Monday, July 25, 2011

Porchetta Sandwich Taste Off

Awhile back I started seeing restaurants offering porchetta sandwiches as a lunch option, so I thought it would be a good time to do a taste comparison to see who offered the best porky goodness on a roll.

Porchetta (I only recently learned that it’s pronounced por-KET-ta) is an Italian delicacy, often found sold from food carts on the streets of Italy. It’s made from a whole pig that’s been deboned and then stuffed with offal parts and herbs and then slowly roasted, traditionally over a wood oven. It’s then sliced up and served as is or as a sandwich.

I feel the signs of good porchetta (and granted, I’m not a porchetta expert) are moist, tender meat with a bit of fat and crispy, crackling skin. The flavor also should have a nice saltiness and flavor of herbs.

When I started looking for porchetta sandwiches, I was surprised to find many of them right around my Oakland neighborhood. And places that I would expect to find a porchetta sandwich, such as Il Cane Russo at the San Francisco Ferry Building, actually stopped offering porchetta. So it turned out harder to find this fatty pork sandwich than I thought. (If you know of a place I missed, be sure to let me know in the comments section.)

So here’s the results of my recent tour of porchetta sandwiches in San Francisco and Oakland. I start with the bottom and end with my favorite.

Plum Restaurant’s Porky Food Cart, Oakland

The sandwich: Porchetta with arugula and shaved fennel, pickled radish, and garlic aioli. ($9)

How to get it: Sold outside the Plum restaurant at 2214 Broadway (near Grand) for weekday lunch. Also available: lemonade and cookies

The popular Plum Restaurant, opened by Oakland resident and Chef Daniel Patterson, who also owns San Francisco’s COI restaurant, started selling porchetta sandwiches from a cart outside the restaurant. Since I work in the area, it was easy for me to pick up sandwich and bring it back to my office.

Because it’s pre-made, the sandwich suffers from the fact that it’s served cold (or at least room temperature). The meat looked almost shredded, and looked primarily white with not much fat. I wasn’t a fan of the bun (maybe ciabatta?) because it was chewy and difficult to eat. The sandwich was filled with baby arugula and thinly sliced fennel (which seems to be the classic accompaniment for porchetta sandwiches) and some pickled radish. I didn’t taste much of the garlic aioli until maybe near the end of the sandwich. It’s a fancier sandwich than what I’d typically get at other nearby sandwich shops, but it didn’t make me crave to go back to get one. It was good but not spectacular.

Barbacco Eno Trattoria, San Francisco

The sandwich: Slow-roasted shoulder porchetta with roasted peach rucola and red onion alla piastra, served with arugula and fennel salad and pickled vegetables. ($11)

How to get it: Served for lunch at the San Francisco restaurant at 220 California St. You can order it online so it’s ready for pick up as early as 11:30 a.m.

Barbacco is the wine bar next door to Perbacco, and it has this convenient service where you can order food online for pick up. That worked out for me because I wanted to try its porchetta sandwich but it’s only offered during weekday lunch. Since I work in Oakland, I had to catch BART to pick up the sandwich and bring it back to work within my lunch hour. So having the ability to pre-order online helped a lot because my sandwich was waiting for me when I arrived at 11:30 a.m. to pick it up.

The sandwich is the most expensive one around, and the fanciest, definitely a sign of a restaurant sandwich. Along with the tender shoulder pork, there was the red onion alla piastra, which is basically caramelized onions. The peach rucola offers bits of sweetness to counter the savory pork. It was like an accent to the eating experience. But the peach and onion seemed to be the only thing offering moisture in the sandwich because there wasn’t any type of aioli or spread. The bread was also a bit chewy to eat (starting to think Italian bread is always chewy) and because it sat in the container on the BART ride back, it was a bit wet around the edges, probably from the red onion alla piastra. The huge side salad filled out the lunch, and I’m always a fan of Barbacco’s pickled vegetables, which helps to cut into the richness of the porchetta. I liked the added ingredients to the classic porchetta sandwich, but the high price doesn’t make it much of a value.

Adesso, Oakland

The sandwich: Porchetta served up in a toasted baguette with wilted arugula. ($9)

How to get it: Served at the butcher counter for lunch at Adesso, the wine bar at 4395 Piedmont Ave. (at Pleasant Valley).

