I Like Ike’s

It’s not fine cuisine, but then, when can you ever say as much about the humble sandwich? Even at its most ambitious heights, fully stacked with the utmost care, it’s still a bread-bound vehicle for gooey, drippy, sloppy savories that otherwise defy handheld consumption. Sometimes it feels silly to order a sandwich when eating out, for the simplicity of this basic premise, but certain eateries do it right. Ike’s has been a bay area cult classic for many years, winning advocates of both carnivorous creations and meatless monsters. Offering a generous selection of vegan options, with endless opportunities for customization, it’s hard to resist the lure of this diverse selection when passing by one of the numerous outposts. Dozens, if not hundreds, of combinations are possible, even if not listed on local menus. After a few birthday freebies and random indulgences, I do have a few recommendations to make.

First of all, across the board, ALWAYS ask for dutch crunch bread. No excuses, no questions; Nothing else will suffice. Ask for pickles on the side to prevent a briny blowout. Specify “vegan” even when ordering something with “vegan” in the title, because not everyone gets the message behind the counter. Beyond that, as a general rule for life in general, add avocado whenever possible.

Sometimes I’m a Vegetarian: Grilled mushrooms, marinated artichoke hearts, pesto, and cheese.

Tom Brady: Avocado, cheddar, garlic and herb sauce, mushrooms, vegan breaded chicken.

Meatless Mike: Marinara, pepper jack, vegan meatballs.

XXX-Tina: Vegan breaded chicken, buffalo wing sauce, cheese.

Zenobia (SF Exclusive): Sriracha, hummus, cucumbers, tomatoes, vegan steak.

For a place where the stated goal is to “make sandwiches as unique as the individual ordering,” Ike’s stays true to that mission, from top to bottom bun.

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Son of a Butcher

Snaking past the illuminated case of thin-sliced meats and artisan cheeses, spilling out the door and onto the sidewalk, the line is already at least 15 deep, and it’s not even noon yet. Any respectable food establishment in downtown Berkeley will inevitably experience the usual lunch rush on any given day, but The Butcher’s Son is guaranteed to be more or less a mob scene no matter the hour. After a year and a half of slinging sandwiches to these hungry hordes, their popularity shows no sign of waning, nor the excitement from dying down. Eavesdrop on the masses already tucking into their oversized sandwiches for encouragement to endure the wait; exclamations of deep, primal joy echo off the walls, speaking louder than any formal review.

Salads and fried snacks round out the menu, but make no mistake, it’s all about the sandwiches here. Overstuffed with plant-based meats and dairy-free cheeses, these generous assemblages transcend the boundaries separating vegans and omnivores. Scores of staunch meat eaters have been shocked to discover that this old school deli is entirely flesh-free, even after devouring a full meal. There’s a certain finesse to the casual fare that reveals dedication to the craft that can only come from passion and attention to detail.

Each towering creation is a feat of culinary architecture. The Fried Mozzarella & Meatball could comfortably satisfy two diners, and the Roast Beef Reuben piles on thinly shaved beefless slices and sauerkraut with the same enthusiasm.

Bestsellers include the BLAT, a classic combination of bacon, lettuce, avocado, and tomato, straight to the point and sure to satisfy any nostalgic cravings. It’s tough to leave without ordering the Pulled Pork though, a saucy, smoky barbecue sensation that’s crowned with tender strings of caramelized onions and creamy coleslaw.

Groaning, straining within the confines of one’s previously well-fitting pants, it would behoove the average diner to reach for a takeout box early on. Resist the temptation of cleaning the plate, no matter how strongly the urge strikes. Besides, there’s still dessert to consider. Don’t overlook the pastry case, stocked with a rotating selection of pies, cheesecakes, cookies, doughnuts, cannoli, flaky croissants, and all variety of other sweet surprises. Just in case you need a meaty fix throughout the week, cold cuts and cheese are sold by the pound, right alongside house-made sour pickles.

Come hungry and early to secure a table, especially for the epic weekend bunch menu. This isn’t your average delicatessen, but the overall experience wouldn’t lead you to think it was any different.

The Butcher’s Son
1941 University Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704

Banh Mi and Banh You, Too

Please don’t call the authorities, but I think I may have just robbed a sandwich shop.

It was an accident, I swear. My intentions were good through the entire transaction, my demeanor nonthreatening, the cashier entirely unconcerned by my presence. It was all so mundane, so unremarkable that I might have forgotten the whole scene by tomorrow if not for that one sticky detail. All I wanted was a sandwich, an honest meal after a long day. Something easy and fast, unchallenging flavors to soothe the ache of comfort food cravings. Indeed, I got precisely that; a glorious banh mi, decked out in crisp pickled vegetables and beautifully burnished lemongrass tofu.

