Of the many flaws in the philosophy of Ayn Rand, one of the simplest but most damning is this: Rand argues that no human should be forced to work for the will of others. In Rand's perfect society, every human would find the one thing they love, and do that thing with passion and without compromise. Here's where the counterargument comes in: Rand's books are full of passionate captains of industry and architects and engineers, but no human being ever born on this planet truly wants to be an uncompromising, passionate janitor above all else, or a mailman, or a line cook. In real life, you often have to buckle down and do your work because it's a matter of survival and because the job needs to be done.
Tucked away in the middle of Atlas Shrugged, Rand mounts a tiny defense against this argument when her protagonist, Dagny Taggart, eats at an out-of-the-way diner. "Dagny sat at the end of the counter," Rand writes, "eating a hamburger sandwich. It was the best-cooked food she had ever tasted, the product of simple ingredients and of an unusual skill." She looks at the chef, who wears "a cook's white jacket as if it were a full-dress suit. There was an expert competence in his manner of working; his movements were easy, intelligently economical." When he tells Dagny he's thinking of leaving the fry cook business, she scolds him: "You're too good at your job to change it. You shouldn't want to be anything but a cook."
Obviously, Ayn Rand was a terrible food writer; like much of her writing, her description of the "hamburger sandwich" reads like a matter-of-fact account of a pap smear that went surprisingly well. But here's the point I've been working toward with all this: I just ate the Santa Maria tri-tip sandwich ($10) at Martino's Smoked Meats & Neighborhood Eatery in Phinney Ridge, and I think it's the kind of Ideal Sandwich that Dagny was enthusing about in Atlas Shrugged.
First up, we've got the "simple ingredients," consisting of juicy chunks of smoked tri-tip steak doused in chimichurri and mixed with a tomato-and-onion salsa, then crammed inside a crispy, chewy Macrina roll. And then we've got the "unusual skill," which pervades every step of the creation of this sandwich: The steak is smoky without being overwhelming, and it's so tender and juicy that you could probably tear it apart with your fingers if you wanted to. I'm not usually the kind of man who wants to praise one part of a sandwich above all others—they're constructed to be enjoyed as a unit, after all—but biting into this steak almost brought tears to my eyes. If you're one of those no-carb freaks, the same incredible steak (it's grass-fed beef) comes on top of a crisp salad loaded with blue cheese, shallots, and smoked tomato ($11). The salad is delicious, too, but the chimichurri and the salsa really do bring something out in the steak, adding a robust herb-and-vegetable freshness that complements the earthy smoke-and-beef flavor. Whoever devised this steak sandwich really shouldn't want to be anything but a meat-maker.
Martino's itself adheres to the same ethos as that steak sandwich: It's perfectly designed to be simple. It's a small space with big windows. There are a few wooden counters and a pair of tables, and the walls and floors are plain white tile, so clean you could see yourself in it. All the meats are smoked on-site with red oak, hickory, or cherry wood, but the restaurant doesn't smell of smoke at all. The sandwiches are served on Macrina bread. There are only a few decorations, including a large photo mural of some anonymous butcher standing proudly over his case, a pair of framed butcher knives, a meat grinder with an old-fashioned incandescent lightbulb poking out of the top, and a menu painted grandly across the whole of one wall. It's a simple menu—five sandwiches, two salads, a daily special, and four sides—that was clearly built around the Randian concept that it's better to master a few simple items than to do a mediocre job with a binder full of entrees.
Chris Martino's resume would make Ayn Rand proud. "My background is cooking. I've cooked pretty much my whole life," he says over the phone. With his longtime business partner Chris Gerke, he opened the Nickerson Street Saloon, and after the pair started experimenting with a smoker there, they paired with Chris Navarra—the owner of Prost! and a co-owner of Phinney pizza restaurant the Ridge with Martino and Gerke—to open a small temple to the art of smoking. (The previous occupant of the Martino's space would make Ayn Rand screech with disgust and claw at her own face—it was an "all-vegan shoe and chocolate boutique," of all the second-hander, compromise-filled concepts.)
The idea, Martino explains, was not to just open another "barbecue joint," but to create a menu that treats smoke as one ingredient out of many, rather than the dominant flavor. The steak on the Santa Maria tri-tip, he says, is smoked for just an hour or two with red oak before it's removed and seared. Only when someone orders a sandwich is the steak roasted the rest of the way and served. Smoke is a step in a journey, not a destination in itself.
Martino's other sandwiches can't match up with the glory of the Santa Maria tri-tip, but they're excellent in their own ways. The Bar-B-Cuban ($9) is probably the next best item, featuring thin medallions of Carlton Farms pork loin topped with balsamic onion jam, Gruyère, and a mustard barbecue sauce. It's not the sloppy mess you're picturing; this is a conceptually elaborate but tidy riff on the classic ham-and-cheese sandwich. Like most good sandwich joints, the menu here consists of odes to the classic love affair between meat and cheese on bread. The Smoke Club ($9) features the works: thick chicken breast topped with Havarti, lettuce, tomato, aioli, and slices of house-made ham and strips of crispy bacon. The Big Italian ($9), with its pork butt, grilled onions and peppers, aioli, and smoked mozzarella, is maybe the least satisfying of the lot, if only because it doesn't taste very Italian; some garlic or tomato or parsley might help. (There's a Caprese sandwich for the non-carnivores who accidentally wander into Martino's, but I didn't try it. This is a temple to meat; would you walk into a Christian Science Reading Room and ask for a copy of God Is Not Great? Martino admits that it's the lowest seller of the five. "We have a pig in our logo," he says, so "you know what it's about.")
Like the tri-tip sandwich, the best side on the menu, the Central Coast black beans ($5 large, $3 small), has a Mexican tinge: The roasted poblano peppers balance out the bacon-festooned beans, and the smoky homemade barbecue sauce brings a common ground to both flavors. But like the Big Italian, Martino's chili ($5 large, $3 small) doesn't quite live up to its name. It's a satisfying bowl of bean soup, and it's thick with smoked chicken and pork, but it doesn't come close to some of the better bowls of chili in town, because it doesn't quite fit in the genre of chili. There's not enough spicy heat, not enough of an edge, to warrant the name.
But I can't rave enough about that steak sandwich, which I'm already craving again. Really, all the smoked meats at Martino's are a cause for celebration. The Chrises toyed with the idea of including a deli case—there was even a chocolate display case left over from the old vegan shoe shop—but with less than 700 square feet, they had to focus on service. But Martino's is happy to help where they can: "If you wanted to buy some tri-tip for a dinner party," Martino explains, "if you gave us a call, we could certainly accommodate you."
But the sandwiches are the star. After eating a Martino's creation, a faint tinge of wood smoke lingers on you for the rest of the day, on your breath, at the tips of your fingers, making you feel warm and safe. It's not oppressive the way a night spent around a bonfire can be. Instead, the smoke scent lingers at the bottom of your throat, making you feel like you're concealing a tiny campfire in the pit of your belly. It makes you feel powerful, somehow, as though you could breathe fire at any moment like an angry dragon.