Sunday, July 19, 2009

IEM Session #11- I Don't Need Another Hero (Part II of the Ethnic Sandwich Trilogy- Italian Deli Sandwiches)

Before we start this show, it occurred to me that some recent converts to the way of the Inhuman Eating Machine may be unaware of the IEM code. For you, my friends, here are the official rules, so you'll understand how this thing works. I’ve also included a one-word glossary that I will expand as needed.

Thanks to everyone who voted for IEM as “Best Blogger” in the East Bay Express’ Best of the East Bay poll. Due to your support, I was a finalist. Unfortunately, I was defeated by a site that covers Oakland politics. It doesn’t seem fair to lose to a site like that. It’s apples and oranges, you know? But there’s always next year. Perhaps I should start writing things like, “This taco was worse than the city council’s complete lack of regard for Oakland’s small businesses,” but I think I’d rather describe my turds.

The Bay Area is ideal in so many ways that some residents refuse to recognize that there are several cases when we just fall short- especially when it comes to food. Is there decent barbecue to be had here? Pizza? Greek food? Sure there is- up to a point. If you’ve never spent much time in Memphis, New York, or Chicago you could live your whole life thinking we’ve got the best of all those foods. But you’d just be living a lie. The stuff here may be great compared to itself, but none of those treats shine in the Bay like they do in those other cities. But I’m a dreamer, my friends. I’ll never give up hope that a hidden gem will appear in San Leandro (or Pinole or the Laurel District) that is so good that it gives the legendary places back east a run for their money.

With the pizza session, I was completely biased towards NY pizza because NY pies were the first I ever sampled. They are the gold standard by what I judge all other pizzas; the barometer of what I think pizza should taste like. With the Italian Sub, I don’t have as much history. I didn’t grow up eating subs. I may have had one at an early age, but I don’t remember it at all. My attachment to subs comes from sandwiches I’ve eaten within the last decade in Brooklyn, and to a lesser extent, the subs at Laspada’s in Fort Lauderdale, a place specializing in authentic East Coast subs. My preference towards these subs owes nothing to history or sentiment. The connection is merely to their taste, size, and aesthetics.

The first “real” Italian sub I can remember ordering was in Brooklyn at G. Esposito and Sons on Court Street. The small shop calls itself a “pork store,” just like Satriale’s on The Sopranos. They have deli cases filled to bursting with various fresh cuts of meat as well as cured meats, Italian staples like veal parmigiana and rice balls, and cheese. And they make sandwiches. Amazing sandwiches. On my first visit to Esposito’s, I felt something wet drip on my head. I initially dismissed it as condensation from the air conditioning unit. Eventually, I looked up and saw I was actually being dripped upon by a mass of gorgonzola the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. Later, when I was riding the subway, I kept noticing a strong aroma of simultaneous shit and dirty feet. My friends and I kept checking our shoes and our shorts and looking around for suspicious derelicts. I finally realized that the cheese drippings had permeated my shirt and turned me into a walking stink bomb. As grotesque as this was, to me, this is yet another element of the Italian deli’s appeal. They’re supposed to be small, but jam-packed with every type of meat and cheese imaginable. Even though these places are often tiny, they don’t want to omit anything important. Therefore, there are massive figures of meat and cheese hanging from the ceiling. If they drip on you, que sera sera. It’s a small price for the quality of goods they purvey.

A proper Italian sub should have a good selection of Italian cold cuts in generous quantities (mortadella, coppa, hot salami, dry salami, cappicola, etc.), provolone cheese, shredded lettuce and thinly sliced onions (not leaf lettuce or diced onions), and sliced tomatoes. It should have lots of oil and quality vinegar (sometimes they mix them with seasonings in a squeeze bottle and call it “salad dressing.” Hot and sweet peppers are both recommended. Mustard and mayo are sometimes available, but there’s no reason to add either if the meats are good and the place uses enough oil and vinegar.

The sandwich is on an Italian roll (also called a hoagie roll in parts of Jersey and Philadelphia.) These rolls are long and sort of thin, but wide enough to allow an overload of ingredients. They are not tough like a San Francisco sourdough roll. There’s a little bit of tooth to the top and the bottom, but the whole roll is pretty soft. No gnawing is required, as with sourdough. Don’t misunderstand me. I love SF sourdough. It’s just a terrible conveyor for a sub.

When the ideal sub is wrapped, the flavors intensify and the juices soak into the bread to create a heavenly sandwich. As far as I can tell, SF-style sourdough is unavailable on the East Coast, other than the stuff from here that is frozen and shipped (e.g. Colombo, Parisian.) Conversely, the Italian/hoagie roll is not found anywhere around the Bay Area. Right off the bat, an Italian sandwich here is operating with a disadvantage, because the sandwich can never be perfect unless the bread is. I was willing, however, to judge the subs here on their own merit and not deem them substandard because they weren’t exactly like the ones in NY. I decided I would order all of the subs on a sweet roll, unless an establishment’s Italian sub came on a different kind of default bread. (Readers living outside of the Bay Area: A “sweet roll” simply connotes a white French roll that is not sourdough. It is not actually sweet.)

