The sandwich, it seems, has always existed on the edge of an existential crisis—at once both a perfect, universally loved food item with an imperfect definition.
While philosophy professors have their own way of addressing what constitutes a sandwich (you might want to comb through Kit Fine’s paper on the metaphysics of a ham sammy, for good measure), our legal system tells us another set of contradictory rules that will classify a burrito as one for tax purposes.
The technicalities can lead you down a never-ending rabbit hole: Is a KFC DoubleDown a sandwich if it has no bread? What about something rolled, like a gyro? Or a hamburger? Or hot dog for that matter? I’m certainly not the first one to have asked these questions.
But we’re not here to split rolls hairs—the purpose of this exercise is to revel in the glory of sandwich-hood and all it has to offer, from local specialties that stoke regional pride, to contemporary riffs that improve upon our favorite classic combos.
To get you started on your life-long quest for hoagies, bánh mì, and the like, we rounded up a handful of editors, chefs, writers—including one sandwich-blogging NBA champion—for their bread-and-filling wisdom.
- Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor at Texas Monthly, author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue; @BBQsnob
- Marian Bull, digital editor at Saveur Magazine. Her writing has appeared on/in Food52, Cherry Bombe, PUNCH, her diary, and other cool places you love; @marianbull
- Patric Kuh, food critic at Los Angeles Magazine, James Beard award-winning writer
- Angela Dimayuga, executive chef at Mission Chinese Food
- Jamie Bissonnette, chef and co-owner of Toro NYC & Boston, Coppa; @jamiebiss
- Guy Fieri, chef, host of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, legend; @guyfieri
- Sara Kramer, chef at Madcapra; @misssarakramer
- Matt Bonner, two-time NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs, avid sandwich blogger
- Bill Esparza, food writer, taco scholar, blogger @streetgourmetla
- Ed Scarpone, executive chef at DBGB DC @edscarpone
- Einat Admony, chef at Bar Bolonat, Balaboosta, and Taim; @einatadmony
- Sarah Song, contributor to Serious Eats and Time Out Chicago
- Ross Scarano, deputy editor at Complex. He was born at Magee-Womens Hospital and will never be able to shake his accent; @rossscarano
- Gerardo Gonzalez, chef at El Rey
- Brette Warshaw, editor at luckypeach.com; @BstarWarshaw
- Justin Bolois, features editor at First We Feast; @justinbolois
Let the feasting begin.
Chopped Pork Sandwich at Skylight Inn
Address and phone: 4618 S Lee St, Ayden, NC (252-746-4113)
Vaughn says: “A 90-minute drive from the nearest major airport is required for most Americans who want to enjoy a chopped pork sandwich at Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina—the home turf of the barbecue sandwich. Cash on the lacquered wood counter is required for all, but the $4.50 price tag is more than reasonable. “You want slaw on that?” Yes. Yes, I do. A kid in a camo hat (probably in his mid-twenties, but I’m getting old) takes my money and makes change from a pile of bills and coins behind him. No register, adding machine, or point of sale system required.
