For the past few years, we’ve bemoaned the lack of next-level sandwich shops in Los Angeles. Mendocino Farms has been the most ambitious (and consistent) of the bunch, along with stand-bys like Langer’s and Bay Cities Italian Deli. Still, we hungered for options like Naked Lunch or Butcher & Bee, places that change menus daily, depending on what’s in peak season. The L.A. paradigm shifted on June 13, when Jeff Faust, Woogene Lee and Dave Morgan debuted Fundamental LA, a minimalist, market driven sandwich shop in the short-lived Westwood home of Alcazar Express.
Faust and Lee met in second grade in Orange County, attended Berkeley and opened Fundamental LA with chef Dave Morgan (Cyrus, Melisse, Charlie Palmer). Faust worked for a Big Four ad agency, and told me they wanted “an honest restaurant where we make the food we want to eat.”
The space features wood counters and tables, drop down bulbs, and bare white walls. Fundamental LA has an open kitchen, which allows diners to see the cooks sport the kind of ironic ballcaps Judah Friedlander wears on “30 Rock” when playing Frank. A cook’s recent cap pronounced I Heart Foie Gras, and last November, we spotted one that said, simply, “MEAT.” There’s no doubt where their allegiance lies, though they do sell surprisingly good vegetarian options.
My first meal was only pretty good. Then again, it was takeout, and there was still enough promise in those initial bites to warrant a return trip. They griddled the Breakfast Sando ($8), a combo of housemade pork sausage, fried egg, frisee and white cheddar. The sando had plenty of flavor, but the key ingredient, a buttermilk biscuit, was overly dense. Parmesan hushpuppies, barely bigger than marbles, obviously don’t benefit from a delay, but they still tasted flavorful, dressed with scallions and dipped in garlic aioli. They tossed potato salad ($4) to order in a stainless steel bowl with hard boiled egg, bacon, scallions, sour cream and blue cheese. No surprise, that combo tasted good, and survived the ride. Still, it was the grilled cheese sandwich ($9) that gave me the most hope, with toasted sourdough crammed with escarole, roasted tomato and white cheddar. Better yet, it came with a great sweet corn soup, garnished with garbanzo beans and julienne shiso leaf. It was one of the most distinct soups of the year, and guaranteed our return.
For our second Fundamental LA meal, we made sure to consume food at the source, so there was no possible way the dishes could degrade en route from downtown Westwood.
We once again ordered Hush Puppies ($4), which could have spent a little more time in the fryer, since the fritters were a little underdeveloped. Still, tossed with Parmesan and scallions, with a squeeze of lemon juice and a dip in roasted garlic aioli, we were happy.
Egg Salad ($8) was inventive, presented two ways. Poached eggs joined egg salad tossed with extra virgin olive oil, crème fraiche, chives, and lemon juice. Sweet preserved tomatoes, and sprouts also filled house-made brioche, which was kind of dry, since the yolk didn’t distribute fully.
Turkey and Bacon ($11) was probably my favorite sandwich, starring fresh-sliced and griddled turkey breast, cut from the house-roasted turkey. The toasty roll also involved shaved crudite (carrot and daikon), blue cheese, and Frank’s Red Hot, a vinegary cayenne pepper sauce.
Our second meal showed incremental improvement over our first visit, and we were almost hooked.
Our third meal started with Meatloaf ($11), the best sandwich to date, involving rosy slices of BBQ sauce-kissed beef and pork loaf, celery root puree, crunchy pickled cabbage, tangy fried Brussels sprout leaves and toasted sourdough. Not only did those sandwich taste good, a portion of proceeds also went to the L.A. Food Bank, one of my favorite places to volunteer.
Chicken sandwiches are normally pretty dull, and usually feature dry white meat. Fundamental LA avoided both pollo pitfalls with their Chicken Torta ($9). Juicy shredded dark meat joined tangy tomatillo salsa, crisp lettuce, cotija, crema, pickled jalapenos, and guac on soft bolillo bread. We teamed the sandwich with an order of Potato Chips ($2), made in-house and simply seasoned with salt and pepper.
This time, the churros were even better, featuring custardy cores. We also fell pray to the EVOO Brownie with Sea Salt ($3), which had an almost silky texture, and a nice hit of salt.
In their first nine months of business, Fundamental LA’s owners continued to turn the screws on their menu while expanding their focus. They added entrees at dinner and an instant-hit brunch.
When Fundamental first opened, it seemed like the restaurant could finally be our Naked Lunch. It turns out that was selling the restaurant short, since Fundamental LA is more ambitious.