There are no more Italian enclaves left in the Bay Area. Even North Beach is now a mere tourist zone. Some of the old Italian businesses remain, but the neighborhood is no longer a hub of Italian residents. They have all scattered throughout the area and have assimilated like most of the other European immigrants of the early 20th century. Because of this fact, the Italian delis rely on non-Italians to frequent their establishments. This is fine, but when you stop having to cater to the old-timers, some things are bound to change and usually not for the better. In this session, I was not concerned with authenticity and again I was not a stickler for sandwiches that tasted like the ones I know in NYC. If a sandwich kicked my ass, I would’ve been fully amenable to anointing it the king of Italian Deli subs. I assumed this was unlikely to happen, but I’ve been surprised before.

Eating Day: July 2, 2009

1. RATTO’S- 821 Washington St- Oakland- 9:17am- $6.75 (Italian Combo)

Like banh mi, Italian deli sandwiches are available for a scant few hours each day. A couple of spots open around 8am, so I could’ve started a little earlier than I did, but I wasn’t too disappointed to get out the door at nine o’clock. This was the first session since fish and chips where I entered the proceedings thinking there was a slight chance I might fail to meet the eight-item quota. These sandwiches can be quite large, so it’s understandable that everyone I told about this session doubted my ability to seal the deal; but naysayers doubt me before every session. In addition to the massive volume of bread, I feared that I might experience a bad reaction to all of the nitrates I would ingest. I pictured myself falling far short of the mark with my tongue shriveled up like Napoleon’s phallus. In anticipation, I ate quite light the night before, consuming naught but a salad of 2 heads of romaine lettuce, one large cucumber, and a pound of carrots. The hope was that I would exit the bed with my colon ready to evacuate its contents, but I arrived at Ratto’s filled to the brim with a bushel of churning plant matter.

I used to go to Ratto’s fairly regularly when I worked in downtown Oakland, but have visited very seldom in recent years. Their prices went up and it seemed like they were getting a little skimpy with their toppings. Plus, they close early (5pm?) and parking is often a challenge. Ratto’s just didn’t seem worth my time when I could go to Genova, which has a parking lot. Ratto’s seemed the perfect debut sub for the session, though. Think of it as an homage to their durability. They’ve been open since 1897. Of all the places I visited, Ratto’s looks closest to what I think an Italian deli should look like, except twice as big. There are coolers everywhere filled with every variety of meat and cheese imaginable, plus shelves of various European specialty foods. You could probably get most of this stuff at Whole Foods nowadays, maybe cheaper even. In the old days, though, this was likely the only place you could get a box of Arborio rice. There are still lots of derelicts from the nearby shelter milling around on the block. The day I visited, there was a guy on the corner sitting on the sidewalk with his back resting on the wall, flailing his arms and legs. He was surrounded by an arc of garbage, which I suspect he employed to protect him from the interloping office workers traipsing through Old Oakland. Ratto's used to be renown for their gorgeous staff. There are still some hot girls making sandwiches there, but the real barnburners must arrive closer to the lunch hour.

Ratto’s provides a “scorecard” type ordering system. You get a piece of paper that lists all available meats, cheeses, breads, and condiments. You check off the ingredients you want, give it to the counter girl, and you get exactly the sandwich you want. Back in the old days, I would check almost everything on the list. I wound up getting the biggest possible sandwiches, until they eventually busted my stones for taking advantage of their system. However, I picked the Italian Combo during the session. When you pick the combo sandwiches, you take the whole sandwich as-is without indicating the specific items you want. I suppose I could have added or subtracted some ingredients, but I don’t like being “that guy.” Perhaps I should have been more of an a-hole, though, because they gave me a pre-made sandwich. The sandwich is on a ciabatta, a roll I only learned about in the past decade. It’s less substantial than a sweet roll, but has an airy charm of its own. The stock combo is salami, mortadella, cotto salami, galantina, and provolone. It’s topped with lettuce, tomato, red onion, and a red bell pepper spread.

Everything on the sandwich was top-notch. All of the meats were of superior quality and the spread was delicious, but it was just lacking something. I’ve mentioned in earlier sessions that I don’t give a shit about mayonnaise. I’m not one of these annoying turds who says he can’t stand the stuff. I like mayo in several applications. I just think it’s a superfluous condiment on most sandwiches. However, when you make any kind of cold-cut deli sandwich, you absolutely need oil and some kind of flavorful vinegar. Both of those elements were absent. If they had added those and let the sandwich ferment in its wrapped state, this would be a world-beater. Without the oil and vinegar, it’s sort of snack-like and non-essential.