Each sandwich is wrapped in white paper, whether it’s to-go or not. I guess that’s so they all seem like little gifts. You’ve got to enjoy this one under the dome (there’s a famous silver dome incongruously mounted to the roof at Skylight Inn) so you can experience the Thwack, Thwack, Thwack! of cleavers on wood, readying a section of hog—crispy skin and all—for customers to come. Unlike lots of chopped Carolina pork, so loaded with vinegar it could double as smelling salts, this pig tastes like barbecue. Yes, they splash some apple cider vinegar and hot sauce into the meat to season it—an act signaled by a momentary pause in the chopping—but the real flavoring comes from the skin. It captures the flavor of the fire more readily than the meat, and also provides a bit of crunch. The fine mayo-dressed slaw cools any burn from the hot sauce already in the mix, which is why this Texan likes to squeeze on more of that Texas Pete. A good sandwich is born through consideration of every part, and anything but a squishy white bun would distract from the generous helping of whole hog. If you’re looking for the soul of Eastern North Carolina barbecue, you need only this sandwich and a few napkins.” (Photo: Daniel Vaughn)
The Scuttlebutt at Saltie
Address and phone: 378 Metropolitan Ave, Brooklyn (718-387-4777)
Bull says: “Much has been written about the Scuttlebutt, but in this case that’s a particularly good thing, because one person isn’t enough to describe the circus that is going on over here. I will add to the chorus. To start: Caroline Fidanza’s focaccia is the best little salty (heh) pillow for almost any sandwich to land on. It’s thick enough that you get a good layer of crunch flanking lots of soft, chewy innards full of little holes that turn into pockets for a smoky pimentón aioli. And then all hell breaks loose: pickled vegetables, feta, olives, capers, herbs, and hard boiled eggs whose yolks haven’t yet turned chalky. Its colors and sensations span the whole possible spectrum—crunchy, briny, tangy, fatty, salty, soft, herbal, pink, green, white, red, and so on. Instead of feeling overstuffed it feels like a symphony, like a perfectly crafted mix CD from the boy who always wears cool hats. It begs exclamation points. It has a tendency to all sort of spill out onto your plate or foil wrapper—the sandwich shop has a sign explicitly stating that they will not slice your sandwich for you, and for this we can only respect them—but, on the bright side, that turns it into two meals. First the sandwich, then the picking up of shrapnel. There should be no other reason needed to go see Saltie, but if you need one, well, it’s a Moby-Dick themed sandwich shop, and they also sell cookies.” (Photo: Facebook)
Fried Chicken Sandwich from Night + Market Song
Address and phone: 3322 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA (323-849-0223)
Kuh says: “Kris Yenbamroong prides himself on providing every-day accessibility at his two L.A. restaurants. His culinary models are the market stalls of Thailand—he does a sensational rendition of northern-style bulging fermented sai krok sausages—but he has a soft spot for the city’s classic coffee shops where Dodgers and film grosses are discussed over BLTs on counter stools. What I love about his fried chicken sandwich is that it combines Yenbamroong’s twin drives in something delicious that costs less than ten dollars. The burger bun is not trying to be a brioche, the sliced Roma tomatoes make no claims of being heirlooms. Jidori? Forget it. This fowl is a perfectly decent quality that reaches crisp perfection when dipped in a batter lightened with red lime paste water—providing the alkali lightness of baking soda—and deep fried. The mound of som tum green papaya salad laid on top is prepared to order, the garlic and fiery chiles bruised (not crushed) in a clay mortar, then freighted with fish sauce and lime juice, providing a sharp counterpoint to the richness of the fried thigh meat. The last things tossed on are a squiggle of Ranch dressing and sliced raw jalapenos; then the lid is brought down, but not before the bread has been crisped on the same griddle he uses to sear pork neck strips. The thing is so honed it’s practically an object lesson. Not every ingredient need have myriad nuances, and ultimately it’s bearing down on the details that makes something great.”
Italian Sub from White House Subs
Address and phone: 2301 Arctic Ave, Atlantic City, NJ (609-345-1564)
Dimayuga says: “When I moved to New York City to start working in kitchens almost nine years ago, the places I worked at dictated my day-off food cravings. If I was cooking French or Italian, it meant I was craving Chinese food. That changed when I went on to open Mission Chinese Food and Mission Cantina. It’s solidly been either Japanese or Italian American since then, but it’s East coast Italian-American that really hits the spot. It was something I never had direct access to in California. My girlfriend, who was raised outside of Atlantic City, turned me on to her favorite sandwhich shop ever: White House Subs for their famous Italian sub. Built in 1946, it’s a diner frozen in time. The exterior of the shop looks like a iced cake in a beautifully patriotic red, white and blue, and the neon sign boasts the restaurant name and an eight-foot neon sub. I love all the details: the orange and white vinyl booths; the ribbed, 60’s stainless kitchen walls and hood; Sinatra’s sweat soaked towel used in his last show in A.C., immortalized in a boxed frame amongst all the other photographs of famous people that have passed through.