In five minutes flat, from the moment I burst through the door at Cam Huong, my order was ready, stuffed to bursting with bean curd still warm from the fryer. I raced home, cradling my treasure close to my chest, like a precious baby swaddled in deli paper. Only after I tore through the wrapping paper and took my first monstrous bite did I realize my potentially larcenous predicament. Checking my wallet, only three one-dollar bills were missing. That wouldn’t even be enough to cover the tip for most bay area meals. How could that possibly suffice for a full 8 inches of sub satisfaction? Even a prepackaged gas station peanut butter and jelly sandwich would command a 5-spot, at least.

I suppose this makes me a fugitive on the run now. I’m neither armed nor dangerous, but I do command a ferocious appetite, so if you ever need a partner in banh mi crime… I’d gladly become a repeat offender.

A Novel Approach

If there’s anything better than ice cream, it could only be ice cream on a stick or in a sandwich. Classic novelties have taken advantage of this fool-proof path to frozen dessert perfection, but few truly make the most of the unique, single serving presentation. Finally daring to innovate beyond two chocolate wafers filled with vanilla ice cream, some very exciting developments are turning the marketplace into a very sweet scene, indeed.

So Delicious has certainly been busy in recent days, and my backlog of photos provides ample evidence. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their latest innovations I have on deck for review! Truth be told, the above coconut-based Mini Organic Bars were first devoured back in January, while I enjoyed my time in Hawaii, and the hottest winter I’ve ever experienced. The perfect foil to a sweltering afternoon in the sun, it was hard to pick a favorite between the Just Java, Simply Strawberry, and Fudge Bars, but I quickly found that I really am a coffee-lover through and through. It won’t pummel you with high-octane espresso flavor, but a creamy, sweet, and smooth cappuccino flavor that’s perfectly suited for a light midday snack. For you coconut-haters out there, never fear: I couldn’t detect even a hint of coconut flavor in these babies, unlike the other two options.

Tofutti has been in the dairy-free dessert game for decades now, the veteran in the rapidly shifting field of prepared vegan food stuffs. The masterminds behind these particular treats definitely know what they’re doing, using the same formula that’s survived countless food trends and collective dietary changes. Although best known for their pints, Tofutti Cuties in all their myriad flavors will always hold a special place in my heart. Way back when BitterSweet was but a wee speck on the interweb, those sweet ice cream sandwiches were some of the very first products I ever reviewed. If you unwittingly clicked to read that flashback, I must apologize: Your eyes are likely burning by now from those gruesome photos.

Back to the matter at hand, the varieties have come and gone over the years, and remaining flavors can prove rather elusive. Although I can find their take on the golden standard anywhere I shop, more fanciful concoctions are harder to come by. Case in point, I could only get my hands on the Key Lime and Wild Berry Tofutti Cuties when the kind PR people offered to ship them directly. Granted, this was [shamefully, regrettably] over a year ago, so I’m not even sure if they still exist in the wild. For my own sake, I sure hope they do, because both were unforgettable treats with no equals in mainstream markets. Particularly drawn the to key lime, zesty citrus ice cream provides a bright, tangy contrast to the buttery vanilla cookies. Bearing a satisfying soft bite that is easy to sink your teeth into, the refreshing combination is far more complex than your average child-focused novelty. A new personal favorite from this steady, old school brand.

In case you thought that ice cream was just a summertime treat, then I’d like to introduce you to the most creative, daring frozen desserts to be found in the freezer cases this year: Halloween themed, coconut-based Pumpkin Spice and Candy Corn novelties, made by none other than So Delicious. These are brilliant for their adorable shapes alone, but needless to say it’s the taste is what puts them over the top. The adorable pale orange pumpkins are unsurprisingly flavored exactly like their Pumpkin Spice Beverage, only frozen, of course. Rich and decadent, they definitely feel like a seasonal indulgence, despite the low caloric price tag.

Candy corn was the real wild card here: Would it truly taste like candy corn? The chocolate crown suggested otherwise, but I held out hope for something more reminiscent of Indian corn instead of the classic. (Those were always better, anyway.) For better or for worse, depending on your stance toward the much reviled or beloved confections, these frozen novelties do not taste like actual candy corn. The white stripe is a simple, straightforward vanilla ice cream, but things get considerably more interesting towards the orange base. Immediately familiar yet indescribable, I couldn’t quite pin down what I was tasting… And then it hit me. Orange creamsicle! This was the creamy orange ice cream, long since discontinued, that I devoured without restraint during my early college days. Stuffing myself with both the scoops and pops, having that cool, sweet treat to look forward to after classes was the highlight of my day. Oh, the joy of being reunited, if only for a few fleeting stripes!

It’s never been easier to stay cool, even without scooping a single spoonful. Considering the rapidly expanding field of delicious options to choose from, there’s easily something for everyone to enjoy, no dairy need apply.

City of Sandwiches

World-renowned for its legendary sourdough, San Francisco is indisputably a city built upon bread. Even in times of carb ambivalence and widespread gluten awareness, it’s reassuring to see that this yeasted tradition is still alive and well, thriving in the hands of myriad skilled, dedicated bakers found across the bay area. With so many loaves both big and small being born every day in those perpetually burning ovens, it should come as no surprise that sandwiches get receive considerable attention here, no matter the cuisine nor restaurant ranking. Far be it from the only choice, sourdough is hardly the end-all, be-all bun that serves as the foundation for those hundreds, if not thousands, of creatively stuffed handheld meals. One could easily eat only sandwiches and still never exhaust all of the options, from buns to condiments, as diverse an distinctive as the sandwich artisans themselves.

