The sandwich — one of the simplest kinds of food in the world, right? Just slap one ingredient or more in between two pieces of bread and there you have it. It doesn’t take a chef or a culinary superstar to make one. It’s something we all can make. But would a sandwich that you made have people lined up around the block?
Well, at the Southern California-based Mendocino Farms chain, which currently boasts eight locations, the sandwiches that co-founder and “Chief Sandwich Creator” Mario del Pero and Executive Chef Judy Han dream up do. And they do it with a sense of humor, judging from a few of the menu items: Drunk’n Goat on Highway 128 (chicken sandwich with goat cheese, brie and cranberry chutney), under the “Can We Be More Cheesy?” section, and a Sandwich Study of Heat (turkey avocado sandwich with smoked gouda, chili aioli and jalapeno relish) under “Classics.”
We spoke with Han and co-founder Ellen Chen to find out what magic ingredients make the family-run Mendocino Farms — del Pero and Chen are married — so popular. And we discovered that it is more than your appetite that they are skilled at satisfying. Actually, their “Eat Happy” approach starts even before your sandwich is served.
HUNGRY FOR SOMETHING BETTER
In a popular foodie destination like Los Angeles, everyone is always looking for that next brilliant idea. So why did Chen and her husband decide in 2003 that sandwiches would be where they would make their culinary mark? “We already had a fast-casual Asian concept, Skew’s Teriyaki,” says Chen. “When we sold it, we thought, what do we want to do next?”
They looked to northern Italy, where del Pero is from, for inspiration. There, leftover proteins from Sunday meals would find new life in a sandwich. “Sandwiches are kind of a vehicle for how they eat their food,” says Chen.
While the idea started with Italy, it developed more while they took part in something very American: Thanksgiving. “We were sitting around eating what is now our November to Remember [sandwich]: turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, chutney … and I thought, if we could take all these proteins and make them higher-end, chef-driven sandwiches, that would be so great,” says Chen. “It was really the idea of the better category. There was Subway and Quiznos, but there was no next level up. We’re going to make the better sandwich.”
Now they needed a name.
“So there’s Napa, but that sounds so serious,” Chen recalls them thinking. “We still wanted a quirky quality to what we do. Mario used to vacation in Mendocino [north of San Francisco] when he was a kid. It’s beautiful coastal farm country and wine country, too.” So Mendocino Farms was born, giving a nod both to the fresh ingredients that come out of that area and her husband’s fond memories of family vacations spent there.
FOOD THAT TELLS A STORY
Chef Judy Han joined Mendocino Farms about eight years ago, after the hectic schedule of working at fine dining restaurants (Sona, Literati II) meant too many holidays away from her first child when he was so young. “When I met Mario, his vision was really interesting, so I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot,’” remembers Han. “I had to get up at 4 a.m. in the morning, but I had weekends and holidays off.”
She operates out of their commissary in downtown Los Angeles, where they have a rigorous testing schedule: about two to three sandwiches a week, with possibly two to three variations on each of those recipes. And then a taste-testing panel of select people that includes Chen, del Pero and other upper management with discerning palates. Han notes that even “old favorites we bring back, we take a lot of time retesting. We have to make sure that we’re progressing.”
Inspiration for a sandwich can come from anywhere, and food memories often pop up and shape a recipe. Their recent Chef’s Special Korean BBQ Chicken sandwich was developed while Han was driving, thinking of chicken entrées she liked: “Korean fried chicken is not really well-known here and I was thinking of all the flavors.” And she says that their classic Farm Club sandwich “was based on the memory Mario had of when he first courted Ellen.”
LOVE BEFORE FIRST BITE
From its inception, there’s been something very personal about Mendocino Farms. A lot of love and care is invested into everything from developing the sandwiches to the reception the moment you walk in. Hosts greet you as you enter — or, in the case of rush-hour lunch in the Valley with a line out the door, on the sidewalk — to introduce you to the menu, offer suggestions and take your order.
Once you reach the counter, there’s a deli case featuring a variety of tasty sides, such as their popular curry couscous and seasonal spicy Dijon potato salad, which you can sample for free before you order. “Everything is available for sampling,” says Chen. Ask for a sample of that roasted turkey or pulled pork tempting you behind the glass as you continue down the counter line, witnessing the “theatrics” of the sandwiches coming together. Once you hit the drinks area, try Han’s seasonal lemonade or that Eagle Rock IPA.
There’s much to appreciate about how Mendocino Farms operates, even before you get your sandwich. But when you do, you’ll likely sing their praises as hundreds before have: “absolutely per-ect,” “the best sandwich of my whole life,” and, in the case of this writer after trying the Kurobuta Pork Belly Bahn Mi on a panini-grilled ciabatta, “tastes like home … comforting, warm, delicious.”
–STORY BY TEENA APELES
This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here.