But it’s all about that sub. Big dudes come in for their pre-ordered sandwiches, and leave with both arms bear hugging their precious load—a paper bag o’ subs jutting out of them. Soft, pale Italian bread comes in four times a day from the Italian bakery across the street. For a mere $13.50 you get a two-foot sub, layered with the correct quantities of shiny meat slices—including soppressata, salami, and ham cappacolla—and then topped with provolone, lettuce, tomato, red onion, salt, and pepper. The masterful addition is the B&G chopped sweet and hot red pepper condiment, which gives it the perfect balance of acidity that the squishy, meaty sub needs. I was taught to order the chopped pepper on the side because they send you a generous amount in a paper coffee cup. Another way to enjoy it is after the sub sits for a 2.5 hour journey from the A.C. bus terminal to Penn station, sogged just the perfect amount.” (Photo: Ruth C./Yelp)
Banh mí at Saigon Sandwich Shop
Address and phone: 696 Washington St, Boston, MA (617-542-6296)
Bissonnette says: “A smart person once told me, “It’s hard to find a truly bad bánh mì.” I thought about this and realized that they are totally right. When I went to Vietnam on an eating trip, I never got sick of bánh mì or iced coffee. I loved that the best bánh mì were at kiosks, or carts on side streets, or behind the bus washing lot in Ha Long Bay. There are plenty of wicked good bánh mì all around most cities, true. But the experience of walking into Saigon Sandwich Shop in the former Red Light district in Boston is so much like finding an abandoned lot with someone making scrambled egg bánh mì in Vietnam—save the long flight.
Saigon Sandwich Shop is unassuming, rustic, and tiny—smaller than a Chinatown apartment. They have fried spring rolls sitting out at room temp ready to go, boxed curry chicken and rice, and fresh shrimp rolls. Their traditional iced coffee with chicory and condensed milk is only two bucks, and their bánh mì are under $4. My favorite sandwich is the VN #1 (bánh mì đặc biệt ): chả lụa Vietnamese bologna, head cheese, ham, chicken liver spread, pate, and mayo mixed with butter, raw chilis, cilantro, pickles, carrot, and daikon. It’s unbelievable, both texturally sound and craveable. I loved it the first time I had it, so I learned to make chả lụa and put the recipe in my book The New Charcuterie Cookbook. I also moved across the street last year, and it’s now my a.m. coffee/lunch spot. If you aren’t going to go to Vietnam, come to Boston and have this sandwich. When you get in, see the city, eat around, and get one to-go for your trip back.”
Pit Beef at Chaps Pit Beef
Address and phone: 5801 Pulaski Hwy, Baltimore, MD (410-483-2379)
Fieri says: “I love my Philly cheesesteaks, I can’t get enough of a tri-tip dip, and I go crazy for a killer burger, but without question, one of my favorites is the Pit Beef sandwich from Chaps Pit Beef. It’s got great char to it, and the meat is perfectly sliced thin and has a killer smoky flavor. It also has a nice medley of white onion, the really bright horseradish, and a great roll—but not too much bread.” (Photo: A.C./Yelp)
Mefuneket at Think Sweet Cafe
Address and phone: 546 Kings Hwy, Brooklyn, NY (718-645-3473)
Kramer says: “The mefuneket is not something I get to eat often (especially now that I’m based in Los Angeles), but it’s a sandwich with ties to my childhood. My mother would bring it home any time she went shopping for Middle-Eastern groceries in that part of town. Later, I’d go out there to shop and eat hummus with fowl—and, of course, this sandwich. It’s nothing fancy, but for me, it’s the perfect breakfast construction: egg, labneh, tomato, pickled peppers, and olives on sesame seed bread. The combination really works for me—a good balance of sweet and savory, creamy and crunchy. It just hits all the right notes. It’s also a trip to go there, literally and figuratively. It’s far, tiny, and cramped, and the guy who makes them is a character. You’ll be surrounded by exclusively Hebrew-speakers. It feels like the kind of experience one could only have in New York.” (Yelp: Yaron H./Yelp)
