Yodelling In The Valley for the new Mendocino Farms
How is it that I haven't been to a Mendocino Farms Sandwich Market before? With five established locations already in LA (three downtown!) I really have no excuse, especially since their reputation is pretty firmly established. What can I tell you? I guess I was just waiting for a formal invitation from the owner.
I'm joking... but actually, that's what finally got me, as I sat down today for a preview of MF's big new space on Ventura Blvd. in Van Nuys with Mario Del Pero and Ellen Chen, two of the prime movers behind the swiftly expanding "fast casual" chain.
We sampled four sandwiches: the seasonal Carved Steak Pretzel Melt (steak, smoked gouda fondue, red wine onions, roasted tomatoes, spicy giardiniera on a panini-toasted pretzel bun) along with menu standards "Not So Fried" Chicken (shaved roasted free range chicken rolled in a crisp coating with herb aioli, mustard pickle slaw, tomatoes, pickled red onions with chipotle BBQ on the side), Kurobota Pork Belly Bahn Mi (braised/carmelized porkbelly, pickled daikon, carrots, cilantro, cucumber, jalapeno, chili aioli) and the Proscuitto & Free Range Chicken (shaved roasted free range chicken, proscuitto, fresh mozzerella, crushed honey roasted almonds, basil pesto, tomatoes, balsamic vinegar).
The last three all come on panini-grilled ciabatta, which comes (as do most of the breads) from Celestino Drago's bakery. It's been said that you can't make a great sandwich without great bread. I'm not sure if I can definitively say these are the best ciabatta I've ever had in this country--but I can't remember having any better. Moist, just chewy enough and spongy to absorb the condiments and integrate and present the flavors within, and the right ratio of volume, too. I try very hard not to overindulge on bread, and I couldn't stop eating these.
All of the sandwiches were great overall, in fact--although I might have enjoyed the pork belly (it's not strictly a bahn mi, but a tasty, spicy variation) and the proscuitto and chicken most. I'm sure I wouldn't be mad at any of the dozen or so other variations on the menu.
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MF also offers a half-dozen cold salads (all veggie I believe) which were maybe even more impressive: I tried red quinoa & beets; curried Israeli cous cous; black rice & wheatberry and a "Fall Squash" salad (spaghetti & butternut with Cajun dressing), all of which were really well done. Maybe I just lucked out, but I doubt it.
Mario and Ellen then showed me around the new space (it opens officially on Thursday), pointing out fun aspects like the communal kids' table (you know, like at Thanksgiving with Grandma?), the chalkboard they can write on, the open foozball table and the rack of geeky food 'zines.
Like Chipotle and others, Mendocino Farms has an impressive dedication to using local sourcing and promoting those sources. In the case of MF, they've gone so far as to financially support certain suppliers to make sure they can stay in operation, and also go to lengths to find the closest quality prosciutto supplier for example (they're in Utah, go figure). The goat cheese comes from a farm in Ontario they are so in love with that they created a salad called Save Drake Farm in order to sell more of their product (it worked: it's popular). All the chicken served is free range/antiobiotic-free. The gluten bread, made by another local supplier, is literally finished to order--and did I mention there are also vegan whole wheat tortillas, buckwheat, cranberry walnut and other variations (but I can't imagine any could top the ciabatta)?
This stretch of the Valley has been pretty underserved in terms of quality quick food (that deli on Van Nuys Blvd and so many other tired spots come to mind). Mendocino Farms is undoubtedly going to be a very welcome new spot.