Taste Test: We Tried Every Sandwich on the Menu at Earl Kaka‘ako and Ranked Them
We ate 10 hearty sandwiches in one sitting and played favorites.
This story was originally published in October 2019. Check the Earl Kaka‘ako website for the updated menu.
PHOTOS: KATIE KENNY
For the sixth edition of our monthly series where we try everything on the menu at local establishments, we ordered Earl Kaka‘ako’s entire regular sandwich menu (though we rue missing out on the lobster roll frenzy the previous week, when, says owner Justin Parvizimotlagh, “we sold out 100 rolls in an hour and 10 minutes”).
Katie Kenny, HONOLULU’s digital editorial magician, brought serious sammie chops to the party at Earl Kaka‘ako’s sunny glass box—she lives around the corner and, in a previous incarnation, worked in marketing for a high-concept Hong Kong restaurant group that specialized in butchering and then cooking up an entire beeve (singular of beef) in front of an upscale crowd of bankers and stockbrokers. Which is so Late Stage Capitalism.
Don Wallace, the magazine’s senior editor, wrote the first review of Earl Kaka‘ako when it opened last year. While nothing can equal Katie’s street beef cred, he has been befriended by butchers ever since college and was once offered a job behind the meat counter at Whole Foods Kāhala after a spirited discussion of the merits of flank over flap steak. Having grown up on Santa Fe Importers’ Italian salumi down by the docks of Long Beach and Philippe’s French-dipped prime rib in L.A., he progressed to Geno’s cheese steaks in Philly then ’Wichcraft and Bottino in New York City (he even scoffed all the cucumber-and-watercress whitebread dainties at a Devon Cream Tea in Tintagel before realizing he was supposed to share).
10. Almond Joy (Vegan)
Almond ricotta, roasted eggplant, roasted red bell pepper, avocado, tomato, cucumber, spinach, sautéed kale, pickled carrot, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and balsamic.
KK: The first bite was of the almond ricotta, which seemed light, sweet and flavorful. Second bite included the meaty-looking, meat-colored eggplant and boy, was I confused. Could have done without the let’s-make-it-visually-meat-passing look.
DW: Boy, this is one … healthy … sandwich. Um, and it’s vegan? Good for them! (Translation: That leaves more meaty Earl sandwiches for me.)
9. Beer Braised “Bisket”
Beer braised brisket, horseradish mayo, pickled onion, roasted poblano, cheddar cheese, served with au jus.
DW: This looks like a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania dive bar sandwich slapped together by a hungover barmaid in black fishnet stockings, a No. 19 jersey and Joan Jett hair. Which means, in that bar, at that moment, after three or four boilermakers while watching JuJu Smith-Schuster make another touchdown grab in traffic for the Steelers, it’s the best damn sandwich in the … vicinity? The yellow cheese is lurid, the oversize raw onions are piquant. The brisket itself needs the au jus, unlike Earl’s shaved tri-tip French Dip.
KK: Oh for the love of tenderization, that is some soft brisket. The cheese kills it for me though. Give me tender smoked meat and smother toxic yellow cheese on it with chunky raw onions and I will cry. My love of curing beef—especially secondary cuts of cow—leave me with no choice except to be hurt by the masking of perfection coming from that animal.
8. Jam Sam
Turkey salad, bacon jam, basil mayo, pickles, tomato and spinach.
DW: So, what was with the Turkey Jam Sam at No. 4? I mean, it’s a good turkey sandwich, but, well, it’s a turkey sandwich. Without cranberries and stuffing. What’s the point of that?
KK: As you might have noticed, I had originally put this on my own list as No. 4. Sadly the Don voted me down. I get it. But you know what, Don? I’m trying this entire health-kick thing where I replace normal/naughty delicious meat with lean turkey meat.
DW: “Normal” meat? You’re scaring me, Katie. This is actually a nice health food store turkey sandwich. Not a classic like a California turkey-avocado-tomato-sprouts, beloved of surfers and convertible drivers. The turkey itself is moist, chunky, not like the typical vacuum-packed Boar’s Head extrusion. The spinach and pickles and basil mayo provide swell bite: some crunch, some sweetness. It’s only down here because—here comes the “normal” meat!
KK: You’re right. It’s old hat but turkey does do better when paired with the regular fixings. But then it wouldn’t be healthy. You win this round, Don—but only because I’m eating an entire sandwich menu right now and therefore not being healthy.
7. Fun Beet
Goat cheese, pesto, mushrooms, beets, tomato, cucumber, spinach, fennel, onion marmalade, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and balsamic.
KK: Light, bright, sweet and tangy. I could definitely see this being a perfect #MeatlessMonday lunch. Why isn’t it ranked higher then? Because I love meat. And to me, sandwiches are love.
DW: I agree. This is a terrific sandwich whose mother forgot to put meat in the lunchbox. No, seriously, when I eat at Earl I always order this to go with my meatwich. Alternating bites, baby.
6. Chopped Cheese
Homemade meatballs, bacon, basil mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickle, cheddar and American cheese.
KK: This could have sat higher for me because I loved the use of meatballs in a less hearty, Little Italy, heavy on the sauce way. I could see this as a go-to for me!
DW: There’s a chopped cheese thing going on and I kind of missed it, so this comes both as an initiation and as a credibility test. Especially after I Googled and found it’s from the Bronx and Harlem! I mean, I lived 27 years in Manhattan and never had it or heard of it. Go figure. It’s sort of a Sloppy Joe with a block of Velveeta dropped into it, which is how I cooked in the Boy Scouts. Here they use American and cheddar. It’s a serious after-a-night-of-drinking sandwich and a worthy NFL Sunday rival to the beer braised brisket.
