At first glance, Mario’s Butcher Shop & Delicatessen appears to be a typical neighborhood spot for chops and filets. Inside is the standard grocery deli case, filled with various cuts of grass-fed beef plus poultry, sausages made on the premises, and the occasional hunk of game meat. There are coolers touting a variety of takeout options like pastas, soups, salads, and tamales prepared by the chef’s mother, and another area for sliced-to-order deli meats. Then, there is the sandwich counter. That is where, with casual precision, chef Mario Llamas and his staff prepare some of the most well-crafted sandwiches in Orange County.
How can a shopping center stop-off on Bristol Street in Newport Beach, lined with less than a dozen cafe tables outside, make some of the county’s best sandwiches? The answer lies in the wood-burning grill behind the deli counter. The fiery, hulking case of metal harkens back to Llamas’ time as executive chef at Corazón de Alcachofa, an upscale Argentinean steakhouse in Guadalajara, Mexico. The influences from that time in the chef’s life are spread across the menu at Mario’s, but can be found most directly in the choripan sausage sandwich with fresh chimichurri. The Argentine-style chorizo sausage is prepared in-house and the casing snaps upon first bite. The seasoned pork blend melds well with a freshly baked artisan roll, which soaks in the olive oil, parsley, and garlic in the chimichurri.
To put it simply: Llamas has been drawn to the flame for 20 years, and since August 2020 he’s put that pursuit to good use at the butcher shop and sandwich restaurant that bears his first name.
Llamas, who lives in Laguna Beach now, grew up in Gardena and Carson but spent several formative years cooking abroad in Mexico. In 2001, not long after graduating culinary school, he left California to begin 14 months of travel with his wife. “We wound up staying for 14 years,” says Llamas with a chuckle.
The mustachioed chef found success at Corazon de Alcachofa, grilling meats as part of Guadalajara’s vibrant food scene. For years, Llamas honed his Argentinian-influenced craft, turning out South American cuts of beef alongside certified Angus steaks from Nebraska and Kansas. Prized for its high quality fat marbling and tender texture, certified Angus beef grills well and, at the time that Llamas lived in Mexico, was highly regarded by chefs and exclusive resorts.
Llamas traveled around Mexico, eating and learning and befriending other chefs, but he ultimately returned to the U.S. to set down more permanent roots. “My kids were getting older and we wanted them to go to school here,” says Llamas. Since he already had family living in Los Angeles, Llamas settled in West Hollywood; he took cooking jobs at a few restaurants, but couldn’t find his groove. “I just wasn’t happy,” he says. Eventually Llamas landed a gig out of the public eye, apprenticing at West Coast Prime Meats in Brea.
“The way a butcher handles meat is completely different from what we learn as chefs,” Llamas says. “I didn’t want to open a butcher shop at that point. I just wanted to learn.”
Llamas used his employee discount to buy a variety of meat cuts, practicing with different preparation techniques at home to hone his skills. Yet it wasn’t until 2020, when he was furloughed from work, that he began to consider opening his own butcher shop. With time on his hands and nothing to do but stay inside, Llamas began to think about the ingredients. He slowly perfected his recipes by preserving and curing his own meats at home.
“I would buy whole pigs and wine fridges,” says Llamas. “They’re the perfect size [for curing] … and I just started working at it. In the beginning, it wasn’t so good. But, you know what they say, you really get better [by] learning from your mistakes.” It was precisely these early mistakes that led Llamas to persevere. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted to serve at his new restaurant but he knew it had to be a casual neighborhood spot centered around meat.
“We just needed to get everything in the shop and we’d see where it’d go,” he recalls. He began crafting sandwiches that reflected his time in Los Angeles and Mexico. He took suggestions from the locals who wandered into the shop. He thought about what he and his small kitchen crew enjoyed eating. He kept tinkering with his turkey sandwich, pastrami, and his classic smash burger until they tasted just how he liked. The successful experiments have now found their way onto Mario’s menu or are served as off-the-menu specials.
Mario’s sandwiches are unique because they’re not tethered to one region. Flavors stem from Argentina, Italy, Mexico, and California. Thinly sliced capicola, Genoa salami, and soppressata, the makings of a great Italian sub, are carefully crafted in-house by Llamas and his team. There’s a small licensed charcuterie room just off the main deli area, with a window for customers to witness the slow-aging process — a rare sight for a sandwich shop in Orange County.
The most popular sandwich, though, is Mario’s smoked pastrami. Llamas tinkered with this recipe for the past 15 years while working in Mexico, eager to recreate the flavors he remembered from Los Angeles deli icon Canter’s. When he was living in Mexico, he missed the flavors from the Jewish delicatessen so much that he recreated his own. For his version, Llamas smokes the beef and steam finishes it, a method more similar to the one used at Katz’s Delicatessen in New York. But what really sets the sandwich apart is the use of Mishima Reserve wagyu beef.
“It’s definitely the higher quality of meat that made the difference,” says Llamas. The fat marbled in the American wagyu beef gives the pastrami a tender but not overtly greasy texture. The fork tender meat exudes a smoky aroma, flavored with a salty cure speckled with black pepper. The beef is thinly sliced to order and served with coleslaw, mustard, pickles, and rye bread baked by Bread Artisan Bakery, a family-owned Santa-Ana bakery founded by Jonnie LoFranco in 2010. Bread’s head baker Yannick Guegan spent a decade baking in France before joining LoFranco in 2011. Since then, the duo developed some of the most coveted sourdough and artisan rolls served in Orange County.
It’s not only about sandwiches (and steaks and deli cuts) at Mario’s, however. Llamas’ own 11-year-old daughter swears by the smashburger, and the chef himself often opts for the breakfast burrito with housemade chorizo seasoned with garlic and smoked paprika. “It’s not a huge burrito,” says Llamas, though the cheesy finished product does span two small-ish tortillas. “One day we’re going to make our own tortillas, but for now, we use Diana’s. They’re legendary if you’re from the Carson area.” The tortillas are made with a blend of corn and wheat flours, giving them the flavor of a corn tortilla with the suppleness of a flour tortilla.
The butchered meat case at Mario’s is heavy on beef — kabobs, dry-aged rib steaks, and chops. While the clientele ranges from university students to tech executives, and the parking lot is filled with sleek cars, the shop is uniquely utilitarian: an open kitchen, two long butcher cases, a couple of stand-up refrigerators for take-home goods, and a table or two for dry goods at the ready. Mario’s is very much still a market for the people, and its identity as a non-fussy neighborhood spot helps to normalize the upscale Newport Beach street it lives on. Llamas might not realize it yet, but Mario’s Butcher Shop & Delicatessen is well on its way to becoming a local legend.
Mario’s Butcher Shop, Plaza Newport, 1000 Bristol Street North, Newport Beach. Hours: 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.