This discussion began over a late lunch one Monday and parlayed itself into a full story: what constitutes the perfect sandwich and all the elements that go into making one? Our debate eventually led us to discover an annual competition in Los Angeles held to determine the best grilled cheese – yes, a real competition called The Grilled Cheese Invitational. So, I decided why not hold my own invitational? I expanded the rules to include any hot sandwich, hoping these newly expanded guidelines would allow for more creativity. Every restaurant that participated chose one sandwich off their menu to showcase for the competition. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking for or how I would know when I found it, but it seems every turn I take in San Diego there is someone waiting to surprise me with something wonderful, and our first annual sandwich invitation was no different.

Luckys Lunch
Lucky’s Lunch Counter
338 7th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101
(916) 255-GRUB
www.luckyslunchcounter.com

Lucky’s Lunch Counter is located right near the Petco Park stadium in downtown San Diego. This whole block has been built up, hosting a variety of bars and restaurants. Lucky’s is a throwback, 50s-inspired, walk-up sandwich shop that gives a nod to the good old days of baseball and the famous Wrigley Field. The bar lined with swivel stools serves as the hub for the hungry. Old baseball photographs cover the walls and the blue and orange tiles accent the scheme of a bygone era. I took a seat at the counter and told the gentleman working, “Give me the best you got.” Lucky’s is fun and family friendly, serving overstuffed sandwiches, hot dogs, salads, Crater Lake root beer on draft and breakfast all day! The root beer was really the icing on the cake. As I sat there sipping, I felt like I was ready for an afternoon at the ballpark. Then my sandwich arrived: the perfect Rueben. Never had I seen a sandwich so grand in its presence. Toasted rye bread, corn beef and sauerkraut piled high, topped with Thousand Island dressing, smothered in a melted Swiss cheese and served with fries and a pickle. I sat there and enjoyed this sandwich making small talk with the folks who came in and out for a bite to eat. I read the newspaper. I downed my root beer. The only other thing I needed was a baseball game in which to attend. “At Lucky’s, We Love Having You Here,” and I truly loved being there.

Venissimo

Venissimo Cheese Shop
Venissimo is open daily at three San Diego locations (and one in Long Beach!):
 Mission Hills: 754 W Washington St, San Diego, CA 92103
San Diego: Downtown East Village, 871 G Street, San Diego, CA 92101
Del Mar: Flower Hill Mall, 2650 Via de la Valle, Del mar, CA 92104
Belmont Shore: 195 Claremont Avenue, Long Beach, CA 90803
www.venissimo.com

The second I wandered into Venissimo, all I could think of was the French Alps. I was traveling with a girlfriend and came across a fromagerie (fancy name for a cheese shop) in the small town of Le Gets. Our nostrils and senses were overwhelmed with the pungent and yet delicious smell of really fresh and aging cheeses, and I felt the same embrace and beautiful memory when I found Venissimo.

The walls are lined with adorable cheese gifts, accessories and necessities – everything a cheese lover could ever want or need. The shop is small and quaint, inspiring us to take our sandwich with us and enjoy a walk, breathe the fresh air. The refrigerated cases are filled with cheese and dried meats from around the world. Venisssimo is truly dedicated and has mastered the art of cheese. I wouldn’t go anywhere else for the assembly of that perfect cheese platter. The sandwich menu is brief and beautiful with remarkably reasonable price points. I had The Meaty Pretzel: a cheddar called the “Red Dragon,” infused with mustard seeds on pretzel bread with wine-cured salami from San Francisco. The Meaty Pretzel packs the perfect mixture of spice and salt, “Parfait!”

I am currently in love with goat cheeses and after sharing this with the fine folks at Venissimo, they fixed me up another creation that was not on the menu. A toasted sea ciabatta from a local Hillcrest Bakery with a thick layer of Boucherondin, a creamy and delicious French goats milk, then covered in a “forbidden fruits” jam made of grapefruits, oranges and pink lemons. The creation was sweet and tart with hints of cream from the smooth goat cheese.

Searsucker

Searsucker
611 5th Ave, San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 233-7327
www.searsucker.com

The chic nautical vibe of Celebrity Chef Brian Malarkey’s flagship, Searsucker, set with washed-out wood, exposed brick and artisan light bulbs, have the whole place feeling like a regular hangout in the Hamptons. Seasucker likes to keep it casual for the lunch hours with a chalkboard menu and walk-up-to-order counter. In the evening hours, they go all out with a full service dining staff, and a menu that offers little explanation of their dishes to encourage a “social dining experience.”

I happened to arrive in the late afternoon as the lunch crowd was trickling out. I took a seat at the bar and eyed their creative cocktail menu. Searsucker is the kind of place where a business lunch could turn into an entire afternoon of dinning and drinking. I felt a great sense of relaxation even though the vibe was upbeat.

Sent with love from the kitchen, the Searsucker team chose to serve me their Blackened Salmon sandwich on focaccia bread with bacon, avocado remoulade, charred tomatoes and romaine lettuce. If I were a sandwich I would be this sandwich. The choice combination of the blackened salmon with the bacon and the sweet tomatoes were pure genius.