The sandwich wasn’t particular large. After eating it, I felt almost as if I hadn’t eaten at all. It was probably a good thing that the opening entry was on the non-descript side of the spectrum. The sandwich wasn’t making itself known in either my stomach or my palate. I felt as if I could attack the next comer as if it was the debut sandwich. Next time I eat at Ratto’s outside of the confines of a session, I’m ordering with the scorecard. I’m going to try and push my luck again and see if I can get one of those new girls to acquiesce to the dozens of ingredients I list. If they don’t play ball, I think I can leave this place to the tens of workers in downtown Oakland who haven’t been laid off yet.

2. BACHI ARIANA'S CAFÉ- 1118 Lincoln Ave- Alameda- 9:50am- $6.99 (Italian Style Combo)

I headed over to “The Island” to give Domenico’s a chance to redeem itself. A couple of years ago, I got a sandwich there that was swimming in mayonnaise. It had deli meats that tasted like Oscar Mayer’s retarded brother made them. J-Mo and some other Islanders insisted that I must have gotten a lemon. “It’s the best sandwich in Alameda,” they asserted. (Note to self: Jason Morgan doesn’t eat cold cuts, so his input in these matters should be disregarded henceforth.) Domenico’s wasn’t open at 9:45am. I drove by again at 10:15am and once more around 4pm. Still closed. There were no hours posted on the door, so I deduce that they are either closed on Thursdays, or they are open between the hours of 10:16am and 3:45pm. Domenico’s, you screwed the pooch. My write-ups are the James Beard Award for the scat set.

Bachi Ariana is in a space that was briefly occupied by another deli I never tried. Reportedly, the former place was rather “authentic Italian.” Bachi Ariana is more of an all-purpose deli/coffee place and doesn’t strive to be anything but a place to get lunch. It’s in a small business district on Lincoln that must’ve been quite bustling back in the mid-20th century. With the Park St. area and South Shore Shopping Center on the same tiny isle, it’s a miracle that any of these businesses on Lincoln can survive nowadays. While I was reading the menu in Bachi’s window, I saw a woman from the hardware store squinting and looking up the sidewalk. She was watching a short Filipina teen with a big ass strolling VERY slowly down the sidewalk and talking on her cellphone. As the girl got within earshot, the woman began berating her passive aggressively. “I knew that was you, even without my glasses. I could tell by the way you carry your purse. Wouldn’t you just love it if you were here on time? Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you?” The girl shrugged, smirked, looked down at her shoes, and played with her phone. The woman sighed in defeat.

Bachi’s is staffed by what I assume is a brother and sister, aged about 12 and 10, respectively. They work the counter while their mother makes the food- in full violation of child labor laws. Lest you envision a Dickensian workhouse, I assure you that these kids have a pretty good thing going. When I arrived, they were watching TV (Maury, I think) and eating Cheetohs and blue Mountain Dew. I ordered the sandwich from the boy. He was incredibly well-mannered for a kid his age. He said things like, “Please have a seat”; “I’ll bring you your sandwich when it’s ready”; “Let me know if you need anything”; etc. In the rest of the world, this may seem like most eateries’ standard banter, but in Oakland, you don’t get this kind of treatment. It was doubly refreshing getting this kind of respect from a kid. In my day, kids weren’t this respectful to strange adults. In this era, any kid who doesn’t kick you in the sac is practically a model citizen. The mother asked the boy, “Para aqui o para llevar (i.e. here or to go)?” The boy responded, “Para here,” giggled at himself and went back to watching TV with his sister.

Their Italian Style Combo was actually a panini. Once again, the sandwich was on a ciabatta. It was clearly a pressed sandwich, but it was probably just held down with a weight on a flat-top grill. This method isn’t as immediately attractive as when an actual sandwich press is used (no grill marks), but any method of pressing will increase a sandwich’s overall appeal. It was filled with mortadella, salami, turkey ham (I know, I know), pepper jack, onions, tomatoes, feta, sun dried tomatoes, roasted bell pepper, and lettuce. And it was topped with oil and balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard. The meats seemed a little less than gourmet, but when warmed, either by the press or perhaps in the microwave, they released their inner essence and added to the stronger flavors of the vinegar, mustard, and sun dried tomatoes. Without the press, I doubt I would give Bachi Ariana a second visit, but they have harnessed the awesome power of pressing to transform a rather average sandwich into something special. It’s easily the equal of some of the local delis who strive for “authenticity.” But those places sometimes also serve as a meeting place for pretentious foodies who talk out their asses about how the bread reminds them of Tuscany. Avoid those horrible people and come to Bachi Ariana and watch little kids work for a living.

3. LUCCA ITALIAN DELICATESSEN- 3121 Castro Valley Blvd- Castro Valley- 10:50am- $5.50 (Lucca Combo)

After doing another failed drive-by past Domenico’s, I went back through the tunnel and picked up Clark to join me at the next stop. He recently received a reprieve from the governor and had his unemployment benefits extended. This was encouraging news, as the California job market is bleak. What better way to celebrate being snatched from the Reaper’s clutches than by eating a pile of luncheon meat on a roll? As I drove, Clark regaled me with stories of the subs he ate in his Pennsylvania hometown near the New Jersey border. Every sentence made me increasingly hungrier. I hoped to eat a sandwich during the session that could only approach the grandeur of the ones Clark described.

