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The Best Sandwich You’re Likely to Have
by Nirmala Nataraj on Mar 27, 2009
Most of the best sandwiches I’ve had in my short life have come from unseemly holes-in-the-wall—you know, the kind you might think twice about due to dodgy health code reputations, surly counter people, or lack of clear signage and visible, glowing reviews from newspaper “Best Ofs.” The Sentinel, however, is pedigreed and neat as a pin—and its excellent, $8-$9 sandwiches are garnering top marks all around.
Cheap Eats with a Foodie Pedigree
I immediately sprung at the chance to visit The Sentinel, opened in June 2008 by Chef Dennis Leary of Canteen. Located in an old cigar shop storefront next to The House of Shields, the place is a barebones breakfast/lunch spot favored by hungry FiDi folk in search of a reprieve from fast food or chain monotony. It’s only open from 7:30 to 2:30 pm on weekdays, perfect fare for the droves of downtown habitués that frequent the place.
Foodies mad about Canteen’s rich local flavors will love the Sentinel, but it’s also the kind of restaurant that not-so-discriminating lovers of good eats will gravitate toward. The utter lack of atmosphere acts almost as an equalizer, serving to bring together connoisseurs of taste and time-crunched customers who simply want to fill their gullets. (It’s pretty much just a teeny storefront, sans any impressive signage, boasting a narrow, one-counter space, standing room only.)
Keep It Simple
And don’t worry about having to select from lists of breads, meats, and other sandwich essentials—the Sentinel staff have done all the hard work for you. The menu is short, including five choice sandwiches as well as at least two rotating daily specials, such as a recent to-go box of lovely roasted yellowtail with fennel and avocado, with a side of overly horseradished golden beets and a dessert treat of crisp, cinnamon puff pastry ($11.50).
Customers can come for hot pastries in the morning, but lunch is where it’s at. Like Canteen, the Sentinel specializes in simple yet palatable dishes including local, seasonal ingredients and a penchant for comfort flavors.
Personally, I’m not a fan of slapdash sandwiches too thin and paltry to achieve any sort of gastronomic satisfaction, but I’m not a fan of overflowing messes, either. Thankfully, Sentinel sandwiches—which normally call for a doggie bag—fall somewhere in between. They’ll give you the most for your buck (usually around $8, which isn’t too bad but not exactly a lunchtime bargain, either) without necessitating a bib or wads of napkins.
Stars of the (Sandwich) Show
After getting a recommendation for the Sentinel’s famous corned-beef sandwich (“the most amazing thing I put in my mouth this last year,” according to a friend), I knew I couldn’t pass on their most vaunted gold-star comestible. The sandwich, made with flatbread, gruyere cheese, cabbage, and Russian dressing, is perfect for patrons feeling the bite of winter in their spirits.
The slices of corned beef are more like slabs, so bring your appetite. The combination of the meat and gruyere can be a bit overpowering for people with lighter eating habits, admittedly. That’s why I ultimately begged off the sandwich and switched to the only veggie offering: the Swiss chard, mushroom, and curried raisin sandwich, with dried tomato mayo and goat cheese.
At first, I thought the sheer range of ingredients might be a bit too much for my palate to handle, but the combination was delectable—alternately spicy and sweet, with just the right balance of light and rich flavors. (It made me wish there were more vegetarian items on the menu, actually, considering the assortment of uninspired veggie options you’re likely to find at any other ol’ sandwich place.)
Fresh Roasted Fish: A Special Lunch Indeed
I also heard great things from fellow line-waiters about the fresh salmon sandwich, with fennel and dill, on a soft roll; but a bite of another $11.50 daily special—a salad with rockfish and potatoes, leeks, and herb mayonnaise—cut a finer figure on the plate and was too fresh to resist.
Because there’s no seating (except perhaps at the nearby Crocker Galleria), wrapping up your sandwich to go and eating at your desk might be necessary if it’s not nice enough to sit outside in Yerba Buena gardens or on the sunny roof of Wells Fargo Bank.
Admittedly, lunch at the Sentinel isn’t always a possibility, especially for brown-baggers trying to cut back on extraneous expenditures, but if you’re in the area and need a break from cheap chain food, pay the spot a visit. The prices aren't much different from those at nearby Specialty's (a chain, albeit a good one). In the spirit of inspired choices for your palate—paired with a no-nonsense, hearty approach to darn good food—it might be the best sandwich you’re likely to have.
by Nirmala Nataraj on Mar 27, 2009