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Early Bird: At Toluca Lake’s Sweetsalt, Alex Eusebio is the top chef

Contenders on the hit show “Top Chef” aren’t known for being humble. That’s why some L.A. foodies were surprised to hear that Alex Eusebio -- a Season 5 contestant and a hometown favorite -- had quietly opened an unassuming gourmet sandwich shop in Toluca Lake called Sweetsalt Food Shop.

Before being cast on “Top Chef,” Eusebio, who is of Dominican descent and who moved to L.A. from New York, was the chef at an Echo Park restaurant called 15. The place had been transformed from a pupusería into a homey bistro, and Eusebio’s sharp flavors and precise cooking style soon made 15 a popular neighborhood destination with a seemingly bright future.

However, when Eusebio returned after filming “Top Chef,” 15’s owners told him they were selling the restaurant and Eusebio was left without a place to showcase his talents (which had gained national attention even though he was sent packing early on).

“There was a disconnect between ‘Top Chef’ and me because people didn’t get to go somewhere to taste my food,” said Eusebio. “So I just disappeared for a while.”

His disappearance, although lamented by his local fan base, wasn’t as sad as it sounds. He married his sweetheart, a singer named Sara Mann, and the two headed to Martha’s Vineyard to open up his dream restaurant. They were closing in on making it perfect when Mann got hired to sing backup for tween pop sensation Miley Cyrus. So they headed back to L.A., where they pooled their life savings and opened Sweetsalt.

Because it was supposed to be on the Vineyard, the little shop has a clean, breezy East Coast feel. Rustic wooden chairs and white tables line the walls, the counter where customers place orders is stocked with side salads and decorated with bright farmers market sunflowers, and little vases of yellow flowers sit on every table.

The menu of salads and sandwiches is marked by sweet and savory choices and changes seasonally and according to the whims of Eusebio, who says his staff gets frustrated because he mixes things up so much. But that’s just because he is adventurous and creative in the kitchen. A recent offering, dubbed “Pearagus soup” by a giggling server, was whipped up because Eusebio opened the walk-in that day and saw asparagus and pears.

“Yesterday it was coconut and carrot,” he said. Other menu highlights include a delicate roasted seasonal vegetable salad; a melt-in-your-mouth braised short rib roll with onion confit, roasted garlic and goat cheese; and a free-range chicken spicy buffalo ciabatta with celery, onion and Roquefort cheese spread.

All the offerings are $10 and less and will fill you up. “I don’t make as much money as I should and that’s OK,” said Eusebio, who is just happy cooking for the joy of it again. “The same sandwich over the hill would be double the price.”

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

Sweetsalt Food Shop Where: 10218 1/2 Riverside Drive, Toluca Lake When: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays through Sundays, but call in advance because hours are subject to change Price: Sandwiches and salads, $7 to $10 Contact: (818) 509-7790; www.sweetsaltfood.com


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