This Santa Monica restaurant makes the best grilled cheese in the universe

The Croque Matthieu sandwich on the new bar menu at Pasjoli in Santa Monica.
The Croque Matthieu sandwich on the new bar menu at Pasjoli in Santa Monica.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

I could devote each week’s column to sandwiches without effort. There are too many variations, wonderfully creative abominations and utter masterpieces in this town to ignore for too long.

The players might differ, but certain elements should be present and sandwich rules followed. The bread, whether rye, Pullman, challah or baguette, needs to be fresh. It should be properly lubricated with the sauce, aioli, jam or spread of your choosing. And the construction, regardless of the middle components, needs to be sound ( i.e. don’t put wet tomatoes directly onto the bread, and try to get equal dispersal of stuff for optimum bites).

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Croque Matthieu from Pasjoli

I recognize the many pitfalls of claiming anything is the best of whatever it is you’re talking about. It’s subjective. My best might not be your best. If the mood and setting are just right, anything can be the best. But I feel good throwing my weight behind what I deem to be the best grilled cheese sandwich in my universe.

It is the croque Matthieu on the bar menu at Pasjoli in Santa Monica.

During a recent visit, my party fell silent as we each bit into a square of the sandwich. The bread, annealed and shiny, was all crunch and butter. Then there was crispy Gruyère cheese, like a nutty, sharp cracker cemented to the inside of the sandwich. It shattered into a puddle of rich, creamy Mornay sauce that melted into sweet caramelized onions and shaved Bayonne ham.

The decadence of French onion soup, the simplicity of a good jambon beurre and the thrill of a gooey grilled cheese were all present, crammed into this four-bite sandwich. Its unabashed decadence something to marvel.

The sandwich is named for Mathew Kim, former chef de cuisine at the restaurant, who used to make a grilled cheese blanketed in Mornay sauce and a fried egg.

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“Every now and then he would make a fancy grilled cheese kind of scenario,” chef-owner Dave Beran said during a recent call.

The sandwich made its way onto the Pasjoli lunch menu and was offered as a limited takeaway item, but it disappeared along with lunch service at the restaurant. When our restaurant critic, Bill Addison, tried Kim’s sandwich back in 2020, he wrote, “I went feral on this thing.”

Kim now runs a gourmet edibles company, but Beran recently brought back a version of the sandwich for the restaurant’s new bar menu.

He starts by cutting the top and bottom off of a baguette, then slicing it through the middle. He adds a heap of shredded Gruyère cheese to a nonstick pan. Once it’s melted and bubbly, he places the baguette slices onto the cheese, letting the two fuse together.

After the bread cools, he spreads a thick Mornay sauce onto the crispy cheese and adds a mound of jammy onions. They’re the same onions he features in the restaurant’s signature caramelized onion tart, cooked low and slow for six hours and finished with Madeira and sherry. He layers on slices of Bayonne ham, which taste like a combination of prosciutto and country ham, and closes the sandwich with another piece of baguette crusted with the melted Gruyère.

To finish the sandwich, he adds butter, shallot, garlic and thyme to a pan. Then he adds the sandwich to the pan, engulfing the entire thing in butter, basting it like a piece of Wagyu.

“We basically cook the sandwich like it’s a piece of meat,” Beran said. “It’s a pretty awesome sandwich.”

The croque Matthieu is only available on the bar menu, served until 7 p.m.

Roast beef sandwich from Pane Bianco

The roast beef sandwich from Pane Bianco at the Row in Downtown L.A.
The roast beef sandwich from Pane Bianco at the Row in Downtown L.A.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Bring a friend when you visit Chris Bianco’s new Pane Bianco at the Row DTLA. It’s the L.A. outpost of his Phoenix lunch-only slice and sandwich shop.

During a recent weekday lunch, workers who might have meandered down from the offices above, sat alone and did their best to finish both a slice of pizza and a sandwich during their lunch breaks. They should have invited friends.