Searsucker is doing their part to remain environmentally conscious with what they serve, too. Sourcing local organic ingredients as much as they can while still delivering their customers what they want. They do draw the line with tuna, however – no red tuna, absolutely none. We all have to stand for something after all. Every ingredient was so fresh and totally lived up to their claim: “Farm to table. Table to Face.” Yes please, this face, right here.

papalecco

Pappalecco
Little Italy: 1602 State Street, San Diego, CA 92101, (619) 238-4590
Hillcrest: 3650 5th Ave, San Diego, CA 92103, (619) 906-5566
Point Loma: 3402 Kurtz Street, Point Loma, CA
www.pappalecco.com

Did you know that Panini is plural? And Panino is just one sandwich? I didn’t. At Pappalecco, I learned the difference. With three San Diego locations in Hillcrest, Little Italy and Point Loma, they are sharing their grandmother’s Italian recipe secrets with everyone. Owner Francesco Bucci sat down with me at his Little Italy location while a friend of his wiled away on the piano in the corner and customers wandered in and out buying fresh homemade gelato, coffees and Panini’s. He told me the secret to his success is the freshness.

Bucci had the kitchen make me a classic: the Panino Toscano: tomatoes, Italian prosciutto, fresh mozzarella and basil. The mozzarella was perfectly melted and the fresh basil added a bright herbaceousness that made the salty prosciutto and tomato ring out in perfect harmony. As I sat and enjoyed my mouth-watering, melty herb sandwich, Bucci and I talked history, classic recipes and what it was like coming to San Diego.

For Pappalecco’s, their Point Loma location serves as the mother ship where they bake all their bread, make all their own pastries and mix up incredibly mouth-watering gelatos that will keep you coming back even when the summer months pass. All their ingredients and recipes are inspired from the grandmothers of Tuscany’s cookbooks. He uses all fresh ingredients, getting his products as local as he can. He has his pastries and bread delivered hot out of the oven to his locations every morning. I have never been to Italy, but that afternoon with Bucci, enjoying the piano in the corner, his accent and my sandwich, had to be close enough.

Papalunas

Papa Luna’s Empanadas
1404 Garnet Ave, San Diego, CA 92109
(858) 255-8875
www.papalunas.com

What exactly is an empanada? It seems to be a second cousin to the calzone or maybe an in-law of the sandwich. An empanada is handheld street food that originated in Spain and has migrated through Latin America, picking up its own distinctive features along the way.

Papa Luna’s empanadas are particularly Argentine. The heavenly pastry dough is filled with a variety of combinations of meats and cheeses and sometimes sweets. Papa Luna’s empanadas are always baked and never fried, staying true to the flavor of their dough and fresh ingredients. The tiled entrance and bare floors, the casual vibe and smell of fresh empanadas baking in back made me feel I had just come across an incredible discovery.

The most popular empanada is the Pollo, stuffed with fresh-pulled chicken, but I decided to have the “espinaca con queso” with fresh baby spinach, onions, garlic and boursin cheese (garlic herb cheese). I decided right. The moist yet flaky crust kept all the ingredients in the little package of melty deliciousness, making it kind of like the original hot pocket. Papa Luna’s also makes a homemade chimichurri sauce that would give my Argentine grandmother a run for her money. These folks have it down pat and easily get my seal of approval for the best empanada in San Diego.

Beaumonts

Beaumont’s Eatery
5662 La Jolla Blvd, La Jolla, CA 92037
(858) 459-0474
www.beaumontseatery.com

Beaumont’s Eatery is located in lovely La Jolla and has been serving up breakfast, lunch and dinner for seven years. With live music on the weekends, a fresh and fun vibe and great seating, this place is a must. Their full bar serves an array of creative cocktails and their menu is as extensive as it is delicious.

On my visit, I had the pleasure of meeting Sous Chef Brent Hersant. He made me his very own take on the Cuban sandwich – a classic version done right starting with grilled sourdough bread, then layered with carnitas smoked ham, Swiss cheese, Dijon and pickles. Take me to Florida and call it home, because the creation of this sandwich is nothing short of a national accomplishment. I know I can’t give them credit for the combination, but it takes skill and forethought to live up to such a legendary sandwich. The key here is attention to detail: the perfect toast to the bread, the ratios and fresh quality ingredients is what makes this a hot success.

Beaumont’s does a lot of things well, but what keeps them as a favorite is their commitment to providing fresh food for their customers. They keep it local, using Southern California farmers as much as possible and bringing everything in fresh daily: local, sustainable and delicious.

About The Author

Erin Rose Belair

Erin Rose Belair is a fiction writer who spends most of her time hitting the keys. In the rare moments when she isn’t writing you can catch her getting upside down in a yoga class or hitting the road with her folk band. She studied creative writing at UC Irvine and has since spent her life’s blood exploring an array of creative avenues. You can catch her collections, creations, and adventures on her blog roseblacque.com/. She also loves iced tea and her black cat Belladonna.

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