Roast Beef at Beefside
Address and phone: 106 Manchester St, Concord, NH (603-228-0208)
Bonner says: “New England is famous for its roast beef sandwiches, and Concord, New Hampshire is no exception. It is home to numerous great roast beef spots. But if I had to choose one, I’d go with the “Super Giant” from Beefside. I’m talking rare, tender, melt-in-your mouth, thinly sliced roast beef stacked wicked high on a toasted bulky roll. Add a delicious seafood chowdah on the side and you’ll be in heaven. I’ve been eating there my whole life and it’s never changed. That’s what makes it so great. Like much of New England, Beefside is old school—no frills and great food. If you need further proof: I had my parents bring me 30 sandwiches from Beefside when we were in Boston to play the Celtics a couple years back. I handed them out to my teammates and coaches on our flight home after the game. By the time we landed in Texas, there weren’t any leftovahs.” (Photo: Miguel R./Yelp)
The Fairfax at Eggslut
Address and phone: 317 S Broadway, Los Angeles
Esparza says: “Eggs. I love eggs. All of them: chicken, duck, fish roe of all price points, silkie eggs, ant eggs, quail —if it lays an egg, I want those eggs. Eggs are prominent in some of my favorite dishes—huevos rancheros, egg salad sandwiches, shakshuka, brik, and any dish that’s kind enough to include an egg prepared in some fashion. So, when I first heard about Eggslut, the all egg porn food truck that recently moved into L.A.’s Grand Central Market, I had to go. There are many great sandwiches and other egg dishes at Eggslut, but the one where the egg gets it just due is the Fairfax—a soft scrambled egg on a brioche bun with Sriracha mayo, caramelized onions, chives and cheddar cheese. It reminds me of a Cuban egg sandwich, called pan con tortilla, but the soft scramble in the Fairfax has a more intensified texture of the things I want in a cooked egg, that balance of moisture and fluffiness sweetened with the spicy mayo and caramelized onions. The Fairax is simple, with thoughtful accents of sweet and savory. But ultimately it’s just you, the egg and a soft bun—once an eggslut, always an eggslut.” (Photo: Gastroflonomics)
Kim-Fil-A at G by Mike Isabella
Address and phone: 2201 14th Street Northwest, Washington, DC (202-234-5015)
Scarpone says: “When I was living and cooking in NYC (from 2009 until 2014, at Café Boulud and db Bistro) I basically lived on sandwiches. I’d travel down to Chinatown from the UES on my days off for the bánh mì from Saigon Bakery, and after dinner services I’d hit the lamb gyro at Halal Guys, open until 4 a.m. So when I moved to DC in September to open DBGB, I had to find some new bucket list sandwiches. My favorite so far is the Kim-Fil-A from G by Mike Isabella, a sandwich shop by day and Italian restaurant by night. They have guest chef sandwiches, and the one by Chef Jonah Kim of Anju, called the Kim-Fil-A, is really something: crispy chicken thigh, bacon, Muenster cheese, and fermented chili slaw. The combination of hot crispy chicken with a nice salt crust and tangy fermented slaw is killer. I love anything fermented—it adds funk. The Kim-Fil-A with a side of G’s Lamb Chili with harissa yogurt and scallion should be on everyone’s bucket list.”