I literally can walk down the street to Adesso, and while this is often a place to hang out for happy hour, it also serves up a porchetta sandwich for lunch. Living so close, I can pick up a sandwich and bring it back home and still eat it warm.

While the earlier sandwiches I tried were served cold or room temperature, Adesso’s porchetta sandwich has the advantage of being made-to-order on toasted bread. I love any sandwich that’s grilled or toasted, so that gave the edge to Adesso’s porchetta sandwich even though the porchetta meat, while tender, seemed a bit shredded instead of being thick. There was a bit of oil from the fat, which helped moisten the meat and the arugula. I don’t think there were any additional sauce, so it was mostly just the natural flavors of the porchetta. It was simple but satisfying.

Marin Sun Farms Butcher Shop, Rockridge Market Hall, Oakland

The sandwich: Thinly sliced porchetta served with arugula and fennel and crispy skin bits. ($9.50)

How to get it: Served for lunch, typically on Saturdays in front of the butcher counter in Rockridge’s Market Hall in Oakland.

Marin Sun sets up a table on Saturdays to sell its porchetta sandwiches. I can’t say for sure if it’s sold any other time because I once dropped by on a Sunday and I didn’t see any porchetta sandwiches. The sandwich itself is huge. When I bought mine, I had to take it back home so I could get a knife to cut it in half.

The thin slices of the porchetta makes me feel like I’m eating a roast beef sandwich, and because the sandwiches are pre-made, it also is served cold or room temperature. The bun was the typical chewy Italian bread that I’m not a fan of, and the sandwich tastes a bit dry at times because there doesn’t seem to be any type of spread to moisten it. But what makes this sandwich a winner in my eyes, along with the huge size of it all, are all the crispy skin bits mixed in to give you a surprising crunch now and then when eating. A lot of other porchetta sandwiches shy on giving the crispy skin, but not Marin Sun’s version, which definitely has a lot of it for an amazing crunch.

Roli Roti Gourmet Rotisserie, San Francisco

The sandwich: Thick slices of porchetta with caramelized onions, fresh arugula and relish. ($8.50)

How to get it: Served up from the food stand parked every Saturday for lunch at the farmers market in San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

There’s a reason why there’s always a line forming from the Roli Roti truck at the Ferry Plaza farmers market. The porchetta sandwich is legendary here, and it’s no surprise that it’s my No. 1 pick.

I’ve eaten the sandwich several times before, and it definitely benefits from the fact that it’s made-to-order, so the porchetta is nice and warm. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also tasty, and comes with tender caramelized onions and some kind of relish that adds a nice contrasting flavor to cut into the richness of the porchetta. Again, not a big fan of the Italian bread, but the shape makes it easier to eat than other porchetta sandwiches I ate elsewhere. Along with the bits of salt that you sometimes bite into when eating the pork, you also get some bits of the crispy skin (not as much as Marin Sun’s but still definitely present). The only hassle about Roli Roti’s prochetta sandwich is the sometimes long wait, but I typically go early and my wait sometimes is only 15 minutes. Either way, this sandwich is definitely worth the wait and is the standard I compare all porchetta sandwiches to.


foodhoe said...

wow, I am so impressed that you took on this challenge, especially given the amount of fat involved with each one of those porchetta sandwiches! I absolutely love the roliroti, yay number one! but now I really have to try the MSF version, especially cuz of the crispy bits you mentioned.

Melissa said...

I missed your poll about the Zuni cookbook, but I wanted to let you know that the Asparagus & Rice soup is really really delicious. I make it often. You should try it!

Anonymous said...

Avedanos, the butcher on Cortland Ave in Bernal Heights SF serves a great Porchetta di Testa sandwich.

Anonymous said...

You really should try the one at The Fatted Calf (Napa/Hayes Valley), it's not available everyday which is probably a good thing for my weight, but when it is it's awesome.

Hungry Dog said...

Great round-up! I love porchetta sandwiches...think I've had it at Starbelly and maybe at Serpentine? All your choices look good...I would definitely lean toward the ones that are served warm over cold/room temperature. Lunch time!

Carolyn Jung said...

Roli Roti rules! I haven't tried the porchetta at the other places yet, but I love anything that Chef Thomas makes on his truck.

Claudine said...

<3 <3 <3 this roundup! I also have a special place in my heart for Roli Roti - I love how the porchetta-slingers mop up the juices with the bread as they're making your sandwich! Glad to also know about Plum's version...