670 W B Street, Downtown San Diego
When I first heard about a sandwich shop called Carnivore, my thought was it must be hipster. Its name sounds like the sort of provocative approach a de rigueur deli might take — daring you to embrace your animal flesh craving, to delve deep into the nuanced flavors of succulently prepared meats.
But it was the second thing I heard about the place that hooked me. Word was, Carnivore really throws down a thick stack of sandwich, they way they do at Jewish delicatessens where it’s basically a two- to three-inch wad of meat with a smear of mustard and two pieces of rye bread. For fans of cured beef, that’s a joyful thing and doesn’t exist downtown.
For starters, Carnivore Sandwich isn’t hipster. Until recently the same shop was called Nosh, and despite the Carnivore rebrand it’s still a basic, no-frills deli counter located on B Street within view of the train station. There’s a pretty good amount of patio dining space and a thorough assortment of New York seltzers, but beyond that there’s nothing remarkable about the space. The shop’s website doesn’t even bother showing pictures of it, opting instead for photos of New York.
It does picture the thick-stack sandwich, and since that was the main draw for me it didn’t matter that its interior wasn’t decked out with reclaimed wood or living-wall planters. The place offers plenty of specialty-sandwich options pairing turkey and corned beef, pastrami and beef tongue, that sort of thing. For Jewish-deli purists there are also sandwiches of egg, tuna, and whitefish-salad. There’s even one featuring nova lox and cream cheese.
But to judge a deli’s worth, I zero in on pastrami every time. It’s about 12 bucks for a full pastrami sandwich at Carnivore. It’s a lot by lunchtime sandwich standards in San Diego, but a full pastrami in Manhattan’s Katz’s Delicatessen runs about $20, so for a place willing to lay the pastrami on thick, I was happy to pay.
Not that I expected anything on the level of Katz’s, the pastrami gold standard, but a man can dream. That pastrami’s the sort of sandwich you remember for life, stacked high as it is with thick sliced, peppery, indulgent beef.
Carnivore’s sandwich measure up, height-wise, but that’s where the similarities end. The problem wasn’t the deli mustard, nor the thin slice of Swiss cheese, nor the rye bread sourced from Charlie’s Best Bread, a decades-old bakery in Pacific Beach. The problem was that the heaping serving of pastrami just wasn’t great. It was sliced thin before my eyes and layered thick enough to make me drool, but the meaty flavor was watered down and the texture was a little grainy.
It was shipped in from Chicago, they told me, and I usually have to give it up for Chicago meats. But in this case I think Carnivore would have been better off using Dietz & Watson or Boar’s Head, the ubiquitous suppliers of less ambitious delis around the country. Stack those meats thick, and you might be onto something. In other words, with a sandwich as simple as this, even I could make it at home.