I spent five weeks this summer living in San Francisco's Mission District, going to bars that let my dogs roam free, making plans for big hiking trips, and pretending that I was going to learn to surf. Instead, I mostly ate sandwiches. Lots of sandwiches.
Every day for lunch I'd call up my Vespa-driving friend who'd pick me up at my apartment on South Van Ness, where we'd look over the Mission Sandwich Map; our battle plan for the summer. Every self-proclaimed sandwich shop in the Mission was circled on the map. As we tasted sufficient sandwiches to evaluate each shop, the circles would slowly get turned into stars. Our goal was to collect all the stars before the summer was up. Yes, we are fans of Super Mario.
We'd ride tandem, me clutching to his back as we zipped through the streets like Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, if Audrey Hepburn was a skinny man and Gregory Peck was a slightly overweight half-Asian guy. We'd hit up one shop, order two or three sandwiches, stash half a chicken sub under the seat, and zip off to the next. Such is the life of a Serious Eater. All told, we tasted over 50 sandwiches this summer, visiting over two dozen shops along the way, while carefully photographing, evaluating, and documenting every sandwich that crossed our path.
The goal? To put together the ultimate sandwich lover's guide to San Francisco's Mission District. Who makes the best torta? Who's got the best Dutch Crunch? Is Pal's Takeaway really as wacky as it's cracked up to be? If I'm committed to waiting in line and paying too much, should it be with the hipsters at Bi-Rite or the Yelpers at Ike's? These were the questions we set out to answer.
To make this whole project a bit more... digestible, I'm breaking it down by category, declaring a winner every day this week. On Monday, we'll be crowning the grand sandwich supreme, the hoagie ne plus ultra, the sub you can't snub, the spuckie that don't suckie, el grinder numero uno, the hero's hero, the... you get it. We'll be revealing our pick for the tastiest sandwich in the District.
Today, we're starting things off with grilled cheese.
For the sake of this comparison, I considered both classic grilled cheese cooked on a flat-top and pressed grilled cheese sandwiches made in a panini press. This brings the entries up to a solid four: The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, Bar Tartine's daytime sandwich shop, Tartine Bakery (the winner of our best bread in San Francisco taste test), and Mission Cheese. At each restaurant I tasted at minimum of two grilled cheese sandwiches. My evaluations were carried out based on the best at each location.
A grilled cheese sandwich is all about the textural contrast between the crisp, buttery crust and the gooey, molten center, and these two factors—gooiness and crispness—were the overriding factors when evaluating.
Bread and cheese quality were also of the utmost importance. I'm not the kind of guy to look down on a Wonderbread and Kraft Single grilled cheese sandwich—I love'em, in fact—but when I'm buying a grilled cheese at a restaurant for lunch, I want it to be made of higher quality stock. Does the bread have some real flavor? When grilled, did it acquire an appropriate golden brown hue and crisp texture while still maintaining a soft chew through to the center? Does the bread actually bring something extra to the table, or is it just a vehicle for delivering melted cheese?
Speaking of that cheese, is it tasty, complex, and most important of all, does it meld well with the rest of the sandwich? Does it melt properly and ooze into the pores of the bread, or does it break and turn greasy?
Finally, all of the sandwiches I tried had some sort of extra ingredients beyond just the bread. These ingredients had to make sense with each other and in the context of the cheese and the bread.
The Best: Mission Cheese
It's no surprise that a cheese shop knows how to put together a tasty grilled cheese sandwich. The best of the bunch was the Pork & Cheese ($10), made with Gruyère, Framani salami, tiny chopped cornichon, and a smear of grainy mustard. Perfectly grilled on a panini press between slices of Josie Baker's excellent bread (it placed second in our best bread in San Francisco taste test), this is everything a grilled cheese should be. Bolden brown and crisp without being overly greasy or buttery, plenty of oozy melted cheese with just enough other complementary other ingredients, all served with a brightly dressed salad of bitter greens to refresh your palate for the next bite.
Almost as good was the Chedd or Alive ($10), a more classic grilled cheese made with two types of cheddar cheese and an apple and ale chutney. I mean, just look at the way that cheese oozes out from between the slices of bread. Have you ever seen a prettier grilled cheese in your life?
Pricey But Worth It: Tartine Bakery
As the hands-down winner of our San Francisco bread taste test, we knew that Tartine Bakery's sandwiches would have a good lead off of the starting block. Thankfully, their sandwiches don't disappoint. With nearly a dozen pressed grilled cheese variations on the menu, it can be hard to pick what you want. Let me make a suggestion: The Spicy Turkey ($13.75).
Made with slices of roast turkey as moist as I've tasted, along with plenty of melty provolone cheese and a spread of bitter-hot broccoli rabe pesto, it's only downside—the only thing keeping it from snagging first place—is a slightly greasy crust. In some sections, the bread was completely saturated with fat from the generously greased panini press.
The Idiazabel and Membrillo ($12.50) is simpler, but just as tasty.
At $12.50 to $13.75 for a sandwich, they may seem a bit pricey, but that's until you see the size of them. Tartine's bread is big. A single slice might be a foot across. The sandwich you get is so big that it needs to be cut in three, and each piece is enough for a reasonably-sized lunch. I'd suggest coming here with a group of three and ordering two sandwiches to split (because nobody should be forced to eat a reasonably sized lunch), or come alone, eat half, and save the rest for dinner. The bread is great even when cold.
Runner Up #1: Bar Tartine
Tartine Bakery's sister restaurant Bar Tartine serves fantastic meals at night (one of our my most memorable bites in San Francisco was a simple dish of brown bread smeared with butter flavored with koji and topped with cured salmon roe) and pressed sandwiches with a few other small plates during the day.
The Reubano, ($13) made with smoked ham and cheese pressed with charred onions and house-made sauerkraut on sourdough bread, is not particularly reminiscent of either the Reuben or the Cubano it's named after, and not quite as good as either of those would have been. The bread is perfect (as expected), and the grilling job is top notch, but the filling is lacking balance—without the Thousand Island of a good Reuban, or the sharp pickles and mustard in a Cubano, this sandwich comes off as heavy.
Word to the wise: do not believe the waiter when she tells you that their house-made sodas are well-balanced and refreshing. Stick with the iced tea.
Runner Up #2: The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen
While I really dig their vibe and had an enjoyable time eating sandwiches in the bright, open dining room on a cool San Francisco evening, the sandwiches at The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen are unfortunately lacking in one key respect: the cheese doesn't really melt.
In some cases, this is due to poor planning. The chalky chevre on the Jalapeño Popper grilled cheese ($9, above) cripples the sandwich before it even hits the grill, and the minute amount of Monterey Jack added to it can't rescue it. It's like tossing a pair of water wings to the man who already has a cinder block tied around his ankles before pushing him in the river.
In other cases, it's executional in nature—our Mushroom Gruyère ($9) had a few perfect bites where the fontina and gruyere oozed around the potatoes, melted leeks, mushrooms, and caramelized onions, but part of the sandwich was still cold in the middle.
Luckily, you can get any sandwich with a bowl of their great smoky tomato soup for dipping, which adds some much-needed moisture to the 'wiches.