I did some research and learned that Lucca’s was part of a small chain of Bay Area delis that later became the fancy-pants A.G. Ferrari stores. Lucca’s in Castro Valley, however, retained the Lucca name and remained independent. Unlike the Ferrari chain, which goes to great lengths to appear simultaneously gourmet and traditional, Lucca has a non-descript decor, poor lighting, and a clientele that has never heard the phrases “hormone-free”, “sustainable,” or “free range.” The only other customers when we arrived were an enormous woman, sporting a permanent wave and a peach pantsuit, and her mother, who wore a muumuu. They were talking with the proprietor about an acquaintance they had in common. “Oh, he’s doing okay. I saw him out there walking the other day. He couldn’t go very far, but he was moving a little.” This kind of downer talk wouldn’t fly at Ferrari’s in Piedmont or Montclair. The proprietor is a blonde woman in her fifties. I imagine this is a family business that she inherited and I applaud her for carrying on this type of establishment while the heart of Castro Valley succumbs to the chains. She seemed to actually enjoy herself and sang along happily to the radio. She knew more Fergie lyrics than the teen Mexican girls working for her.

The Lucca Combo is mortadella, salami, and prosciutto with lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, and mayo. I’m not sure I detected any oil or vinegar here, but at least they used high-quality meats. (I saw in the case that they carried product from both Genova and Molinari.) Prosciutto isn’t always available on a standard combo, so that was a nice touch, and the salami was spiced perfectly. They went way too heavy with the mayo and I missed the zing of the vinegar, but the sandwich was pleasant overall. I’d return here for sure if I’m ever craving a sub in the Castro Valley area. The Lucca’s Combo is only fifty cents more than one of the five dollar footlongs at Subway. Unless you’re on the Jared Diet, it makes no sense to eat at Subway if you live in Castro Valley, as the Lucca Combo actually tastes like something.

I dropped off Clark and went home to rest before embarking on my long journey to the Straits of Carquinez. I was in the door less than a minute when I felt my abdomen grinding like a Cuisinart full of marbles. I mounted the commode and the waste flowed forth of its own accord. First came a silken brown locomotive, nearly two feet in length. When I thought that this iron horse was the entirety of this scat train, half a dozen freight cars came barreling through, followed by a tapered chocolate caboose. This salad-powered choo-choo took less than 10 seconds to make its way in and out of the station. My plan had come to fruition. I had started to get a little full from the initial sub trio, but last night’s roughage forced its way out into the atmosphere. This left a mighty void in my innards, which I knew would enable me to eat many more sandwiches unencumbered. I began to feel as if conquering this session was a possibility.

4. VALONA DELI- 1323 Pomona St- Crockett- 2:00pm- $6.50 (Moe’s Combo)

Mitch Cardwell was my guide to the Italian Delis of western Contra Costa County, the land that launched a million crummy pop-punk bands. He is a product of Crockett, known by some as “Sugar City”, due to the C & H sugar factory located there. The town is super-cute and at first glance it looks like any small town in Middle America. But then you see the gorgeous hillside views of the Carquinez Bridge and the Bay and the boats and you wonder why the town hasn’t been completely taken over by nouveau riche refugees from San Francisco. Perhaps the shitty commuter traffic on I-80 serves as a deterrent, but plenty of people commute to SF from Vallejo and Livermore. And the traffic from those towns is completely nightmarish. Maybe outlanders avoid Crockett because of the nearby refineries. Or maybe they don’t like it that the closest Whole Foods is in Berkeley. Whatever the reason, it’s great that the town seems to have retained its charm. Pomona St. appears to be Crockett’s de facto Main St. There are a few places to eat, some antique-y stores, and Club Tac, the bar where Mitch worked his first job at age 15. Around the corner is Toot’s where Green Day (from adjacent town, Rodeo) played a secret show recently.

According to Mitch, Crockett used to be two towns, Crockett and Valona; hence the name Valona Deli. At one point, the towns merged into one and the whole thing was now known simply as Crockett. It doesn’t really matter what it says on the sign though, because everyone in town calls it Nikki’s, after the owner. Valona/Nikki’s is a cross between a traditional Italian deli and a funky California deli. There are Molinari products used in the sandwiches but there are also concessions to the modern world like the addition of turkey to an otherwise Italian combo sandwich. And the decor is more Napa than Bensonhurst. The Moe’s Combo is the aforementioned turkey, coppa, cotto salami, mortadella, tomato, lettuce, and onion. All of the meats were top quality and the sweet roll was softer than almost any roll during the session. It helped to make the offering seem a little closer to the East Coast sub ideal, but the real clincher was their generosity with a delicious balsamic vinegar. It added so much tangy flavor, the absence of mustard was not noticed. And it further illustrated the pointlessness of mayo in a good deli sandwich.

