Ever since I moved to Los Angeles, every conversation about sandwiches has always taken a turn towards Bay Cities. The gourmet market has been serving Santa Monica since 1925, and its sandwiches, with an extensive array of Italian meats and cheeses, may very well be the closest thing to a bustling New York deli you'll find in LA. After much procrastination, we finally made it into Bay Cities on a recent weekend to grab some pre-hike sandwiches.
Yet, we discovered, there are two different ways to approach Bay Cities with dramatically differing outcomes. The experience of ordering online can be a pleasant one, whereas a spontaneous visit can prove a stressful free-for-all, and it wouldn't be fair to consider the deli without taking both experiences into account.
Let's file our first Bay Cities experience into the lesson learned category - a harrowing, nightmarish adventure filled with folly. Consider this a cautionary tale. Our first mistake was going around lunchtime on a Saturday morning. Cars were lined up in the street, backing up traffic, just to wait for a spot in the parking lot. But the experience wasn't all about our mistakes. Before we even made it through the front doors a security guard welcomed us by screaming about not taking pictures inside.
We acquiesced to the apparent no-pictures-inside policy, but soon discovered it wouldn't have mattered anyway. Inside, we were pulled into an elbow-to-elbow maelstrom of disorganized chaos. Along the right side of the store, the long deli counter and the crowd surrounding resembled a war zone. People fought their way to grab pre-made sandwiches like Bay Cities' signature Godmother sandwich. Everyone else grabbed a ticket and fought to hold their position near the counter. I've seen tamer crowds in the pits of a Rage Against the Machine concert.
When our number was eventually called, Angela took care of the ordering while I ventured away to scavenge for some side dishes in the market section of Bay Cities, which was not much better than the deli counter. Narrow, packed aisles meant people stepping on your toes, hands reaching over top of you with blatant disregard for humanity. It was like The Road Warrior and obtaining a plastic tub of potato salad was a kill-or-be-killed conquest.
Meanwhile Angela was having troubles of her own. A moment's pause while ordering sandwiches? Well that gets you yelled at, too. Twenty minutes later, sandwiches in hand we stepped into another long line to pay. With all the pre-made Godmother sandwiches, we could've saved ourselves a lot of trouble, Angela noted, if only she hadn't wanted her Godmother without onions. Nevertheless, we paid for our sandwiches and left, attempting to wash our hands of the last forty-five harrowing minutes whilst also trying to return our blood pressures to normal levels.
We waited until we were settled at a picnic table in Temescal Gateway Park before unwrapping our hard-won prizes. I had opted for a simple sandwich with proscuitto and hefty chunks of fresh mozzarella (above). The bread, although not as fresh as I would have liked, was excellent - crusty, chewy and flavorful.
Angela, still shaken from the whole process, managed to enjoy her Godmother (above) for a full 30 seconds before realizing that, despite her specific request, her sandwich contained onions. All of that waiting and shot-nerves was for nothing. She chould've just walked in and grabbed a pre-made sandwich after all. Once she had the chance to rant, cool down and pick the onions off, she begrudingly conceded that the both the bread and ingredients (Genoa salami, mortadella, cappicala, ham, proscuitto, and provolone) were top notch.
The sides I managed to grab, cole slaw and potato salad (above), didn't really register one way or another. But these little Peruvian cookies we nabbed (below) gave us a nice sweet ending to our picnic meal.
Where Bay Cities is truly king is their extensive selection of fresh ingredients. But, if you're willing to accept more limited ingredient offerings, we'd recommend All About the Bread, where the bread is always fresh out of the oven and the counter-staff actually remembers your name instead of yelling at you. Of course Michael Voltaggio's ink.sack and Westwood's Fundamental are leading the wave of a new gourmet sandwich shops in town providing reasonable alternatives.
But it would be purely sour grapes for us to suggest that Bay Cities isn't responsible for some of the best sandwiches in LA. Order ahead and you'll likely agree. When you order online you'll find your sandwiches waiting for you on a rack in a much tamer side of the market. But if you stumble upon Bay Cities during peak hours without planning ahead, I suggest following the immortal advice of The Road Warrior's villianous Lord Humungous, "Just walk away."