Is Timothy Swischuk Making America’s Most Interesting Sandwiches?
Disclaimer: This food review is blatantly partisan; the writer is acquainted with the owner/chef of the restaurant under discussion and is a good friend of one of his chief providers of organic produce. That being said, the reviewer is NOT receiving any sort of kick back for his troubles…thus far, at least.
Driving away from San Francisco on highway 50 towards South Lake Tahoe, the dry, pine-speckled hills of El Dorado County rear up from the hot wastes of the Sacramento River Valley. These hills once crawled with bearded, wild-eyed fortune-seekers hailing from every corner of the globe, hoovering up great wet clouds of gold from creeks gilding the folds and creases between the region’s sun-scorched promontories.
The multitude collected there by the siren songs of wealth and upward social mobility could be seen as a species of treasure in and of itself, an ethnic olio the likes of which the world hadn’t oft seen, thanks to advances in transportation that put the achievements of the Silk Road – for centuries the standard of means by which to bridge far-flung cultures – in the shade.
Today there exists in Placerville, El Dorado’s county seat, a remarkable little eatery that could be considered – if you give credence to wackadoo beliefs about spiritual residue or reincarnation – an echo made edible flesh of that international mish-mash of working men. And unlike the powder keg of tensions wrought by xenophobia and cultural misunderstandings which characterized the forced coexistence of prospectors and assorted hangers-on hailing from different parts of the United States, China, Germany, Peru, Wales, Turkey, et al, this cramped commercial entity successfully harmonizes its elements into one whole, or rather, into several whole sandwiches.
In February 2016, 168 years after foreman James Marshall noticed gold twinkling up at him from a portion of the American River 46 miles east of Sacramento, Timothy Swischuk, a former professor of architecture and design, opened Timmy’s Brown Bag in downtown Placerville, puzzling – one assumes – some of its citizenry not only with left-field ingredients and preparations with strange names (p’yatesyat sim mayo, kaeng kari tartar sauce), but with daring marriages of disparate elements, unions which bespeak an unquiet but playful and irreverent turn of mind.
Some examples: pepper bacon marmalade with watermelon-grapefruit “popping” crystals. Or Italian sausage with pear and peanut brittle.
Instead of locking him in a vintage gold rush-era drunk tank, the good people of Placerville let him stick around and continue to do business.
For the first-time patron, the Brown Bag immediately distinguishes itself from most other sandwich joints he/she might have frequented by having a full kitchen complete with a fryer, a grill and an oven – indispensable tools to have on hand when each menu item is like a Renaissance whirly-gig of different elements, many of which involve multiple steps to prepare. Mr. Swischuk, who after becoming stifled by the stale fart air of academia entered the California Culinary Academy (graduating in 2008), credits his long years in the field of architecture to his approach to building a sandwich.
“Ideas are an extension of my academic background, specifically information design and pop culture,” explains Swischuck, who concocts the bulk of the recipes himself, with occasional input and assistance from his son, Max.
That sort of language might have gotten you rode out on a rail in Placerville back in the crazy old days. Certainly, his food would have been a source of much bemused curiosity by a community who sustained themselves mainly, one imagines, on rancid burnt pintos and caustic brown liquor distilled in used latrines or the stomaches of dead hogs. The lean, wolfish men of Hangtown wouldn’t have had time for Point Reyes Toma cheese or sambal oelek dressing; they were groping after massive fortunes whose elusive, teasing promise drove them to senseless acts of craven violence.
These days around Placerville, the money is in apples and wine grapes and it’s rare that people come to blows over, say, the discovery of a worm in their granny smith. If you’re the owner of an eatery with a creative bent of mind and exacting standards for produce that extends beyond those aforementioned agricultural staples, there are farms in the hills around Placerville run by men and women who’d rather spray Round-Up on their corn flakes than limit themselves to the region’s narrow spectrum of blockbuster crops.
One such entity is 24 Carrot Farm, two lush acres with a pond (complete with its own mascot, Harold the crippled swan) and a farm stand hugging a country lane that meanders off of Highway 50 four exits east of downtown Placerville. East Bay native Ben Hansen started the farm in the summer of 2015, so his and Timothy’s businesses are more-or-less maturing together. Ben’s heirloom tomatoes and greens recently found their way into a typically gonzo menu item consisting of tang/chipotle/fanta/pork belly rilette, tang-bacon mayo and watermelon jalapeño jam on a Texas toast brioche bun.
The other main supplier of produce for the Brown Bag is Full Moon Farm, owned by Greg Henry. A sandwich on Timmy’s menu paired Greg’s firebrick red Jimmy Nardello peppers with fried baloney.
Oh, and if you can’t imagine tucking into a sandwich without some sort of accompanying side, Timothy giveth; on the bottom of a typical bill of fare is a selection of fries, options which are constantly being tweaked. An example – and don’t whine to me or Timothy if it can’t be found upon your first exploratory visit – is the pho black lime crinkle fries with sweet-tart hibiscus aioli: perfectly fried potato strings seasoned with the distilled essence of a lip-smacking bowl of pho.
Timmy’s Brown Bag is truly, to employ a phrase run ragged from overuse, one-of-a-kind. Instead of opting for the understandably tempting In-N-Out Burger nearby – and I probably shouldn’t have even mentioned its existence – give this place a try. Even if your taste in sandwiches doesn’t normally allow for the baroque, esoteric and outré, at the very least you’ll feel as if you experienced something out-of-the-ordinary during an otherwise ho-hum drive up to South Lake Tahoe or the weed field you maintain tucked somewhere in the parched Sierra Foothills – hills which, seen from just the right angle and with the right kind of eyes (thank you, Hunter Thompson), still faintly glimmer with the gold of long-faded glory.
In keeping with his background in design, Timothy Swischuk keeps a visually stimulating Instagram account; it’s the best way to keep track of updates to his protean menu, as well as promotions (e.g., “10% off your Timmy’s Brown Bag lunch today if you come in wearing a red beanie and order like Jacques Cousteau”).
Timmy’s Brown Bag
451 Main Street