Caitlin Bensel

It became a big hit at a well-known restaurant in Los Angeles. And now you can make it at home. 

Andrea Nguyen
October 03, 2018

Some people just can’t stop baking pies; I’m crazy about sandwiches. My obsession started in the late 1970s. My family had recently fled war-torn Vietnam and didn’t have much money, so I qualified for the free school lunch program. However, after trying the cafeteria’s pizza and burgers, I began preparing my own lunches. Sandwiches were easy and thrillingly doable for an elementary schooler. Back then, the sandwich that I knew best was the Vietnamese banh mi. We had simple ones for breakfast made from baguette, butter, homemade pâté, cucumber, salt, and pepper. I’d make an extra one with sliced white bread for school; I didn’t want to appear too different from my classmates. 

It was fun to construct sandwiches, to cut them to reveal their handsome cross sections. The creative bready adventures were departures from making wontons under my mom’s watchful eye, and besides, I got to practice my knife skills. My after school activities sometimes involved tinkering with tiny sandwich snacks made with luncheon meats, saltine crackers, and margarine. 

I made mistakes and learned over time. Piling ingredients in the center made a mountain-shaped sandwich that was hard to eat. A too-thick slice of tomato tucked in the middle may slip and slide or even go airborne, causing the sandwich to collapse in your hands. Building a delicious sandwich is a balancing act; the elements should be thoughtfully layered and proportioned so that the flavors pop and the sandwich holds together, bite after bite. 

My lessons continued in the early 1990s, when I started dabbling in professional cooking and got a job as a pantry cook at City, a landmark Los Angeles restaurant. Owners Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger had an amazing knack for crafting sandwiches packed with vibrant colors, textures, and flavors. My favorite was the vegetarian club, a tour de force prepared with walnut bread grilled to a light smokiness over an open flame. Layered between the bread was a spread of rich hummus, meaty grilled eggplant, plush roasted red pepper, spicy arugula, salty olive puree, creamy avocado, and refreshing tomato and cucumber, plus a kickin’ mustard-horseradish mayo. There was just enough of each item to create a symphonic sandwich experience and hold things together. It blew other restaurants’ conventional turkey and bacon club combinations out of the water.

I loved the sandwich but never wrote down the details to replicate it. Mary Sue and Susan kindly emailed a copy of the stained recipe from the restaurant’s kitchen binder. They also noted tweaks to help me come up with this version.

With all its moving parts, the recipe seemed complex. But once I prepared the components and got everything in place, there was pure synergy, and I saw the path that led me from my early experiments to sandwich magic. Then I happily lunched on vegetarian clubs for days.

Caitlin Bensel

View the recipe: The Ultimate Vegetarian Club Sandwich

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