April 8 2016 04:02 PM

Signature “dirty sauce” takes over at Hillcrest location of Bay Area sandwich chain

The Tony Soprano
Photo by Michael A. Gardiner

Is there any dish a good sauce doesn't help? Sadly, it seems, the sandwiches at Ike's Place (1010 University Ave., Suite C101) in Hillcrest answer that question.

Fueled by Food Network appearances and Yelp-driven fanaticism, the original Ike's in San Francisco's Castro District became wildly popular—so popular the ever-present lines got it evicted. Ike's now has 22 locations from Mesa, Arizona, to Chico, California (14 in the Bay Area alone).

Every sandwich at Ike's features its so-called "dirty sauce." While Ike's creator, Ike Shehadeh, has suggested tongue-in-cheek the sauce includes "unicorn farts, fairy dust, love potion, crack cocaine," the fact is it's a kicked-up aioli (garlic mayonnaise). It is delicious and it is an addictive, sneaky addictive. And that's the problem. Ike's is one of the addicts. Every Ike's sandwich features a layer of dirty sauce baked into the bread and another spread on afterwards. That presents several problems.

Take, for example, the Ted Danson sandwich featuring slices of turkey, purple slaw, French dressing and Swiss cheese. It sounds like a good sandwich, and that's without even mentioning that wicked dirty sauce. And the first bite really is great, whether on sourdough or on Ike's signature Dutch crunch bread. The sauce washes over your tongue, you get the great textural contrast of the slaw, you put the sandwich down and smile.

But the problems start when you pick it up for the second bite—structural instability and dripping liquids pooling on the sandwich wrapper below. By the third and fourth bites the bread is soggy and you go in search of extra napkins. By the time you get back to the table you thank the guy above for your good decision not to wear a suit. It is that wet.

It was even worse with the Tony Soprano, Ike's take on an Italian—turkey, ham, salami, Italian dressing and provolone cheese. The Dutch crunch bread was no match for the double assault of liquids—dirty sauce and Italian dressing. Perhaps the problem is in baking the dirty sauce into the bread, leaving it more vulnerable to the sandwich's other wet ingredients.

The flavor profile of the Madison Bumgarner was better. It had the same structural and liquid problems. But the thinly sliced ribeye steak, yellow BBQ sauce, habanero salsa, pepper jack and American cheese offered big enough flavors to compete with the power packed by that dirty sauce.

And that was the other part of the dirty sauce's problems—its strength. The very same things that make it addicting also make it dominate everything it touches. I can barely remember the flavors of any of the meats at Ike's. To a significant degree the only flavor I really remember is that sauce.

Ike's has a long menu. There are 26 meat and 10 veggie sandwiches at the Hillcrest location. But you can order any of the chain's 400 items anywhere. The problem is they all taste very nearly the same. They all taste, first and foremost, like dirty sauce.

It is that rare instance in which a good sauce—a very good sauce—makes a dish worse.


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