The guy that recently won the Food Network’s “Next Food Network Star” competition came up with a universally relatable concept for a new show: “The Sandwich King.” The theme behind the show Jeff Mauro will be hosting: “Any sandwich can be a meal and any meal can be a sandwich.”
If there’s one person in this county who can synchronize with that statement it’s Eli Mundo, the culinary mind behind Mundos Café on Fremont Street in Monterey, which he opened with his brother Fernando a few months ago. The new spot is first and foremost all about the creative (yet affordable) sandwich.
I’m talking mouthwatering innovations like the Thanksgiving turkey ($6.50): carved turkey breast, cream cheese, cranberry sauce and romaine lettuce on a fresh-baked roll. Or a paprika grilled chicken sandwich ($6.25) with paprika-spiced chicken breast, ranch dressing and bacon strips.
Eli – who makes just about everything on the menu from scratch using many proprietary recipes passed on to him from his mother in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and fresh ingredients scored from Del Monte and Monterey Produce – says anyone can make a sandwich, but the secret to making one that stands out is found in hidden flavors, like the paprika or fresh basil, that are waiting to be fully embraced. Eli says he found his favorite flavors through years of experimentation.
Another key: Every one of Mundos Café’s 20-plus sandwich options and nine burger varieties incorporates a homemade sauce. Eli is secretive about the ingredients that go into any of his sauces, from the chipotle (on the meat-stuffed quesadillas, $5.50) and mustard aioli (on the pastrami sandwich, $6.25) to the sweet and spicy chimichurri (on the Argentinian tri-tip panini, $6.99).
The Mundo brothers started showing off their sandwich chops while working with the head baker at Pacific Grove’s Pavel’s Bäckerei. Eli would throw together some sandwiches – many are now on the menu at Mundos – and as the tasty creations quickly became a local hit, Eli began shipping his sandwiches out to be sold at other locales like Acme Coffee and Cornucopia. Today, Mundos still suppliesthem with longtime fan faves, like the Thanksgiving turkey, fire bell pepper and curry chicken salad sandwiches.
After a little urging from the owner of Pavel’s, Eli and Fernando finally opted to open their own sandwich oasis and have already gained a steady and loyal base of customers, many of whom used to buy them pre-wrapped back at Pavel’s.
The tiny operation has just four tables and a coffee bar inside and a couple of tables outside; the kitchen is so small it looks like it could fit inside a food truck.
On my first trip to the sandwich Shangri-La, on Eli’s recommendation, I go with the Mundos tri-tip ($6.99), one of three tri-tip options on the menu. The premium cuts of meat from Del Monte Meats – sandwiched between a crunchy French roll – are marvelously tender and come with a perfect coating of homemade aioli. Provolone cheese, lettuce and tomato complete the composition.
My buddy orders the chorizo quesadilla ($5.50) with sautéed portabella mushrooms, tomatoes, mozzarella and a side of green salsa. But he didn’t really have any idea what he was getting into.
“Man, that’s rich,” he says after taking a first bite. Like sandwiches, the Mundo brothers have even taken the simple inner workings of the quesadilla to higher levels. The tangy quality of the chorizo – which is the only ingredient Eli doesn’t make himself (he gets the Spanish style he prefers from Don Francisco’s in San Jose) – combined with the earthiness of the portabellas and creaminess of the cheese results in a greasy festival of flavor and texture.
For a second visit, I decide to delve into the burgers. The squealing pig burger ($6.99) – Muenster cheese and bacon strips on a “bacon-infused” beef patty – piques my interest initially, but I end up settling on the choriqueso burger ($7.49). A thick beef patty – flavored with garlic, onion powder and other spices – is grilled first, and then Eli melts mozzarella on top. When the cheese gets to the point of gooiness, the brothers crown it with pieces of chorizo and layer lettuce, tomato, onion and special sauce under the straightforward but sizeable patty, piling up some six inches of engaging flavor. Adding ketchup to that would be like slapping a hat on the Mona Lisa.
Mundos’ breakfast menu is much more simple, featuring everything from breakfast burritos ($4.50) and breakfast sandwiches ($3.99) to the low-priced steak and eggs ($4.25) and a Nutella and banana crepe ($4.25).
Moreover, for folks who’ve been making their name around town as sandwich auteurs, Eli and Fernando can also do some mean baking. Next to the register sit a variety of freshly baked sweets packaged with a label that reads “The Little Baker.” The buttery shortbread cookies with strawberry preserve centers ($3/four) are a customer favorite.
It’s all a lot in a little spot, which means the first few visits to Mundos Café merit careful study of the menu – there are also several vegetarian options like the fire bell sandwich with its roasted bell peppers, romaine lettuce, tomatoes, onions, Muenster cheese and Mundos special aioli dressing ($5.50). As cliché as it sounds, I found I couldn’t really go wrong with anything, which backs up Eli’s simple yet sensible philosophy.
“I never serve anything,” he says, “that I wouldn’t also eat.”
MUNDOS CAFÉ 2233 N. Fremont St., Monterey • 7:30am-6pm Mon-Fri; 7:30am-3pm Sat • 656-9244.