It features something slow-cooked with spices, chiles, juices and sauces, something grilled or braised, stewed or roasted. Is that carne asada? Pork tinga? Pollo pulquero? Pollo tesmole? Al pastor? Carnitas? Again: your call.
So: which plate do you choose? The deli meat or the taco filling?
Everyone sane chooses the second plate. That’s why tortas are unfair. They’re a sandwich cheat code. The things that go into a torta have been given so much more love than the things that go into (almost) all other sandwiches. Yet … for the very same reason the torta might very well end up our king of sandwiches, it might be a king you don’t really want on the throne … because maybe the king’s brother could do a better job. Or his sister. His aunt. His nephew. Because you can eat the fillings of a torta in so many ways, and that’s the second amazing thing about most Mexican food (the first being: it’s probably the best food): the fact that you can take the heart of the matter, by which I mean the protein, the cheese, the avocado, the salsa, the cebolla, the cilantro, and whatever else you have, and you can put it into a flour tortilla. You can spoon it into a corn tortilla. Hey, gringo, go ahead and dip into it with your tortilla chips. You want it ‘naked’? Fine, weirdo, here’s a fork.
I wonder if that fluidity of conveyance in some ways robs the individual conveyance—here, the torta—of its intrinsic value.
Yeah, the torta is better than most all other sandwiches. But it might not even better than its own siblings (hello, taco). Let’s go back to those two plates. Who the hell wants to dig into a plate full of deli turkey? Or a deli turkey taco? Or deli turkey nachos? No one! But who wants to eat a delicious turkey sandwich? Most everyone. Perhaps the thing about sandwiches is this: at their best and purest, they aren’t really the best food. They’re simply good—and, at the same time, they’re the ideal singular presentation of their ingredients.
More on this in the coming weeks. But first:
July 17: The Brick: Your Neighborhood Deli
105 E Arrow Hwy, Pomona
To finish this entry, let’s follow best pedagogical practices and do a mid-term check-in. We have, since May 23, gotten sandwiches from twenty-six (!) different places—and we still have our eyes on at least fifteen more (looking at you, Bay Cities). We’ve had something like 51 different sandwiches. We’ve developed categories. We have systems of evaluation. We have expectations. So now we’re more consistently disappointed. This is a conundrum of life, isn’t it? The more you revel in a thing, the more you closely consider it because you want to understand the joy it brings you … and the more you consider it, the more you truly see it—the beauty and the flaws.
Maybe we oughtn’t look so closely at things. But after all, it’s close appreciation that gives, from time to time, the greatest joy. Even if it sometimes brings deeper disappointments—fine, we’ll take those. Because what is life anyway but a deli sandwich of happiness and sorrow, of pleasure and pain.
The bad sandwiches only make the good ones taste even better.
Quick clarification: this isn’t a mid-term update with rankings—we’re saving that for summer’s send. Rather, it’s an early draft of our Unified Sandwich Theory©–our tentative rules for good sandwiches:
- A sandwich does not fall apart; it is relatively clean and easy to eat.
- Sandwich names should be fun and, ideally, local.
- The bread should be high quality but not distracting.
- Whole rolls are better than slices/halves.
- A good sandwich has some acid—a pickled/briny element.
- 7 ingredients max. High quality.
- No sauce on the side: everything is on the sandwich.
We’ll add more, but as that’s where we’re currently at, let’s use this lens to consider The Brick: Your Neighborhood Deli—a place that really is our neighborhood deli, as it’s actually the closest sandwich place to us, closer even than Gene’s Grinders. We’ve been to The Brick a few times over the years, and we’ve enjoyed their lentil sandwich, their shwarma wrap, the hot capicola, and more. We don’t go too often—something about The Brick is lacking in charm. Their sides are a bit dull–pasta salad type things. They don’t offer much in the way of beer and wine. I always wish they were doing something a little more something, more like The Heights.
Anyway, The Brick is fine, if unremarkable. Pros: The sandwiches don’t fall apart. They use Boar’s Head and their sandwiches don’t have too many ingredients. They don’t put sauce on the side.
But the cons. Oh, the cons.
We got: the roast pork ($7.99), which comes with homemade coleslaw. They don’t describe the coleslaw other than that word: homemade. This is a mistake. This coleslaw should come with a warning. It’s utterly insane—cranberry-studded, pickled, bright, entirely overpowering. YOU CAN’T JUST SAY ‘HOMEMADE’ WHEN IT TASTES THIS CRAZY. It’s like saying Chengdu’s boiled fish comes with salt and pepper. For shame. Anyway: We went sans mayo, added pepperoncini, and subbed in Havarti for provolone. They suggest getting this guy toasted, so we got it toasted. We also got a simple turkey and cheese ($7.49; Havarti again) with shredded lettuce, oil and vinegar, spinach, cucumbers, and bell peppers (perilously close to our 7-ingredient max). The turkey was mostly fine. The pork was a little dry but not bad.
Oh, and both sandwiches came on The Brick’s recommended bread, slices of sourdough garlic rosemary.
Sourdough. Garlic. Rosemary.
“The bread should be high quality but not distracting.”
Sourdough. Garlic. Rosemary.
(See what happens when you consider things more carefully?)
- Overall Balance/Taste: +0 points
- Quality of Ingredients: +1
- Bread: -2
- X-factor: ?:
Overall: -1 point, or a simple PB&J