Every other Wednesday, Meg van Huygen's "Sub Missives" column writes love letters to the Seattle area's best sandwiches. Know a hot sub? Write to us about it @ firstname.lastname@example.org.
So like 20 readers have told me to write about Mean Sandwich in Ballard, and I'm always like, "Ugh, seems a little on the nose, don't you think?" I'm forever hoping to find the obscure sandwich pearl in some unknown hole of a diner on a lost highway, not in a slick shop on Leary Way, for godsake, that actually says "SANDWICH" in giant letters on the front. After being told to do this over and over again, I glanced at Mean Sandwich's menu online, and nothing excited me, which proved that I was right and all you readers were all wrong.
But I was walking by the store last weekend and saw their sandwich (heh) board, so I peered at the menu in the window. Something stood out to me. The Fish. It's a sardine sandwich.
I fucking love sardines, and I specifically love Spanish sardines, which is what this sandwich is made of. Just reading the words alone had already ricocheted me back to Catalunya. How did I miss this before? Also, FRIED lemons? And celery ROOT slaw? Y'all got me. We're doing it.
I was immediately greeted by sweet Tommy Lee Bones, pictured below, who would guard our table for the duration of our visit and vacuum up any future food scraps that we might drop. It was hard not to feed him the deep-fried potato thinguses that Mean Sandwich calls "Skins and Ins" (like fries, but they're chunks), but we didn't want him to get dog diabetes, even though he clearly does this all day. Tommy was begging before we even got our food, and he started physically leaping into the air to make eye contact with us once it arrived. This is his job. Well, he's a real professional and it worked. I might have slipped him a sardine morsel. Dogs can have fish, right?
Mean Sandwich serves "The Fish" room-temp, and the sardines are big fat fatties—the bun only needs a couple for complete coverage. Oily and firm, they're accented by fresh iceberg lettuce, celery root aka celeriac slaw, vinegary house-pickled jalapeños, a smear of lemon-pepper mayonnaise, and a handful of chopped cilantro. You can ask for the sando without cilantro if you're one of those it-tastes-like-soap people. (I know, it's genetic, it's not your fault.)
So far, all of this was going well. Mean Sandwich's sardines are of good quality and not mushy, the bun is toasted but pillowy, it's the correct amount of mayo, and the mustardy slaw and herbs and peppers add some' zazz and keep the fish and mayo from being too rich. All very nice.
But the crowning glory here is the lemons. I've only ever seen fried lemons in pasta before, usually with kale and parm, but they're a plain ingenious addition to a sandwich. The whole fruits are sliced into wheels, dredged in fine breadcrumbs, and then pan-fried, and they're ugly to behold but just gorgeous to taste. Tangy, crunchy, savory, slightly sweet. They were so dark brown, they looked like they'd be hard and burnt, but nope, they're light and crispy with a soft interior, like a very thin doughnut. I wanted to eat a whole basket of them. I started daydreaming about adding them to a tuna melt at home, or maybe a salade niçoise. Omelets. Pizzas. My god, the possibilities.
One tiny minor complaint is that this sandwich has a lot of moving parts to it. The sardine fillets kept threatening to slide out and shoot across the room into Tommy Lee Bones's open maw, and the slaw and herbs were instantly strewn all over the table like confetti. A sandwich's messiness often indicates how good it is, so it's fine, a small price to pay. But yeah, this is a four-napkin sandwich, minimum. Don't eat it in a car.
Anyway, I like this sandwich A. most of all because it's weird, B. because it's delicious, obviously, but C. because it's a mishmash of a bunch of different cultures and no one felt any pressure to be like "We need to keep things generally Iberian here" or whatever. It's a singular invention. The Matiz sardines are Spanish, and so the main sensory taste experience is "Spain" for sure, but then the jalapeños are Mexican, the mustard-celeriac slaw seemed French à la celeri remoulade, you got your Italian-style fried limoni, and it's on a regular-ass American brioche-type hamburger bun with mayo. It seems a little improvised on paper, and then it all comes together like Voltron.
"The Fish" is perhaps not a sam that I'd eat more than a few times a year because it's kinda intense, but still, A++, very tasty and delightfully strange. It made my whole Sunday. What a warm introduction to the brave and creative menu at Mean Sandwich—I'm only sorry it took me so long to stop by.
1510 NW Leary Way
Seattle, WA 98107