I was relieved that the Moe’s Combo was smaller than usual. (In fact, it was the smallest sub I’d eat during the session.) This might’ve irked me during regular eating applications, though. I’m not sure that adding balsamic vinegar is sufficient justification for a price equal to most of the other entries when the sandwich is 25% smaller. Valona is the only game in town in Crockett, though, so they can charge whatever they want. For the townies, they either get their sub at Valona, or they have to get on the freeway. When you consider these two options, the perceived priciness of Valona’s skimpier sandwich is far preferable to hellish minutes in I-80 traffic. Plus, it’s also worth a little extra to eat the Valona sub in beautiful downtown Crockett without having your views obscured by a clientele that wears scarves while indoors. Viva Sugar City! Inhuman Eating Machine tested, Mitch Cardwell approved.

5. BIANCO’S- 4990 Appian Way- El Sobrante- 2:45pm- $6.99 (Poor Boy)

El Sobrante, "the leftovers” in Spanish; its very utterance can cause Bay Area residents to chuckle. It’s our version of Flushing, Queens, but Flushing now has the best Asian food in NYC, so it is no longer merely the butt of jokes. El Sob, on the other hand, remains a code word for a place nobody wants to go. It’s not dangerous like adjacent Richmond. El Sob’s bad rep is built on its dullness, not danger. It’s a charmless unincorporated town with a lot of older strip shopping centers mostly on or near Appian Way and San Pablo Dam Road (known affectionately by locals as “Dam Road.”) When I lived in San Francisco in 1987, I always wondered why the El Sob kids at Gilman Street were such spazzes. And then I went to El Sobrante. The town was (and is) as dull as Iowa, yet it’s less than 20 miles from Berkeley. Those kids lost their minds as soon as they got out of that crap-ville and into Gilman. Mitch, the Sacajewa to my Lewis and Clark, spent a good deal of time in El Sob as a youth and even lived in the town for a while. He hadn’t been to Bianco’s in some time, but he suggested stopping there, as they always used to have a great Italian sub. Plus, he asserted that Bianco’s had the “hottest girls ever” working behind the counter.

When we arrived, we found an “Under New Management” sign in the window, generally a bad sign when dealing with a traditional business like an Italian deli. The new owners almost always screw everything up. We immediately noticed that there were no longer hot teen girls working behind the counter. There were just a couple of women puttering around- one behind the counter, one in the back room. They seemed busy, even though we were the only customers. The zaftig one in the front was wearing a low-cut t-shirt and was practically falling out of it while she swept the floor. I can only assume that this exhibition was a consolation prize for the loss of the nubile teens. The store is quite large, but most of the shelves were nearly empty. Unfortunately, when customers see empty shelves like that they subconsciously assume that the products are old and not stocked regularly. And because customers don’t buy these items, management doesn’t order new stock and the vicious cycle continues.

They didn’t have an Italian Combo, per se, but their Poor Boy contained the same general ingredients as the other sandwiches I ate on the session- salami, galantina, ham, prosciutto, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle. They use Molinari meats at Bianco’s, and while they sliced the meat a little too thick, this was a good sandwich. The roll was quite soft and they didn’t overdo it with the mayo, but once again, if they just dressed it with some oil and vinegar, the sub would be vastly improved. For such little cost and effort, the sandwicheries of the East Bay could transform their product into something that could almost contend with the real McCoys on the East Coast. Why are they so content with staying second rate? With a nickel’s worth of oil and vinegar and the new manager’s prominently displayed breasts, Bianco’s could put El Sobrante on the map as something other than “that shitty town that spawned those two douchebags from Metallica and Primus.”

6. ANGELO’S- 12025 San Pablo- Richmond- 3:25pm- $6.00 (Angelo’s Sandwich)

The first 5 sandwiches were beginning to make their presence known in my lower room, but I knew I still had the vim to ingest at least one more entry before I would require a cooling-off period. As we drove towards Richmond, I felt gaseous cannonades repeating in my nether regions. I dared not slip a single escapee, though, lest I offend the delicate sensitivities of a sophisticate like Mitchell C. Cardwell. I knew a single flatulent fulmination would provide vacancy for a dozen bites of a sandwich, but I would have to reserve my strafing until after Mitch was safely at home.