KK: Maybe that’s why I like it, because it’s a post-drinking-worthy meal. Not that I drink a lot but because it reminds me of my days of late night meals after working nightshifts at an Irish pub in Boston. Meaty sandwiches smothered in cheap cheese were a necessity.
Roasted garlic Dijonnaise, ham, pork belly, bacon, pickle, Swiss cheese and fresh lime.
DW: Now, in New York City my go-to was the Cubano from Little Havana on 18th Street, recently and lamentedly closed due to gentrification. This one is a softer, scaled-up version. It’s not griddled in a hot press and thus misses the buttery top crust. It’s a lot thicker, with pork three ways, as Katie notes. In fact, I miss the thinness, which made biting into a New York or Miami Cubano a moment to savor, instead of a mouthful. But you know, this is an excellent sandwich that uses the Cubano foundation to soar.
KK: Confession time: I became obsessed with Cubano sandwiches after watching the feel-good film Chef (which now has an awesome Netflix reality series spinoff called The Chef Show). Thanks to that movie I know what should be in a classic Cubano but this rendition packs a one-two-three punch. On top of the ham regularly found in the Miami classic, Earl’s adds pork belly and bacon. Glad the pickles are there for a bit of oomf. Couldn’t taste the lime.
4. Short Rib Torta
Cheese sauce, roasted poblano, tomatillo salsa, pickled carrot, crema, lettuce, cilantro, tomato, hot sauce, braised short rib and chorizo.
DW: I was torn seeing you rank this fella below No. 3, the French Dip. But it’s neck and neck down the stretch and the winner by a nose is … Katie’s Call! Why do I love this torta? It’s got the vibe and hearty Norteños attack of El Grullense’s on El Camino Real in Palo Alto, without the serious afterburn—which I think is due to the smart addition of pickled carrots and roasted poblano, but also, going with braised short rib over chorizo as the main protein.
KK: Alright, Don. Short rib is awesome. This sandwich is awesome. But is it really better than the meatballs or, dare I say, the turkey? It was alright, alright, alright. Oh and I heard you ask in disbelief if there was chorizo on this one. You didn’t taste it either!
DW: Yeah, I actually was surprised when Justin said he made his own chorizo. I was like,”There was chorizo?” But I did have that taste profile in my flavor notes, which I lost or left in my car, I forget.
3. French Dip
Tri tip, roasted garlic mayo, fennel onion marmalade, chimichurri, pepper jack, served with au jus.
KK: I took a bite and then immediately took another bite. Personally, I struggled between this and the fried chicken for the top spot. Both are classics. But when a classic is done well you have to reward it.
DW: I grew up on Philippe’s The Original French Dipped roast beef as a pre-game ritual before Dodger games. Sawdust on the floor, coffee in thick diner china cups for a quarter, stand-up eating with both hands and don’t stop or else the jus will spill all over your shirt. This is a very good French Dip, the shaved tri-tip heaped up and laced with pepper jack. Earl tweaks such as fennel onion marmalade, garlic mayo and chimichurri are done with a deft touch, so a fresh pour of au jus just before each bite reproduces that Oh-Man-the-Guy-Who-Thought-of-This-Deserves-a-Nobel thrill.
2. The Drew
Tomato jam, whole grain mustard, Swiss cheese, horse radish mayo, pickles, tomato, pastrami.
KK: I had this sammie a touch further down the list because they don’t make their own pastrami. I get why (space, time) but when they spend time on smoking brisket, making meatballs and brining chicken then I think that should be respected. However, #thatmustardtho. The whole grain crunch was a shocking kick mixed with the sweet cured beef. Wham bam, thank you ma’am.
DW: Agreed, it was a surprise to find that Justin goes to R.C. Langer’s for his pastrami. But, come on: Langer’s deli in Westlake (in SoCal) has been L.A.’s main reason we of the Ashkenazi tribe have survived so far from Katz’s Deli on the LES in NYC. The whole reason I asked Justin if he made it was this sandwich sent me reeling down the years. So glad you agree. That whole grain mustard is a great forward note, too.
1. Fried Chicken Po’ Boy
Buttermilk fried chicken tossed in hot sauce, lettuce, tomato, pickle, remoulade sauce.
KK: Sometimes I want to appear like an adult by ordering a civilized soup/salad and sandwich combo—like the TV queens of New York City: Sex and the City’s Carrie and Seinfeld’s Elaine. Other times I want what I want. Gimme some buttermilk fried chicken tossed in Frank’s Hot Sauce and slap it between two buns because I am a grown woman and I choose happiness, dammit. I will accept sprinklings of lettuce and tomatoes as long as the chicken breast is chunky.
DW: When I first hit Earl just after it opened, this was billed as the Nashville—giving rise to hope (and fear) that it would be a tastebud-searing taste test like those hot birds of the South. Well, Poulet be Praised, it’s more well-behaved than that. The sandwich I had in June was at the top of my list. This time around, I swear it’s gotten better, I think because the cross-section of chicken breast is less thick, which means the ratio of crunchy buttermilk crust to white meat is 55-45. That, in this case, is dead solid perfect. The Frank’s-ish hot sauce and remoulade, pickle, lettuce and tomato are essential, contrary to La Katie, but she’s a woman, dammit. She can like what she pleases. As long as she likes Earl as much, or almost as much, as I do.
KK: Sorry, did you say my name? I was busy hiding the other half of this sandwich from you so I could tackle the rest back at the office.
400 Keawe St., Suite 103, (808) 744-3370, earlhawaii.com
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