Earlier this year one of our local success stories, Sequoia Sandwich Co., changed hands. Founders Gary Blackburn and Jeff Simpson, who gave up corporate jobs to open their first restaurant downtown in 1999, sold it in late February. From the start, their success inspired them to expand to five stores, adding Rosedale, the southwest, Clovis and San Luis Obispo.
But years in the restaurant business are a lot like dog years, especially in the competitive sandwich niche. They sold to a group of business partners that had previously purchased the Clovis location. I got an email from a reader who said the place had gone downhill due to new owners. My immediate thought: The new owners were cutting corners, probably switching from the Boar’s Head meats that I’ve grown to love over the years from this place.
My immediate thought should have been: The sandwich business is so competitive that it shouldn’t be surprising that someone else selling a similar product would try to spread a rumor alleging that the place was no longer great. We visited twice. The allegation is nonsense with a capital N. Those quality ingredients and exceptional baked goods, which have gotten better every year, are still first-rate. The new owners are following Jeff and Gary’s business model.
On our first visit we went to the Rosedale location mostly because it is open till 8 p.m. Sandwiches aren’t just for lunch anymore. It gets a good family crowd but is not as busy as any of the other locations are at lunch, which is nice. No long waits in line. On our first visit we ordered the California pastrami ($8.95) prepared New York style, and the Monterey chicken club ($8.45) with a small meatball soup ($3.50) and a butter cake ($3.50), which they touted as a “Clovis favorite.” We saw one last piece of it in the dessert case, but alas it was whisked away to another table and we were offered a replacement of anything else, choosing the Butterfinger cheesecake.
It was all solid with a few quibbles. My companion thought the bread was dry. I think it spent too much time under the heat lamp waiting to be brought to our table (17 minutes between ordering and serving). She also quibbled about the fattiness of the pastrami, but then again we’d recently been visiting places like Milt’s where the pastrami is New York City-exceptional, so maybe this is one place Boar’s Head falls short. New York style at Sequoia means rye bread is used with hot mustard, not the common and repulsive yellow variety. She wondered whether the rye would be better if it were toasted, but I doubt that ever happens in the Big Apple.
My sandwich is an old favorite and it tastes as good as when the founders owned the place: a skinless, marinated grilled chicken breast with avocado, bacon, ranch dressing, lettuce, tomato and Monterey Jack. What always puts it over the top for me is the dill-onion roll. I used to have an editor who told me she didn’t get all the love for Sequoia, and I have to wonder if she ever sampled this sandwich, or their Philly cheesesteak made with baby Swiss and fresh grilled, sliced sirloin.
Another feature about Sequoia that I appreciated was the seasonal specials, and they had two of them available when we visited in October: the gobbler sandwich and the chili with cornbread muffins (both $8.95). The chili has a nice homemade taste and is the perfect level of spicy. When the winter chill hits, this is a perfect lunch. We sampled the gobbler on our second visit when we scored a piece of that butter cake we missed out on the first time. The gobbler has sliced turkey breast (about a quarter-inch thick) inside a toasted French roll with a celery-rich stuffing in the center and a fabulous turkey gravy that makes the perfect sauce. Cranberry sauce is on the side, but completely unnecessary in my view, but go nuts if you mix your Thanksgiving plate all up and pour it over the gravy on the sandwich.
The butter cake was so unlike all the other versions we’ve sampled: It’s in two layers, with what looks like graham cracker crust on the bottom. That’s the cake part, and the top is like a custard. It really looks like a lemon tart, but you can taste all butter and no citrus in this delicious hot mess. Over the years they’ve really amped up the desserts here. I can seldom resist the lemon berry cream cake ($3.95), the cookies are all good and they recently introduced pumpkin spice snickerdoodle cookies rolled in cinnamon sugar. I have no doubt that there are souls out there who go here mostly to get a great dessert. The frosted brownies ($1.95) are also exceptional, and my companion swears the Rice Krispie treats ($1.95) have to be made with real butter. Seemed like it to me. They also have a house-made cheesecake ($3.95) but given my affection for all the other desserts I’ve never made it that far until they brought us the Butterfinger version complete with a chocolate ganache on top. Someone who works here is a sweet tooth artist.
Be reassured. Sequoia still has its mojo.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.