Mitch told me he had a family member (aunt?) who used to come to Angelo’s for her Italian staples. I’ll wager the management has changed a few times since those days. The current proprietor is a Korean woman cut from the same bolt of cloth as Kim at the Hide-A-Way Café. She loves to talk to her customers in broken English. I like this kind of amicably strained communication. It's better for race relations than watching two seasons of The Jeffersons back-to-back. This must be what it was like for a non-Italian to order from a place in North Beach 100 years ago. I see no reason why a Korean would louse up an Italian sub, provided she buys the proper ingredients. There is no logic that dictates that an actual Italian would assemble a better sub than anybody else given the proper tools. There is very little technique involved here. If you get the right sandwich stuffing and disperse it in the proper proportions, nothing should go wrong. All you’d need is to watch an old master for a while to get the procedure down pat. Angelo’s carried all the right meats. I saw Saag and Genova in the deli case. The “Angelo’s” sandwich came with substantial quantities of dry salami, galantina, and coppa. The usual toppings were present and fully adequate. (Note: I prefer my lettuce shredded on a sub, but a full leaf is a technicality for which I will subtract no points.) There was a little tang from vinegar. It was not top quality balsamic like at Valona, but at least it has some zing. And they understood what “light mayo” means. A customer in line behind us had clearly shit his pants, but with the funny-talking owner and the makings of a fine sandwich, this place should have made it in the upper echelons of this session.

As I ate the sandwich, my stomach began stretching painfully, but my palate remained in full battle array. After a few untainted bites, I began to periodically taste something horribly amiss in the sandwich. While I chewed these morsels, I began to imagine there was male essence on my sandwich. Yes, I DO mean baby batter, jism, splooge, spunk, larry-load, schlong juice, ar-we-va. I dismissed the first few occurrences, thinking I was experiencing galantina-induced hallucinations- a luncheon meat-spurred “bad trip, if you will. After a few more bites with these puzzling semen-like notes, I had to lift up the top of the roll to investigate the contents. It is an understatement to say I was shocked, saddened, angered, and disappointed all at once. Angelo, if dead, is spinning in his grave, my friends. There were alfalfa sprouts on this sandwich! In all honesty, I would have preferred to have found ejacualate there. Readers, if you want to be a fool and add sprouts to your sandwich, I will personally disembowel any tyrant who prevents you from doing so. However, if alfalfa sprouts appear as an unstated default ingredient on an Italian Combo sub served to me, I will fight this injustice with every fiber of my being.

I never liked sprouts much to begin with, but they were ruined for me in toto while I was a teen working my first-ever full time job at a health food store. Once, while I was pretending to mop, I observed the boss’ wife making that day’s sandwiches. She took handfuls of sprouts from a white plastic tub and placed them on every sandwich- avocado, peanut butter, cream cheese, tofu, veggie burger, etc. They all got the sprout overload. I had never exchanged more than a few words with this woman prior to this day. I don't think she liked me much and the feeling was quite mutual. I was taken aback when she turned to me and said calmly, “I can’t stand sprouts. I don’t understand why he wants them on all the sandwiches. Sprouts smell like cum.” She went back to making these abominable sandwiches and never uttered another word to me again. The damage was done. This latter-day hippie's revelation was enough to scar me for life and make alfalfa sprouts my eternal mortal enemy. Next time you finish coitus, smell the product of the lovemaking. You are a blatant liar if you deny the strong aromatic similarities between sprouts and the wet spot on the sheet below you. My boss' wife was right.

If I wasn’t in the midst of a session, I would have thrown that sandwich away immediately. At the very least, I would have removed all the sprouts, yet complained the rest of the way that I could still taste creation on my tongue. But this WAS an IEM session. All I could do was eat the whole thing and glance around at the gaudy figurines on the shelves while I tried not to gag. I don't know how I did it, but I finished the sub without regurgitating. I emerged from Angelo’s not only distended in agony, but feeling assaulted. I needed to drop off Mitch ASAP so I could fart at will and rinse the taste of cock fizz out of my mouth.

7. GENOVA- 5095 Telegraph Ave- Oakland- 6:08pm- $7.05 (Italian Combo)

(See description in #8)

8. MILL’S HOAGIES- 5930 MacArthur Blvd- Oakland- 6:40pm- $6.75 (Authentic Italian)

I dropped Mitch off at home. Now that he was safely ensconced in his fortress of solitude, I could release my pressure valve. As I drove, the first wave began. I felt a hot sirocco come blasting over my waistband and up my back like a rank toboggan thrown into reverse. I had to roll down my window or risk certain induction of vomit. The odor was sharp and sudden and had that aura of spoiled milk. The outbursts continued unabated for several minutes until I arrived at the apartment. I crossed the threshold and my sphincter informed me that it was time to poop yet again. I sat on the toilet and the product issued forth quickly in one small segment that was one half rusty Brillo, one half peanut brittle. Despite the vicious odor of the car-farts, the turd was fragrance free. I had clearly used up all of my noxious perfume in the Civic. I had hoped that this fecal production and my Uzi-like display of gas would allow me to eat right away, but I felt as full as after I exited Angelo’s. Regardless, I had very little time left and had to get at least two more sandwiches very soon or the session was nullified.

