On a typical Friday or Saturday night, the line for Fat Sal’s in Westwood, just blocks from UCLA’s campus, will be at least 30 intoxicated college-aged toddlers deep. Tonight is no different. Trapped-out remixes of Top 40 hits blare over fry cooks calling out orders and Chad calling out how dope his SnapStory is. A faux-graffitied image of Guy Fieri’s face lurks on the shack’s right-most wall next to TVs playing highlights from the Bruins’ football game that took place just hours earlier. Strangers high-five after reliving a particularly vicious sack from linebacker Kenny Young. Someone in the back of the line yells, “Fuck him up!” which seems more of a mantra than an outburst.
New York buddies Josh Stone, Sal Capek, and Jerry Ferrara—who played Turtle on Entourage—opened the inaugural Westwood spot in 2010 and it has since turned into a mini empire. You can now get cheesesteak fries and pastrami Reuben egg rolls and an 11-lb monster of a sandwich called The Big Fat Fatty at Fat Sal’s in Hollywood, San Diego, and Austin, with an Encino location on the way. Their food may be as unsubtle as Guy Fieri’s panchromatic collection of Oakley shades, but that doesn’t mean it’s without sincerity, nuance, and culinary merit.
Consider the BLT Ranch Fries. Topped with chopped bacon, melted mozzarella cheese, lettuce, tomato, and ranch dressing. If you look to the culinary canon, you can likely trace its roots to salade Olivier, invented more than 150 years ago in Moscow by Belgian chef Lucien Olivier. It is said the original dish contained boiled potatoes, olives, capers, and various meats like veal tongue and lobster tossed in a rich, mayonnaise-based dressing.
The first official recipe for salade Olivier, which was published by Russian magazine Our Food in 1894, originally contained grouse, crayfish, and caviar, all obviously absent from the version at Fat Sal’s. But, like art, food is neither stagnant nor monolithic. Food is context-dependent, both temporally and culturally.
Recipes for salade Olivier began to democratize after the Russian revolution. The indulgence of lobster and caviar was replaced with the austerity of ham and low-quality emulsified sausage. Like when Cinderella’s carriage returned to pumpkin-hood, olives became pickles and capers became peas.
Fat Sal’s adapted salade Olivier to the American palate and did so with an incredibly deft touch. Rather than being boiled, the potatoes are lightly fried. Instead of lobster and caviar, salt and heft come by way of crisp, smoky bacon. Through the lens of Fat Sal’s, salade Olivier’s original Provencal dressing, spiked with a dash of kabul sauce—an easterly answer to Worcestershire—becomes memetic Ranch dressing, similar in flavor but infinitely more recognizable.
Finely shredded iceberg and diced tomatoes add surprising if necessary lightness, a reprieve from the onslaught of cheese and pork and oil and shame. After giving it a good toss, the dressing soaks into the crisp exterior of the potatoes and the lettuce wilts just enough to let you know it’s an integral part of the dish and not a ploy for superfluous greenery. Perhaps above all else, the BLT Ranch Fries are cohesive. They are culinarily sound.
But Fat Sal’s official slogan does not read: “We’re makin’ derivations of a salad steeped in russo-aristocratic history over here!” “We’re makin’ sandwiches over here,” presumably Sal proclaims, and sandwiches are indeed what they do best. Michael Jordan wins championships; Donald Trump sells snake oil; Fat Sal makes sandwiches.
You can get solid renditions of deli classics like the Terrific Triple-Decker Turkey Club or the Irresistible Italiano, but why would you? You’re here for the eponymous Fat Sandwiches, overflowing with chopped steak, French fries, mozzarella sticks, gravy, chicken fingers, ranch dressing, eggs, bacon, or anything and everything from the list of 51 toppings and condiments.
The most ambitious of the Fat Sandwiches, and perhaps the most delicious, is the Fat Banh Mi-Ki. Spicy soy marinated beef, slaw, Vietnamese pickled vegetables, onion rings, tomato, fresh jalapeño, teriyaki glaze, sriracha, cilantro, and mayo are all packed into an extra wide hero roll. Fat Sal’s invites you to customize any sandwich and it’s an invitation you should accept. Remove the tomato, which only distracts from the sweetness, crunch, and twang of the do chua (pickled carrot and daikon) and replace it with avocado or a fried egg.
The interplay of fat, heat, acid, herbs, and starch is symphonic. Pickle juice is absorbed by the breadcrumb coating of onion rings leaving the bread dry and structurally intact. The rubbery snap of a perfect over-medium egg gives way to the crunch of slaw, and sweet beefiness is cut by the freshness of jalapeño and cilantro.
On a recent visit, a friend remarked,”This seems fresher and more balanced than their other sandwiches.” This sentence is to prove that I have friends.
All around L.A. non-Southeast-Asian chefs have been trying to quote-unquote elevate Southeast Asian dishes by using buzzwords and supposed premium ingredients and the unsubtle implication that they’ve improved on a tradition formed by others over generations and you should throw fistfuls of dollar bills at them because of it. But Fat Sal’s isn’t elevating the banh mi; if anything, they’re depressing it, or at least taking it on a lateral trip through the comically absurd lens of limitless drunk food. And through that, Fat Sal’s gets more things right about banh mi than it does wrong.
Some supposedly elevated versions will replace the light and crispy Vietnamese-style baguette, which often uses flour treated with dough conditioners and enhancers, with an artisanal, crusty French version that—though probably a damn fine loaf of bread examined out of context—sucks the soul from the sandwich. Fat Sal’s hoagie roll, bleach white on the inside with an almost nonexistent crust, does a more accurate impersonation than anything hand-formed and long-fermented ever could.
There’s a similar ethos at play with the Fat Jaime, an exponentialized play on the torta cubana, where traditional milanesa is replaced with prefab-but-still-pretty-solid chicken strips. The sandwich is finished with grilled ham, mozzarella, jalapenos, pico de gallo, lime juice, Tapatio, avocado, lettuce, and an Andre the Giant-sized handful of French fries.
It’s attention to detail like the freshly squeezed lime juice—a vibrant undercurrent illuminating every single bite—that reassures you they’re not creating shock food for shock food’s sake. You can taste the process, the intent, the tough exterior crumbling as Fat Sal whispers, “I care about your happiness.” And he means it.