Two L.A. Sandwiches & A Burger at Bay Cities, Café Tropical & Umami

Stand back, mere mortals. You are about to encounter a sandwich that is not meant for the meagre constitutions of wimpy humans. This is food for giants, food for gods. “God” is even in the sandwich’s name: meet The Godmother at Bay Cities in Santa Monica. A sandwich with so much meat on it, if Noah opened a deli on his ark, he’d still have nothing on this. We’re talking Genoa salami, mortadella, coppacola, ham, and prosciutto. That’s like 40 pigs right there.

Two weeks ago, we were in Santa Monica looking at cars. Specifically: Toyota Camrys. They may not be as shiny as Saabs or Volvos, but they’re certainly more reasonably priced. After hours of working out my lease (is there anything more tedious than sitting there going over paperwork at a car dealership?) I was hungry. So I appealed to my Twitter base for suggestions on where to eat. And the consensus was clear: Bay Cities for The Godmother.

That was right down the street. When we got there, we were surprised that at 2 PM the place–which was actually a supermarket with a deli counter–was still teeming with people. This place was popular.

As we waited in line to each order a Godmother (that’s what everyone on Twitter said to get), we realized there was a basket of already-made Godmothers sitting on the counter. So we each grabbed one with the works (me, spicy; Craig, mild):


This sandwich was insane. But also thought-provoking: everything that was making this sandwich taste good was a result of some sort of preservation technique. All of the meats were cured; the peppers were pickled. It had that deep, dynamic flavor that makes a sandwich memorable: this was not bland turkey breast on white bread.

It’s also a sandwich that might induce an instant heart attack. Or, at least, instant heart burn. Which is why this mere mortal might wait a while before eating it again; I’ll leave The Godmother to the gods.

* * * * *

Seven years ago, when I lived in L.A. for a summer, Jonathan Gold’s book led me to Café Tropical in Silverlake:


The place is an institution; and seven years later, it’s still as vibrant as ever.

What I liked so much about it then and what I like so much about it now is that it’s a community center. While waiting in line to order my sandwich, the people in front of me were bantering with the woman behind the counter. Men from the neighborhood asked for more ice in their free ice water. A woman, in a far off booth, was having a very animated conversation with her laptop (I’m pretty sure she was on a webcam). It’s the sort of place a writing school student might go to practice describing a scene (and I’m pretty sure he or she would do a better job than I’m doing in this paragraph).

Suffice it to say, you go to Café Tropical first and foremost for the atmosphere:


But you should also go for the Cuban Sandwich which, though not perfect, is satisfying and cheap:


I think I may have had my first Cuban sandwich ever at Café Tropical. Since then, I’ve had more memorable ones–specifically, ones that have a hit of spicy mustard (which this one lacks). But you can’t beat a combination of braised pork, pickles, and sliced ham on crusty bread. It’s a tidy sandwich, one you can eat relatively neatly while watching the crowd.

And watching the crowd is really a treat. And who knows, if I become enough of a regular, maybe some day a future food blogger will be watching me.

* * * * *

Umami Burger is the sort of place that inspires debate:


I’m very flattered that political pundit Ezra Klein follows me on Twitter. And when I wrote that I was going to Umami Burger, he Tweeted to me: “I was sort of meh on Umami burger when I tried it. Be interested what you think.”

Here’s what I think. Burgers are like cupcakes (there’s even a place in New York called Burgers & Cupcakes, but that’s getting off the subject) in that some people like to pick them apart and scrutinize them, while others just like to eat them. I fall into the latter camp. I don’t care if a cupcake comes from Magnolia or Sugar Sweet Sunshine bakery; I don’t care if a burger comes from Shake Shack or Five Guys (though I prefer Shake Shake in that example). The point is: unless a burger is really bad, I’ll probably like it.

And so Umami Burger’s signature burger–The Umami Burger–is really something that I enjoyed:


The idea is that the Umami burger captures that fifth taste–umami–that earthy flavor you find in mushrooms and Parmesan cheese. Here it’s represented with a shiitake mushroom, caramelized onions, roasted tomato, a Parmesan crisp and umami ketchup.

The burger itself–despite the picture above which magnifies it–is rather dainty. It comes on an empty plate so you have to order sides (more on that in a second). But the meat is moist and flavorful, with a crisp exterior, and toppings work well with it.

I think I may have preferred the Hatch Burger which comes loaded with four types of green chiles and a “house” cheese:


Those chiles gave the burger a great kick and, actually, I’ve never had anything like that in New York.

The sides were pretty pleasurable. I love sweet potato fries and I had me some. Craig ordered these tater tots which were filled with cheese:


Yes: tater tots filled with cheese, you heard that correctly.

All-in-all, I’d gladly go back to Umami Burger. It’s a totally good, respectable addition to the rich burger landscape that now exists in America. If there’s one thing Americans aren’t lacking it’s access to burgers.

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