Genova has the best reputation among Italian delis in the East Bay. Ask 10 people in Oakland/Berkeley the best place for an Italian sub and nine will say Genova. They've been around since 1926. That's almost as long as Ratto’s, but Ratto’s is not well-known by people who don’t work downtown. Genova, on the other hand, is located in the hip and happening Temescal district. People come there even if they live nowhere near the area. Genova is almost always crowded. During peak hours, you can expect to wait 30 minutes or longer before they finally call your number.

When I arrived, the place was less crowded than usual, but there was still a wait of nearly 15 minutes. Other than one guy who looked like Paul Sorvino, circa Goodfellas, I’m not sure there are many Italians working here anymore. The other employees seemed Mexican, like at every other restaurant in the Bay Area. They're the ones who run the store while Sorvino dispenses attitude. If Genova’s can’t keep an all-Italian staff, then nobody can. Meat and cheese hangs from the ceiling at Genova, but the items are actually plastic replicas of these foods, so Esposito's it ain't. Sorvino was slowing down the works while he flirted and talked about food service with a tall black girl with supermodel looks. Down the counter, a couple of hipster shitheads were taking forever asking another counter guy a million questions about their order and constantly changing their minds about everything. “I want pickles. No, wait. Take those off. Sorry. Is the salami spicy? How spicy? I guess I don’t want that…” The hipster girl was in short-shorts, leggings, a wifebeater, and tan cowboy boots. The hipster boy had a peach-fuzz moustache, a threadbare striped t-shirt, capri pants, and white old man loafers. How do people go outside looking like this? Do they own a mirror? They finally got their sandwiches and went outside to eat them at the tables in front. It’s a good thing I was taking my sandwich to go, because there is no way in hell I could’ve eaten while these fools were in my field of vision. It took the counter guy just a couple of minutes to wrap up my sandwich. Most of the employees are incredibly efficient and know exactly what they’re doing. There are many negatives associated this neighborhood, but Genova still has some old-world elements and I salute whole-heartedly.

I took my sub and headed towards the next stop, Mills Hoagies. I was still in no condition to eat, but I needed to hurry and get one more sub. I would eat both sandwiches at home to make the session official once any semblance of hunger returned. Ever been to Mills College? It’s an all-female institution that is the west coast's academic center of the universe- if you're a lesbian. Mills is an idyllic wooded setting that brings to mind all of the classic campuses of the Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools, but it sits on the edge of the East Oakland ghetto. If Mills Hoagies gets many regulars from the college, they seemed to be absent during my visit. The sandwich shop is named after the school, so where were the students?

Alas, no trace of Mills College seems to have rubbed off on Mills Hoagies. Instead, my visit was everything you’d expect at the junction of MacArthur Blvd. and Seminary Ave. I found the last remaining space in the parking lot. A teen girl smoking a blunt held with a black binder clip was leaning against the building. She was wearing an oversized fluorescent pink t-shirt dress emblazoned with, "Shut Up Bitch!" The message was printed in a massive FRANKIE SAY RELAX font. She was with three girlfriends and they were all overtly flirting with a teen boy who was about 6’ 6” and 138 lbs. The kid had zero game. He stumbled around like a just-whelped foal. As I exited the Civic, they all stared at me as if I had just arrived from Mars.

The staff at Mills Hoagies is mostly Korean, the ethnic group that now seems to run every food service establishment in East Oakland not run by Mexicans. The operation is very efficient and polite and they have a vast selection of both hot and cold sandwiches. I got a cheesesteak here somewhat recently. It was decent, but not really a cheesesteak. It was more like a chopped-up cheeseburger on a French roll. I ordered my sandwich and sat at a table to wait for my order. It took a while for it to arrive, even though they have several employess jammed in behind the counter. The order-taker guy had to explain to multiple customers that extra meat and cheese cost extra. A constant stream of people were coming in to pick up phoned-in orders. As I waited, two 40-ish men sat at a table with a teen boy. The men were talking about the boy’s football team. “Why did the coach bring in that white boy?” “They didn’t need that white boy.” “That white boy ain’t gonna fit in!” Perhaps it was just my persecution complex at work, but I could’ve sworn they were accenting the phrase “white boy” just to intimidate me. I probably shouldn’t flatter myself that these guys even noticed my presence, though. After nearly 15 minutes, I picked up the sandwich and walked outside.

There were now several more youths joined in with the girl and her friends. They were dancing around an Oldsmobile playing Tupac on its stereo. A few of the kids were passing a joint, also using a binder clip. Apparently, Office Max is the head shop for the new millennium. There was now a car stopped behind me preventing me from backing out of my space. A girl was hanging out of the passenger window, alternately hollering at the other teens and dancing. Next, a white girl with blonde cornrows and a skirt that barely concealed her genitals walked past me. The lower regions of her buttocks were fully displayed. She also had a reefer, but preferred to go sans-binder clip. She yelled to a 20-something male on the sidewalk, “Hey, Boo, we ain’t get no mothafuckin’ ketchup.” The car behind me finally moved into a spot further down the lot, allowing me to leave. It’s somehow reassuring that I can count on the youths of both Temescal and deep East Oakland to live up to their stereotypes- at least when I’m conducting an eating session.

