What Is California's Sandwich? The Fast Food Burger Takes On the Veggie Sandwich

Posted by Amanda Hess

No Chart Burgers

What is the ultimate California sandwich? When we posed the question to the Cali natives in GOOD's offices, we nearly tore the staff apart. California is a sprawling state with impressive geographical and cultural diversity. It also boasts a mean North-South rivalry, which lies at the center of this debate.

I expected the sandwich question to spark a heated discussion between crunchy NoCal and chill SoCal. But the face-off has developed a bizarre wrinkle: GOOD community manager Hillary Newman, who hails from Los Angeles, favors the veggie sandwich so closely aligned with the hippies of the northern half of the state. Meanwhile, managing editor Megan Greenwell, who spent her high school years in Berkeley, advocates for the southern California staple, the fast food hamburger. Newman even name-checks Berkeley in her defense of the veggie sammy. “Between the acres upon acres of farmland, growing bounties of fresh produce (avocado, anyone?) and the inception of the local food movement inspired by chef Alice Waters in Berkeley, California, it's clear that the veggie sandwich belongs here," Newman says. Greenwell swats down that hippie nonsense: “long before the Golden State became the epicenter of veganism, raw foodism, fruitarianism, and dozens of other invented hippie diets, it was home to fast-food hamburgers," she says.

Since filing their competing nominations for California's official state sandwich, shit has gotten real between Newman and Greenwell. Essays have been penned; no-charts have been designed; at one point deep in the debate, Greenwell and Newman both rose from their chairs and gesticulated at one another. Things are starting to get pretty scary inside the GOOD offices come lunchtime. It's time to resolve this rift once and for all. Office taste test!

 In one corner we have Newman's pick, Urth Caffe's organic sprout sandwich with alfalfa sprouts, Jarlsberg swiss cheese, red onion, Roma tomatoes, avocado, and hummus on sprouted bread. In the other: Greenwell's In-N-Out cheeseburger with beef patty, lettuce, tomato, spread, American cheese and grilled onions on a baked bun. After a recent lunch hour sampling, an impartial jury of GOOD employees weighed in on the sandwich week faceoff:

"I usually differentiate a burger from a sandwich." "I didn't realize it until afterwards, but I usually differentiate a burger from a sandwich," GOOD designer Jessica De Jesus weighs in. "Subconsciously, while I was enjoying the In-N-Out burger, the avocado sprout sandwich still won my vote without having to taste it." She adds: When I finally did eat the wheat bread, avocado, sprout sandwich with a side of greens, it was cold and super fresh ... The local and organic factor seems so California, and that's what drove it home for me."

"I'd rather dream than bite hype." "If for you California represents intense displeasure followed by mild enjoyment, then sure, the avocado-sprout-wheat-hummus sandwich is the winner," GOOD senior editorial designer Dylan C. Lathrop says. "But if California is a place where immediate satisfaction is key, and you want to get comfortable with new people, then the humble fast food burger is the clear winner. I tend to find myself siding with the burger, if for no other reason than I feel it's the meeting point of high standards and low brows ... If you go to Urth Cafe, you aren't going to mingle with skater kids and club goers pre-gaming in the parking lot. You're more likely to meet extras from Entourage (RIP) there, mingling about with their primed Ray-Bans and munching their crunchy sprout sammies." Eating In-N-Out "is like living the dream," Lathrop continues. "One bite, and everything becomes possible. One bite of a $13 sandwich relying heavily on sprouts and hummus makes you believe hype is possible, because that's all that lies between those two pieces of artisan wheat bread. I'd rather dream than bite hype. But I'm from Wyoming, what do I know?"

"No contest for the burger." "In-N-Out tasted fantastic. No shocker there," GOOD's Wylie Overstreet says. "It is, however, a quintessentially southern Californian institution—there are even palm trees on the bag—and remains associated as such even as the brand expands. The veggie sprout had surprisingly good taste for what it was, but was unsurprisingly no contest for the burger. However, this sandwich embodies the essence of California cuisine—reimagining a traditional food with that veggie, organic, local, freshly-prepared twist. So, very reluctantly, I vote for this sandwich."

No Chart Veggies

"California is about self-renewal and self-improvement." "Partisans for the fast food burger cry out that it is truly the iconic California sandwich, establishing itself as mainstay from the jukebox joints in the era of American Graffiti to today's California culture standard-bearer, Best Coast. The fast food burger speaks to the superficiality, the hedonism, the live-for-the-moment spirit that defines the state in the popular imagination," GOOD business editor and American Sandwich Expert Tim Fernholz posits. "And yet when that short-term pleasure wears off and the food coma sets in, California is also all about self-renewal and self-improvement, finding some way to erase what came before (grease and cholesterol) and build something better." For Fernholz, "It comes down to this distinction: Fast food burgers have spread around the country and the globe. You can get a greasy burger anywhere and revel in commodified American deliciousness. What sets California apart is the idea that at your next meal you can totally change your approach to eating and find some measure of redemption in organic veggies and lifestyle choices."

"It costs $13." My two cents: If a sandwich is to truly represent the state of California, it should be accessible to all of us. The sprout sandwich, while delicious, costs $13. That's about 10 times the cost of an In-N-Out burger, also delicious. I realize I'm selling out the vegetarian contingent with thi

s calculation, but the numbers don't lie: One sprout sandwich could conceivably feed 10 Californians once, or me 10 times. The fast food burger is the only responsible choice.

"I instantly envisioned avocados." "In-N-Out burgers always scream SoCal to me because, as a Californian, it's my favorite burger. But when I think of something uniquely Californian I think of freshness," GOOD designer Kate Slovin says. "I instantly envisioned avocados and tomatoes, maybe some sprouts, maybe in a pita. When presented with all of the above with onions, swiss cheese and on a wheat bun, it's needless to say I wasn't surprised. It was tasty with the creamy avocados mixed with the freshness of sprouts. Fresh, cool and healthy, the exact opposite of In-N-Out. Don't get me wrong, I love In-N-Out, but the sandwich from Urth Cafe takes the (vegan, gluten-free) cake."

Sorry, Greenwell: The veggie sandwich wins in a landslide.

Disclaimer: These highly scientific results have been skewed by the sandwich preferences of the GOOD offices (many staff members were disqualified entirely on the basis of their vegetarianism, preventing them from sampling both sammies). What's your personal pick for California's ultimate sammy? Start your own sandwich wars in the comments.