A taste earthquake shakes Salinas’ Harden Ranch Plaza.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Maybe it’s sandwiches like the one with roast beef, corned beef, pastrami, salami, turkey, bacon, ham, mozzarella sticks, stuffed jalapeño poppers, beer-battered onion rings, avocado, pesto and extra pepper jack – aka the Kryptonite ($19.91). Or the one called Vegan Bud Bundy ($11.11), with vegan breaded “chicken,” French dressing, avo and soy cheese.
It could be the menu’s quirks (like the palindrome prices and pop-culture names), or its quantities (83 sandwiches online, where the website invites you to narrow the search to “meat,” “veggie” or “vegan” because the options can be overwhelming). Or maybe it’s the “dirty sauce,” the seasoned housemade mayo that goes on each of the tasty breads – including the French, S.F. sourdough, whole wheat, gluten free and signature Dutch crunch – before they’re toasted, and again when they come out of the oven.
Whatever the reason, folks really like Ike’s. Its seventh and latest outpost, Ike’s Lair (449-4000), landed in Salinas’ Harden Ranch Plaza not too long ago. People like it enough that four more Ikes will open in 2012’s fourth quarter, including one in Monterey (allegedly in the Trader Joe’s center). And enough that finicky Weekly food contributor David Schmalz messaged me in surprise when Salinas drew one before the Peninsula.
“The menu is vast and enticing like a country you’ve just landed in,” he wrote. “Reading through it can also feel like speed dating. And the names can change by location. All the more reason you should forge your own path. I can attest that the veggie chicken is surprisingly scrumptious, the mayo is so good it’s scary, and you best try something with barbecue sauce to avoid buyer’s remorse. And Dutch crunch [bread], of course.”
You might say the San Francisco start-up’s main mission is to avoid acting like a chain, conducting only giveaway guerilla marketing, adding unique names and endless off-menu treats at each spot, paying above minimum wage and eschewing cheap ingredients.
“We want to be a hole-in-the-wall everywhere we go,” says Salinas chief Sam Patel, a Corral de Tierra resident who jumped ship at Chipotle to partner with Ike Shehadeh, who Patel says worked an entire year on the offerings before opening a hole-in-the-wall in the Castro District whose lines were soon clogging sidewalks. And that’s a reminder that no matter how a chain acts, the sandwiches have to sing to the stomach if they’re gonna earn such a cult-like congregation.
The sandwiches I tried were telling. The Bill Walsh ($4.94/half; $7.97/whole) demonstrates the power of the dirty sauce and Dutch loaves – baked by Raymond’s Bread in S.F. – to lift an otherwise straightforward turkey, avocado and havarti. I like the Reading Rainbow ($6.96/full only) in theory – avocado, Ike’s red pesto and cheddar – but it needs more cheese. The Cain Velasquez ($4.94, $7.97) with pastrami, bacon and Swiss suffers by comparison to the Matt Cain ($5.95, $8.98): roast beef, turkey, salami, godfather sauce and provolone. The Menage a Trois ($5.95, $9.99) is a gooey, saucy standout, with halal-style torn chicken, honey, honey mustard, barbecue sauce, pepper jack, Swiss and cheddar.
Last time I wrote about chains was when the three biggest story lines coming out of Salinas were three new franchises: Famous Dave’s, BJ’s Pizzeria and Five Guys Burgers and Fries, which all arrived in the space of a few weeks. The difference here is I’m more likely to drive from the Weekly offices for this chain than the others combined. Like Schmalz said, “A big come-up for Salinas. People are going to start going to Salinas for tasty food.”
•The Beach House at Lovers Point (373-1851) has laid out a December opening date. PS: That’s not the sea lions barking – that would be my stomach.
•I heart you, pop-up. Without you there wouldn’t be a multi-course wild boar-fine photography lunch at Cole Weston’s ($75, 655-0515) 3-7pm Saturday, Sept. 22. Or another Big Night at (Carmel) Belle with Earthbound Farm Chef Sara LaCasse and Morgan Winery ($75, 624-1600) 6pm Sept. 23. Or a winemaker dinner with Anthony Pessagno at new La Crème in P.G. ($75, 375-1300). Or FÜD’s “Mix, Muddle or Shake” lesson and party with Christian Pepe and Chef Pablo Mellin ($60, www.wherewegrub.com) 7pm Friday, Sept. 28.
• Here’s an platform to run on: Small-batch beer is beautiful. Craft brewers currently provide an estimated 103,585 jobs in the U.S. In related news, Peter B’s (649-2699) has made the final list for Best Great American Beer Bars on www.craftbeer.com, and its Monterey Beer Garden ($40) happens in the adjacent Memory Garden, with a dozen brewers, noon-4pm Saturday, Sept. 22.
• Who’s got the biggest brunch in town – whether you’re talking flavor, girth or calories? Head to the Weekly Facebook page and log your thoughts. Most articulate and passionate answer wins two tickets ($30) to sip Ventana Vineyard wines, try Peter B’s craft beers, munch on 400 Degrees burgers and hear Money Band play at Carmel Plaza’s Concerts in Carmel Friday, Sept. 21.
•The Weekly foodie team asked our Facebook folks what they wanted to know about the local foodstuffs, and Laurie Hamilton Ehlke came up with a mouthwatering response: How Chef Didier Dutertre of Bistro Moulin (333-1200) does his insanely tasty spinach gnocchi. Hit the blog for the video answer.
•“Happy people plan actions,” PBS broadcaster Dennis Wholey said, “they don’t plan results.” Bonus Wholey quote: “Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is a little like expecting a bull not to attack you because you are a vegetarian.”