Review: Belly of the Beast
Pork hearts and beef tongue and headcheese, oh my! Love Handle ventures bravely into uncharted sandwich territory.
To fully appreciate the spot-on alchemy of bread and filling at Love Handle, sandwich-maker Chris Benedyk’s eastside ode to handheld dining, consider first how far we have strayed from the Earl of Sandwich’s original thesis. From the slapped-together to the over-conceptualized to the structurally unsound, misguided interpretations abound.
At Love Handle, though, no-nonsense mini Pullman loaves from Amelia’s are grill-pressed around ingredients that show off Benedyk’s deep understanding of flavors and textures, everything stacked and arranged with a civil engineer’s precision for crust-to-crust consistency. On a small chalkboard menu scribbled daily, the options might include the Yanni B’s dense slices of smoked pork heart topped with fermented sour turnips and a spicy cream spread, or the McFall’s house-cured bacon and braised greens. Another tricked-out bacon sandwich layers on the nutty richness of Havarti and walnut butter and then cuts through the luscious spread of fat with a snap of pickled green beans, and a far-from-basic chicken sandwich features nubs of grilled thigh meat and earthy beet confit pasted in place with a tomatillo-poblano crema that touches heat without crushing the Scoville scale. Salty notes are balanced with hits of sweetness; creamy mellowness gets countered with vinegary jolts of acidity; and the presentation has a masterful range of mouthfeels and temperatures. The selections come off as high art between two pieces of bread, but Benedyk, who spent four years behind the meat counter at Goose the Market in its early days, makes it sound very simple, really. “You just put unique stuff on a sandwich that makes you think of something else, like a BLT or a PBJ,” he explains, “and then you add a cool sauce.”
I am calling his bluff, though. Every detail of the place seems carefully orchestrated. The $10 sandwiches are ordered at a counter and brought out in baskets lined in red-and-white checked paper that they split with Love Handle’s only side option: not chips or fries, but a little pile of salted popcorn cooked in bacon fat and seasoned with the added umami of powdered nutritional yeast. You can wash them down with a super-sweet Mexican Coke or any of the other exotic bottles of soda (Jarritos … apple-flavored Sidral Mundet …) arranged on top of a glass deli case containing hunks of meat cured, smoked, and roasted in-house. Fat-rimmed rolls of Berkshire belly share the racks with loaves of whipped beef heart and glistening meat terrines, as well as a tray of individual jellied egg yolks suspended in aspic. Benedyk preps it all himself in the back of the house, using raw meat sourced locally, mainly from Fischer Farms and Eli Creek.
It’s the same farm-to-tableau concept Benedyk pioneered when he opened his original Love Handle location in Milwaukee in 2013 with his wife, Ally, who provides the sweet yen to his savory yang, dreaming up delightful desserts like sticky Ovaltine-miso sweet rolls, a flourless chocolate torte embedded with slices of ripe plum, and a light-as-air tres leches cake topped with fresh lavender whipped cream. Over the course of 15 months, they nearly broke the Brew City’s Yelp ecosystem with page after page of five-star raves, culminating in a handful of melancholy send-offs when they packed up and headed back to Indianapolis in April.
Milwaukee’s loss is Indy’s gain. Still, diners with trust issues might struggle with a menu that takes so many wild, omnivorous risks—that has made its peace with offal and is brave enough to serve dishes as challenging as homemade headcheese and a bowl of beef-tendon udon, which is exactly what it sounds like: noodle-like strips of collagen brined to a chewable (but still quite rubbery) consistency. I learned that this is not the best place to meet for brunch with a pregnant woman, a vegetarian, and a dear friend who would have been just as happy with the chicken and dumplings at Cracker Barrel.
For others, Love Handle is a delightful nose-to-tail gateway experience. “You have to be a little bit adventurous,” Benedyk admits. “But once you start tasting it, you’ll get all of these familiar flavors. You’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s not so bad—it tastes like a lean steak.’”
Even better, some of us might say.
2829 E. 10th St., 430-5004
HOURS Tues.–Sat. 8 a.m.–2:30 p.m.