There’s no shortage of choices when it comes to finding authentic banh mi, stuffed with everything from from tofu to TVP if you know where to look. Little more than a hole in the wall with space for a miniature kitchen, Fresh Brew Coffee nonetheless manages to craft a mean stack of tangy pickles, hot peppers, cilantro, avocado, and veggie patties inside a crusty French roll. It’s not the most revolutionary rendition, but location counts for a whole lot. Since it was within stumbling distance of my classes and offered free wifi, it was an easy, tasty stop for lunch. For convenience, speed, and cost, the combination simply can’t be beat.

A bit far-flung for most visitors but perfectly situated near my home base, Lou’s Cafe and Sandwiches has a fiercely loyal following. While most people come for the meats and cheeses and the printed menu doesn’t appear even remotely vegan-friendly at first blush, you can snag yourself a mighty fine meal if you know what to ask for. The Veggielicious is vegetarian by default, and easily veganized once stripped of its cheese, with jalapeno spread swapped in for the mayonnaise-based “special sauce.” Opt for the Dutch crunch bread, rather than the soft white fluff that comes standard, and you’ll have a hand-held roasted vegetable feast, complete with crisp lettuce and a full meadow’s-worth of sprouts.

Here’s one out of left field for you: Cinderella Bakery and Cafe, a traditional Russian establishment, hidden within the Inner Richmond, serving up solid eats without any pretension- Or niceties, depending on the counter person. Don’t let the surly service deter you though, because your patience will reap some incredible, edible delights.  Their so-called Vegan Sandwich takes the guess work out of what to order, arriving fully loaded with roasted red peppers, tomato, sorrel, avocado, sprouts, and romesco sauce on satisfyingly crunchy focaccia bread, toasted to a fetching shade of golden brown. Set apart from the pack by the rich, savory romesco sauce, it’s a sandwich that deserves far more fanfare than it seems to get, appearing only on the online menu and not in store. Press forward and ask for it anyway; the unsmiling staff will grudgingly oblige. However, if you only have room for one dish, make it the accidentally vegan borscht (sans sour cream.) Even on a steamy summer afternoon, the tomato-based broth, layered with a complex yet harmonious symphony of umami flavors, truly hits the spot. Since it comes with a basket of complimentary rye bread, it really is a full meal all by itself.

Something of a cult-hit, Hella Vegan Eats slings different sandwiches every day their truck is on the road, and on this particular sunny afternoon, I had the opportunity to taste their Southern Fried Thai “Chicken” Sandwich, replete with green curry cabbage, curried aioli, and a slab of faux-chicken about the size of a full dinner plate. Extending far beyond the confines of the soft yet hearty bun, there’s a whole lot of “meat” packed into this baby, and I’m happy to report that every last inch of it is fried to a perfectly crispy, grease-less consistency, remaining moist and tender inside. It’s the kind of sandwich that would appeal to even the most close-minded carnivore, deserving of all the effusive praise regularly bestowed upon the modest food truck. Plus, you’ve gotta love the whimsical umbrella garnish.

Only upon sinking my teeth into the monstrous grinder overflowing with paper-thin shaved seitan and mushrooms at Jay’s Cheesesteak did I realize my ordering folly. Made vegan by omitting the mayonnaise and yes, the cheese, I’m not sure exactly what you would call this creation. Regardless, this hot pile of chewy gluten is pure comfort food, lightened with fresh lettuce, tomato, pickle, and a subtle smear of mustard as accompaniments. If only Jay would consider adding a vegan cheese sauce to the menu, the experience would truly be complete, but it’s already pretty darned delicious as is.

Don’t forget about all of the sweet sandwiches that San Francisco has to offer, too! Curbside Creamery is not exclusively vegan, but offers a rotating variety of dairy-free ice creams. Based in Oakland with regular appearances at various east bay farmers markets, their cashew-based scoops are as creative as they are craveable. From Thai iced tea to earl grey, you can’t go wrong with a simple scoop or two, but their fully loaded ice cream sandwiches are truly something else. Go big or go home with the thickly layered Peanut Butter and Chocolate Ice Cream Sandwich and you won’t regret the caloric splurge.

They may not have a storefront bakery, but it’s still pretty darned special to chance upon Feel Good Desserts‘ vegan macarons in the refrigerated cases at Republic of V. The moisture of the fridge no doubt compromised their delicate structure a bit, creating a texture that was more soft than crisp, but the overall eating experience was pure bliss. Knowing how much hard work goes into crafting these tiny sandwich cookies first hand, it was a real treat to have someone else do the heavy lifting for me.

San Franciscan vegans are positively spoiled for delicious dining options, so the real question here is: Which ‘wich would you eat first?