These are big sandwiches, served on a variety of breads baked at the restaurant. There’s a stirato, or stretched baguette. And a puccia, Bianco’s version of a small round foccaccia, along with some larger foccacia breads as well. They’re all made with regenerative grain from Cairnsprings Mills in Skagit Valley, Wash.

“It’s pretty much our pizza dough that we just shape for the sandwiches,” Bianco said during a recent call. “I never used to like that pizza was looked down on because it was pizza. But if I made it into a beautiful baguette or take the same flour and made it a pasta, it seemed to get more respect.”

Pay your respect to the pizza with a market slice, otherwise known as whatever Bianco and chefs Marco Angeles and Alvaro Lopez use as toppings for the day. Anything at the farmers market may make it onto your pizza: Weiser Family Farms fingerling Amarosa potatoes, corn, Flora Bella cherry tomatoes.

And make sure there’s a roast beef sandwich on your table too.

Bianco uses the crusty, sturdy stirato, generously dressed on one side with a green garlic aioli and a fiery fermented Fresno chile butter on the other.

The ribbons of beef are perfectly pink, tender and lightly marbled. It comes from eye of round beef from Cream Co., a whole animal butchery in Oakland. The beef is rubbed with a mixture of ancho chile powder, cumin, garlic, black pepper and sea salt. It sits overnight then roasts in the pizza oven.

The sandwich is crowded with fat slices of pickled banana peppers that add an extra sting of heat and vinegar to each bite.

It’s the kind of sandwich that will only get better on that ride to the beach, after a few hours in your office fridge or on the drive home.

For now, Pane Bianco is a lunch-only restaurant, but Bianco hopes to extend the hours later this fall.

“We’re hoping to serve late into the evening,” he said. “The hope is when we open later, I’d love to do a tray of lasagna that we make in house and sell by the piece or to take a half-sheet pan home. Old school stuffed shells. Maybe chicken cacciatore.”

I’m looking forward to fall.

The Pecking House fried chicken sandwich

The fried chicken sandwich from the Pecking House pop-up on Sawtelle Boulevard in Los Angeles.
The fried chicken sandwich from the Pecking House pop-up on Sawtelle Boulevard in Los Angeles.
(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

There are a handful of fried chicken sandwiches that Angelenos seem to universally love. The Nashville hot fried chicken sandwich from Howlin’ Ray’s, the Sichuan hot chicken sandwich from Daybird, Kris Yenbamroong’s fried chicken and papaya slaw sandwich at Night + Market and Roxana Jullapat’s spicy apricot mayo and chutney topped sandwich at Friends & Family.

I’m confident that the fried chicken sandwich from the Pecking House pop-up in Sawtelle would make the cut, if it sticks around.

Eric Huang, who runs Pecking House restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y., is making his spicy fried chicken, sides and sandwiches out of the Tuk Tuk x Turntable space on Sawtelle Boulevard through mid-October.

According to Huang, who made an appearance on a KTLA news segment earlier this year, at one point, he had a 10,000-person waitlist for the Brooklyn fried chicken pop-up he started during the pandemic.

“I like to describe it as Nashville hot chicken and Taiwanese fried chicken had a baby, kind of,” he said during the segment.

Huang’s chicken is burnished red and rugged, slick with hot duck fat in a shade that indicates something ferociously spicy. In reality, the first sensation is sweet, with a slow burn that builds from Tianjin chiles. There’s a distinct vibration from the Sichuan peppercorns and just enough MSG to keep your mouth humming.

Huang paints the chicken in the duck fat and his hot seasoning blend, giving it that distinct red color.

It’s especially good in the fried chicken sandwich, served as a fried thigh on soft milk bread with copious amounts of Kewpie mayonnaise and sweet pickles. The chicken is juicy enough to drip while you’re eating it and the hot coating sort of smushes into the bread, distributing the heat evenly throughout the sandwich.

Huang already extended his pop-up from his original end date of Sept. 17 to October. We’ll have to wait and see how long the sandwich sticks around.