Where there’s smoke, there’s some great sandwiches.
“I hope you like the turkey,” Mendocino Farms co-founder and CEO Mario del Pero says. “It only cost $200,000.”
Del Pero laughs. It’s a February afternoon in Marina del Rey, and there’s a lunchtime line out the door at his sandwich shop. The fast-casual mogul is telling me about the recent investment he made to create a smokehouse in El Segundo, where executive chef of research and development Hunter Pritchett has been experimenting with all kinds of low-and-slow preparations.
I visit that smokehouse a couple months later, on the day that happens to be 4/20 (wocka wocka), and del Pero amends his statement to say that developing the meat on his smoked turkey tinga torta actually cost more than $200,000. But he’s in a good mood about it.
The turkey sandwich has done well. Plus, now that his smokehouse is regularly making new meats for his sandwiches, he can cost-average his considerable expenses.
Brooklyn pitmaster Billy Durney of Red Hook’s Hometown barbecue joint spent a few weeks helping del Pero set up the smokehouse and created an eight-hour pulled pork that Mendocino Farms has served on a sandwich with housemade pickles. Pritchett is working on short ribs that sit overnight in a salt-and-pepper rub and brown sugar before they’re smoked.
And I visit the smokehouse again in mid-July to try Mendocino Farms’ forthcoming smoked chicken and street corn torta, which will debut on August 17 and be on menus until November.
It’s a glorious sandwich, with Petaluma Farms’ single-ranch chicken that’s been brined overnight and smoked for about three hours with California red oak supplied by South Bay Firewood in Hawthorne. The meat reminds me of the barbecue I grew up eating in Texas. There’s real smoke here.
There’s also a lovely balance of sweetness, heat, and acid from the sweet corn spread. Brentwood corn from Santa Cruz is grilled, and then Pritchett adds cotija cheese, lime, chipotle, and a little red onion and cilantro. There’s also a simple rajas with poblano and yellow onion. The sandwich is then topped with pickled watermelon radishes, candied Fresno chiles, and shaved romaine. This is for a sandwich chain, but this is no doubt chef-driven food. Pritchett, who was the highly regarded executive chef at Denver’s Luca d’Italia, worked at Son of a Gun and Waterloo & City before joining Mendocino Farms.
“This is basically your smoked chicken you get from your roadside smokehouse,” says del Pero, who despises the grocery-store, deli-case chicken that’s processed with liquid smoke and looks unnaturally pink. “I’ve always been a fan of roadhouse barbecue joints. But it’s the idea that we could be a place that can expose people to real artisan, hardwood-smoked meats without being stuck to the confines of a barbecue joint that excites me. You have a chicken that’s ready to go to into a torta that doesn’t have any barbecue reference at all except that this is real smoked meat.”
Del Pero has eaten all over the country to do research for Mendocino Farms. The pastrami at Brooklyn’s Mile End was an a-ha moment that made him realize smoking meats is a truly transformative process.
“I’ve enjoyed pastrami, but I’ve never had it this good,” del Pero says.
Del Pero’s also hit countless old-school barbecue spots. And as his tortas illustrate, “we actually get a lot of inspiration from cutting-edge taquerias.” (Mendocino Farms’ smoked turkey sandwich, which was on the menu for a few months, featured a sweet onion/chipotle ragout with diced avocado, chili aioli, Oaxacan and Cotija cheeses, pickled red onions, shredded romaine lettuce, and chopped cilantro.) He recently returned from eating his way through Chicago and San Francisco, visiting restaurants and sampling meat. Pritchett remembers a cold November day, “36 degrees and windy,” when he waited in line outside Austin’s legendary Franklin Barbecue for three hours while del Pero, who admits that he “was in a warm car,” hit three other restaurants.
“I’m still shivering,” Pritchett says.
Mendocino Farms, whose Peruvian steak torta has been a bestseller, has long known that great meat is good business. So del Pero just went to San Diego to talk to the crew behind Salt & Cleaver about creating some sausages that Mendocino Farms plans to finish in its smokehouse.
As for Pritchett’s in-development short ribs, which I also taste, the crust is excellent. Now the chef and del Pero are working out how they’ll get the meat to keep the right amount of fat.
“We’ve just got to get it moister,” del Pero says. “The smoke can blow it out. Low and slow is good to a point. We think we can nail this by the winter. This is what we do, this is my job.”
Mendocino Farms plans to open its eleventh sandwich shop in El Segundo in early September and its twelfth location in Santa Monica in late November.