A new sandwich shop has arrived in Orange County, and it is really like no other.
Mendocino Farms is the creation of Mario del Pero and his wife, Ellen Chen. They opened their first unit in downtown Los Angeles and now have six more.
A few weeks ago, they opened their first shop in Orange County, on 17th Street in Costa Mesa, drawing lines of people from day one. This is understandable since the restaurant serves some of the best sandwiches and salads that I have ever eaten.
How many sandwich shops have a chef with chops like this? Executive chef Judy Han's first job was at Lucques, under award-winning chef Suzanne Goin, where she learned the importance of working with local farmers. Her expanding career took her to Sona, Grace, Koi and Literati II.
Her approach at Mendocino Farms is what she calls "fine fast," which translates into the freshest of seasonal ingredients and innovative gourmet sandwiches, soups and salads. A vegan menu is available as well.
When you enter, you stand in line and are given a menu. You then make your selections with a member of the very friendly staff and proceed down the line, where you will be offered an opportunity to get a small sample of the side salads.
Then you choose a beverage and pay, at which point you are handed a pager to take with you to a table, indoors or out on the patio. When buzzed, you go to the open kitchen in back and take your order on a tray.
From the section titled "Foodie Favorites," which lists two special sandwiches, I chose the banh mi, Mendocino's take on a classic Vietnamese sandwich. This features braised, caramelized Kurobuta pork belly, house-made pickled daikon and carrots, cilantro, cucumbers, jalapenos and chili aoli on panini grilled ciabatta.
It was simply delicious. Just the right amount of heat, a nice sweet-and-salty crunch from the veggies and really meaty pork belly with very little fat. Kurobuta pork is the finest pork available. You don't usually find it in sandwiches. This took the bahn mi to new heights.
My dining companion had one of the "Farm Favorites," prosciutto and free-range chicken, also on ciabatta, with local Gioia fresh mozzarella, crushed honey-roasted almonds, basil pesto, balsamic vinegar and tomatoes. The chicken breast slices were thick and moist. The prosciutto was some of the best I've ever tasted, with a nice soft texture, not too chewy, and delicately flavored with just the right amount of saltiness. The mozzarella and tomatoes added other layers of taste, but the surprising crunch and sweetness of the almonds are what made this sandwich outstanding.
In the salad department, we tried the blue cow steak Cobb, a stunning mélange of carved slices of steak, prime applewood bacon, marinated red pepper strips, avocado, red onions, grape tomatoes, blue cheese crumbles, Scarborough Farms butter lettuce and romaine, dressed in a whole grain mustard vinaigrette.
The restaurant's take on the classic Chinese chicken salad is called the Santa Monica chicken salad. It has slices of free-range chicken breast, spinach cabbage slaw, Scarborough Farms mixed greens, scallions, cilantro, toasted almonds and crispy wontons, with a light, sweet miso-mustard-sesame dressing. It is a wonder of textures and flavors.
I also loved the quinoa salad, which is a side dish. It had a spicy aftertaste that kept building in my mouth. The potato salad is good as well.
There are many more treats to be found on this menu, and we are going to come back and try them all.
Finally, a word about the décor, which might be called industrial chic. Cement floors, lots of beautiful wood elements, walls of windows, white tiles behind the counter, a tall tree reaching to the high ceiling and large blackboards with chalk drawings make this a most unique sandwich shop.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where: 450 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa
When: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
Sandwiches: $7.95 to $10.95
Salads: $9.95 to $11.45
Beverages: $1.29 to $2.75
Takeout and catering available
Information: (949) 548-2500 or http://www.mendocinofarms.comhttp://www.mendocinofarms.com