Years ago, when I was making a barefoot pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, I met a small boy who was sitting on a rock.
“What is the best sandwich?” he asked me. At that moment I realized the world holds so many secrets I may never unravel. I also realized I’d never eaten the best sandwich. And that was because I’d never been to Clare’s.
Don’t be angry, but I’ve never actually been on the Camino, and that little boy doesn’t exist. He is just a cleverly devised tool to stage my recent, extraordinary sandwich experience. (I imagine plenty of people who walk the Camino de Santiago think about sandwiches quite a bit, and I’m glad to know I have an answer for that little boy, should I ever come across him.)
Clare’s is a dusty joint in the Mission with knives hanging from the ceiling and Tang on tap. I’ve known about it for awhile, but I’ve never been curious about how much pulled pork I could eat in one sitting, so I’ve kept my distance from those thick-stacked sandwiches. Last week, I stole a bite of a friend’s brie-and-bacon number, and pledged to change my tune.
At Clare’s, everything is excellent. The most obvious choice is the Locally Famous French Dip, a slab of roast beef and swiss cheese stuffed between French bread that you dunk into a tank of meat juice. It is exactly as sophisticated as it sounds, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
The Grinder is a nice, saucy sandwich packed with meatballs and marinara, but the trick of the balance is a pillowy smear of ricotta.
The Cooterman, which pits a sweet, spicy barbecue chicken with crunchy ranch slaw and provolone, is one of the better ways I’ve ever tasted barbecued chicken, and the Hail Caesar is so much tastier than I’d ever imagine a Caesar salad piled on a French roll could be. The trick? Extra chicken, cooked perfectly.
The B.L.G.B.T. is a rendition of a B.L.T. that makes me nervous even to compare them. There is bacon, lettuce and tomato. There also is a smear of garlicky mayo and, wait for it, a hefty wedge of brie smacked on the pile. To say that it’s a B.L.T would assume that it could only be as good as B.L.T.’s can be, and that ceiling is only so high. The B.L.G.B.T. is a gorgeous, rich and crispy sandwich. It’s a textural marvel, with crisped bacon over soft, melted brie, savory mayo and good tomatoes. And it even comes on your “lifestyle choice of bread.”
Best, though, is the pulled pork. Slowly cooked in a bevy of spices and — what else — Coke, then slathered in barbecue sauce, the pork is sharp and sweet. Next to a jalapeño slaw, it pops like pineapple on pizza. As it turns out, I can eat a lot of pulled pork in one sitting. How much exactly, I still don’t know, because I haven’t yet been able to get enough.
Nearly every sandwich at Clare’s is $8, and if your wallet is feeling thin, you can spring for the Broke Boy, a $3 staple of bologna and cheese with mayo and mustard on white bread.
There’s always the option to design your own sandwich, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Nothing you can put together — and I have faith in you, I really do — will ever beat the masterpiece that is Clare’s menu.
Location: 3505 B 17th St, S.F.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Contact: (415) 621-3505, www.claresdeli.com
Recommended dishes: Pulled pork sandwich ($8), B.L.G.B.T. ($9), Locally Famous French Dip ($9)
Credit cards: All major
Reservations: Not accepted