Two slices of bread with ideas between them

Solange Comer, owner of Cultured Slice Sandwich Shop in Hermosa. Photo by Kevin Cody.

History books say that the idea of putting meat between slices of bread was invented by an inveterate gambler sometime in the 1770s. John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich (and yes, there is a town in England called Sandwich) was a talented civil servant, patron of music and sports, and also a member of the notoriously debauched Hell-Fire Club. However, I don’t believe for an instant he invented the meal that bears his name. People have been eating bread for millennia, and putting food on top of it is well documented – thick slices of bread called trenchers were used as edible plates in Shakespeare’s time, and it’s ridiculous to think that nobody thought to put another trencher on top of the first one and pick up the whole thing.

It may take some archaeologist finding a Roman mosaic showing someone eating salami and provolone between slices of panis quadratis to prove it, but I am waiting for that day. It’s not only an obvious idea, it’s a good one, because the texture and wheaty flavor of a crusty roll complements meats and vegetables, while absorbing some of the moisture of sauces and condiments. Plenty of places have sandwiches of their own that are iconic – Chicagoans cherish Italian beef, New Yorkers their pastrami, New Orleans the muffaletta, Philly the cheesesteak, and I have been told that Nebraskans enjoy mayonnaise sandwiches on Wonder bread. (Just kidding, the Reuben was invented in Omaha.)

LA has an iconic sandwich, the French dip, and also an iconic method, which is an anything goes attitude that is exemplified by Cultured Slice Sandwich Shop in Hermosa. This is an outgrowth of a cheese shop on PCH, and at first I found it odd a specialty store would go into a new business rather than expand their selection. A visit proved the wisdom of their approach, because the two businesses aren’t the same. The cheese store has deli cases full of cheese and charcuterie, ingredients that are used in many sandwiches, but their business is devoted to explaining and selling those ingredients. Cultured Slice Sandwich Shop is about combinations and condiments, and though the cases don’t look impressive at first, the results are.

The place is small but the menu is vast, with over 50 sandwiches on the chalkboard menu and daily specials posted next to it. A simple ham and cheese is an option, but getting one here would be like asking the LA Philharmonic to play “Pop Goes the Weasel.” It might be the best rendition of that tune ever, but would not tax their abilities. Read that menu, even though it will take a while. You will probably have questions about some ingredients like finocchiona, the fennel-spiced salami that is in many cold cut combos, but most offerings are more novel for their combinations than their components. Vegans are catered to, as are those who avoid gluten, so there’s something here for almost anyone.

One of the combinations that surprised me was the Pineapple Express, made with black forest ham, sundried tomato pesto, mozzarella, fresh basil, red onion, olive oil, pepper flakes, and of course pineapple. Owner Solange Comer volunteered that the inspiration for this sandwich was when someone mistakenly delivered a tray of fresh pineapples to them, and they decided to find a use for them. It was a serendipity well exploited. The tart citric freshness of the fruit went with the pesto in a way that I would have never imagined. I’m not a fan of pineapple on pizza, but since other ingredients on this sandwich would not be out of place in an Italian deli, maybe I should try it again.

I also ordered “The Bear,” made with pastrami, Swiss cheese, gouda spread, dill pickle mustard, mayo, lettuce, onion, and pickles. When it comes to anything involving pastrami, I’m picky. I make my own in a process that takes two weeks, and when none is on hand, I get it from specialists like Langer’s or Wise Sons. I generally prefer minimalist pastrami sandwiches, a dab of mustard and a bit of coleslaw between lightly toasted rye. Swiss cheese, gouda spread, and all that other stuff sounds like something you’d do to cover up mediocre pastrami. They actually do use good pastrami here, as I found when the person behind the counter gave me a taste, and the sandwich was pretty good. I’d order it without the mayo and gouda spread next time, but I would order it.

The other sandwich I chose was the Lunch Box, made with finocchiona salami, provolone, mustard, and lettuce. This was an outlier on the menu because of its simplicity, the kind of treatment I’d give to, well, good pastrami that I really wanted someone to taste. Finocchiona salami uses fennel seeds instead of pepper, which was an expensive ingredient in the Middle Ages when this was invented. I enjoyed this, but many people won’t because fennel is a polarizing flavor, with a sharpness vaguely reminiscent of licorice. This was good, and I think I would like finocchiona as an ingredient in a sandwich alongside other meats, or perhaps in a salad or sandwich with pears or apples, and I’m going to have to buy some to experiment with.

The “I Dare You” sandwich at Cultured Slice changes depending on the whim of the maker, so yours may not resemble the one served to our food critic. Photo by Richard Foss

I mentioned the sandwiches I chose at Cultured Slice, but there was one that was chosen for me. This is what happens when you order an “I Dare You” and turn them loose to create something. They ask about any allergies and dislikes to make sure the surprise is a pleasant one, then go to work. I received a French roll packed with (in the order they were added to the bread) horseradish mustard, spicy Gouda cheese spread, sliced red onion, bacon, pepper jack cheese, provolone cheese, more bacon, pastrami, turkey, garlic aioli, tomato pesto, and potato chips. There were so many flavors and textures in this baroque thing that I was still finding new combinations when I was halfway through, and it was a fun experiment. I asked whether everyone who ordered an I Dare You that day would get the same thing, and was told no, though if someone particularly praises a combination, they may do it again. The sandwich chef mentioned that one day on a whim he used fig jam in every I Dare You, but varied most of the other ingredients. I think this is a marvelous idea that other restaurants should copy to induce a little creative chaos into the world.

One of the few non-sandwich items they offer is raclette, the French alpine dish of potatoes topped with melted cheese. (A related item in Switzerland is called rosti, but the potatoes in rosti are usually crisply fried, while the French like them boiled.) This is topped with a dash of pepper and served with cornichon pickles, and is a nice side for two or more, but a bit excessive for one person.

No alcohol is offered, but fancy sodas and waters are, as are several flavors of canned tepache, a kombucha-like drink made from pineapple. High alcohol tepaches are becoming popular in bars, but this is a refreshing and different soft drink. I recommend trying one of them, though you should read the labels because some varieties contain jalapeno and other peppers.

Cultured Slice is more expensive than the usual sandwich shop – that adventurous sandwich ran seventeen bucks, and with a tepache and rosti the bill was $34. It was a memorable variation on the usual lunch experience. John Montagu was never recorded as putting anything but roast beef on his sandwiches, and what that rakish eighteenth century nobleman would have thought of the mobile meals that bear his title can only be conjectured.

Cultured Slice Sandwich Shop is at 136 Pier Avenue in Hermosa. Tues-Sun 11 a.m. to 3 or 4.p.m. Street parking. Very little dining space. Most orders to go.  (424) 237-2032. ER


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