There is a path to success that has been followed by generations of restaurateurs, a journey from a temporary stand or stall to a place with walls, a roof and a mortgage.
Some talented chefs never make that move because they like the freedom to take vacations, can’t find a location that makes sense economically, or just like the stove gypsy lifestyle. Some who make the move succeed in keeping customers they met at fairs and outdoor markets, while others struggle to keep their old clientele and attract a new one.
Earl’s Gourmet Grub is a success story that started as a stall at the Mar Vista Farmers Market. Long lines for gourmet sandwiches convinced the owners that they had a winning formula, and they moved to a space on Venice Boulevard near Inglewood Boulevard. The dining area looks tiny – 10 chairs around a large table – but the covered patio in the back seats a few dozen and is nicer than the echoing interior anyway.
The menu is sensibly short – they got where they are by doing a few things very well, in this case making sandwiches and salads. The blackboards list some whimsically named items – the “M*!%@r Plucker” sandwich (chicken, spinach, basil and gouda) and the “Pig and Fig,” made from prosciutto, bleu cheese, fig hash, and aioli.
I didn’t try the chicken (and am not going to type that mess of symbols again), but on my first visit I tried the prosciutto and fig. It was an interesting mix of flavors, concentrated porkiness balanced with fruity sweetness and funky blue cheese. It would have been easier to eat if the prosciutto had been chopped first, but the combination was as delicious as it was unlikely. It was served on artisan bread with a substantial salad, and was a generous meal for 10 bucks.
On a return visit with friends, we ordered chopped salad as a starter, along with sandwiches: a crab po-boy, roast beef with caramelized onions, the “Popeye” (spinach with egg, naturally), and something called a Mushrooben. As good as that salad was – a mound of greens with salami, hardboiled eggs and Maytag blue cheese crumbles – it was a mistake to order it. Everything arrived at once and there was already salad on every plate, so we had an overabundance of greens. I’d order the chopped salad as a meal, though, because it was excellent.
The mushrooben was an interesting experiment; a classic Reuben sandwich of corned beef with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut gone vegetarian. As meaty tasting as portobellos are, they don’t resemble corned beef; it didn’t replicate a traditional Reuben, but the inspiration was clear. If a mushroom and cheese sandwich enlivened with tart sauerkraut sounds good, you should try it.
I was less enamored of the crab “po-boy,” though that was partly because of the expectations raised by the name. I’m a fan of traditional New Orleans po-boys made with fried seafood, spicy aioli, pickles and mustard, and I expected this would have some of the same elements. Instead, it was a decent sandwich made with plenty of mildly spiced crab with lettuce and a whisper of garlic mayo – not bad, but not a po-boy. Names create expectations – the mushrooben lived up to mine, but the crab sandwich didn’t.
The most traditional sandwich was the trifecta – roast beef, horseradish and caramelized onions – a trinity of well-balanced flavors. It was something anybody could make at home if they happened to have fresh aioli and good ingredients around – and because so few people do, Earl’s will keep selling these. The same is true of the Popeye – fried egg with raw spinach, pepper jack and aioli on a fresh brioche bun. I ordered it with bacon added and fried potatoes alongside, and had a full breakfast that held me over until dinner.
Earl’s offers herb teas, soft drinks, and lemonade, and caffeine hounds can order their latte or macchiato from the coffeehouse next door and bring it in. I needed my morning kickstart and got coffee, but I also tried a sip of homemade berry lemonade that was nicely tart. Brunch for four, including the salad that went home for leftovers, was about $60 – a bargain for very good food.
You might wonder if a casual sandwich and breakfast place like Earl’s deserves the word gourmet in the name. I vote yes, since items like the Fig & Pig have real conceptual creativity, and any true gourmet can appreciate simple things done very well.
The restaurant that started as a food stall in the farmers market has been open for three years and has quite a following, an example of upward mobility in the local restaurant universe.
Earl’s Gourmet Grub is at 12226 Venice Blvd. in Mar Vista. Open daily 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. (310) 313-1717. Small parking lot in rear or street parking, no alcohol. Menu at earlsgourmetgrub.com.