Once home, I sat on the couch and awaited Kelly’s return. I would occasionally trumpet blasts of hosanna from my anus, but the worst of that day’s gas was still marinating in my car. My rectal expulsions were now ineffectual pretenders; they were nothing but talk. After about 90 minutes, the fullness had finally subsided enough that I decided to try eating. The Genova sub had mortadella, galantina, dry salami, and cooked salami. The sandwich was smaller than I remembered it. It had been about six months or so since I had eaten from Genova, but I don’t think the prices went up considerably, if at all. It seems their inflation-beating strategy is to simply reduce portion size. Despite this complaint, the sandwich is still strong. One of the salamis had a spiciness to it that complimented the sweet and zesty elements of the balsamic vinegar. The provolone was extra creamy and tasted very fresh. On the downside, the roll was tougher than some of the other entries, allowing some of the filling to go squishing out the side when I took a bite. The roll didn’t taste old. On the contrary, it was very fresh-tasting, despite the lateness of my visit. I think it was supposed to be like that, though. This is an error in judgement, as these rolls are almost exclusively used for luncheon meat sandwiches. Other than the decreased size and the tough roll, I have nothing but praise for the sandwich. Genova still has the best raw materials for deli sandwiches on this side of the Bay. I just wish they could do something about their rolls and move to a different neighborhood. I made it through the entire Genova sandwich without much difficulty and now the flavors has reawakened my appetite.

I was in awe when I unwrapped the Mills Hoagie sandwich. It looked more like an east coast sub than any previous entry and it was easily the heaviest sandwich of the day. The roll was softer, longer, and slightly narrower than the other entries, but wide enough to sufficiently handle its contents. The lettuce was shredded finely and the meats were layered very generously. Other than the sesame seeds, it really did look a lot like the subs at Esposito’s, but looks can deceive, my friends. Strike 1: The bread was dry. Since they didn’t add any oil or vinegar and I asked for light mayo, the only moisture came from the mustard, which was completely insufficient to lubricate the roll. Strike 2: The onions were diced, as for a hamburger. These were clearly the same onions they use for the burgers they make on the flat-top griddle. Strike 3: The meat and cheese were just crappy. Granted, they only listed “ham, salami, and cheese” on their menu, rather than coppa, dry salami, prosciutto, and provolone, but did they have to use product that seemed to come from a close-out sale at Smart and Final? The meats were limp and quite tasteless, except for undercurrents of chemicals. These cold cuts were clearly from institutional slabs of luncheon meats. This was the same stuff you’d expect to see on a sandwich in a prison or at a church picnic in North Dakota. And they used American cheese. And not even “quality” Kraft American cheese. This was that rubbery off-brand stuff that sticks to your fillings like caramel. I have no doubt that it was part of a log of cheese with 1000 slices.

The whole concoction was a complete letdown after the promise of its presentation. Perhaps the flimsiness of the meat translated into lower fat and caloric content, because I made light work of this sandwich, which had seemed like it could have been an Ali Baba (see Glossary) in the final round. When I first saw it, I figured I’d be nibbling on it all night in order to finish the session, but I tore through it in seconds like it was nothing. And it really was nothing.

Mills College students, faculty, and alumni, I raise my voice in solidarity and proclaim to you all:

“This is not a sandwich for you, my Sapphic friends! Do not cross Seminary Ave. to get the Italian Combo, sisters. When your foremother Gertrude Stein discussed her childhood home in Oakland and stated, ‘There’s no THERE there,’ she was talking about this sandwich. Steer clear from it as you would the bonds of patriarchal hegemony.”

I have no idea what any of that means, but this sandwich really sucked.

THE BEST: Valona
THE WORST: Mills Hoagies

NEXT TIME: Tortas- Part III of the Ethnic Sandwich Trilogy

Saturday, July 18, 2009



  • To complete a session, I must eat at least eight of a single food item at a minimum of eight establishments within a single day. (For the purposes of IEM, legal counsel has advised me to state that a “day” is defined as the period from when I wake in the morning until the time that I retire for the evening, not to exceed 24 hours.)
  • Maximum expenditure for each food item shall not exceed $10 per establishment.
  • Large nationwide chain restaurants will not be included in the sessions, but I may visit local and regional chains. (Exception: If conducting a special “traveling session” of IEM, I may consider eating at a larger chain if it is unavailable in the Bay Area.)


ALI BABA- (noun/verb)
  • (Noun) While eating with impunity during a session, a massive food item sometimes appears unexpectedly. Its presence makes the remainder of the session nearly impossible. This item is named an “Ali Baba,” after the behemoth falafel I was served at Ali Baba on Haight Street.
  • (Verb) The act of receiving an Ali Baba during a session. (e.g. "I was tearing through burritos all day until I was Ali Baba’d by the carnitas burrito at Ojo De Agua.")