Tunisian Sandwich at Breads Bakery
Address and phone: 18 E 16th St, New York (212-633-2253)
Admony says: “For me, sandwiches are all about the bread, and Breads Bakery here in New York City has some of the best around. It’s run by Uri Scheft, an Israeli master baker, and I am a big fan of his Tunisian Sandwich. A traditional Tunisian Fricassee, as it’s also called, typically comes on a piece of fried bread, but Uri makes it on his amazing baguettes and rolls. In between is tuna, thinly sliced, cooked potato, hard boiled eggs, olives, preserved lemon, and a little bit of harissa. It’s a great sandwich—tasty, satisfying, and filling, but definitely not too heavy.” (Photo: Kevin L./Yelp)
Fried Bologna at Au Cheval
Address and phone: 800 W Randolph St, Chicago, IL (312-929-4580)
Song says: The first time I went to Au Cheval, my friends and I were blown away by how unabashedly go-for-broke, crazy delicious the food was—from the enormous roasted marrow bones with piping hot beef cheek marmalade and buttery toast, to the prime beef single (meaning, two patties) cheeseburger topped with fried egg and thick, peppery bacon. Still, in my mind, there is no greater example of their over-the-top attitude towards food than their take on the old brown-bag staple, the fried bologna sandwich. Piles of paper-thin, pepper-speckled, house-made bologna are griddled on the flat-top until golden-brown, topped with melted American cheese and a simple dijonnaise sauce of mustard, mayonnaise, and lemon, perched tremblingly atop a perfectly browned bun. The result is a giant, gorgeous, gravity-defying stack of meat and cheese, dripping with sauce and juices. House-made sweet bread-and-butter pickles go beautifully with this sandwich, adding a crunchy texture and sweetness that cuts through and complements each salty, porky, chin-dribbling bite. I make a mess every time I eat this sandwich, squishing it into submission and stuffing it into my mouth with abandon.
Capicola at Primanti’s
Address and phone: 46 18th St, Pittsburgh, PA (412-263-2142)
Scarano says: “This is to make amends: The first time I tried to write about that beloved and semi-famous Pittsburgh experience, the Primanti Brothers sandwich, I was in a high school creative writing class. I committed the amateur hour mistake many bad writers commit when describing something they think they love but are at a loss to understand: I likened it to jazz. And free jazz at that—oof.
But the men and women at the original Primanti Brothers location (in Pittsburgh’s kinda dingy but entirely loveable wholesale food and Steelers apparel neighborhood, the Strip District) don’t make jazz. They make sandwiches, and they make them efficiently and likely not according to the latest health codes. Maybe sometimes they’ll use gloves when they handle your food, sometimes they won’t. They’ll speak with Yinzer accents in varying degrees of gruffness, from a casual yinz to a nasally dahntahn. Their moves are practiced—the stack of thick capicola hitting the grill, the provolone cheese following soon after to melt atop the spicy, fatty protein in gooey strands. The thick Italian bread, supplied by Mancini’s Bakery, waits by the grill. The bread is never toasted so that it can conform exactly to what it contains: meat, cheese, tomato slice, peppery vinegar-based cole slaw, crisp French fries. The textures are as diverse as the temperatures and flavors. The layers of cap’ retain heat (and pack a pleasantly sharp bite), which contrasts with the cold slaw and tomato. Each bite will have you flushed and satisfied—unless you obsess over calories, in which case someone can point you to the door with the neck of their Iron City.
There are differing schools of thought when it comes to the meat. (Ever the black sheep of my family and, during my angstier moments, the entire city of Pittsburgh, I love the fried fish.) There’s sardines, which I have never seen anyone order. There’s salami (another personal favorite, and one that really benefits from a fried egg.) There’s the weirdly popular cheese steak that isn’t anything like what Philly manufactures. Is the thick, unappetizing rectangle of beef a dig at Philly, a kind of cutting off the nose to spite the face? Maybe. But given how many people genuinely seem to enjoy it, maybe not. Still, the capicola is the one, the standard, the sandwich you should try if it’s your first time. And you don’t have to take my word for it—they sell the cap’ at the Primanti locations inside both Heinz Field and PNC Park, which is reason enough to think of it as the store’s flagship. Ultimately, though, the architecture of the sandwich is what matters; you can’t make a bad decision. Pittsburgh style means fries and slaw. Pittsburgh style means Primanti’s.” (Photo: Wooderice)
Tuna Melt at B&H Dairy Kosher Restaurant
Address and phone: 127 2nd Ave, New York, NY (212-505-8065)
Gonzalez says: “When people ask what my favorite restaurant in New York is, I always say B&H Kosher, hands down. There is no other place I’d rather eat at, midday or at night, than their lunch counter, watching them make egg sandwiches, tuna melts, and other classic New York Deli fare. I always order the same thing: a tuna melt made on their amazingly light and rich house made challah bread and a side of borscht. At about $11 a pop, they slather the challah with even more butter and throw it on the flat top griddle, which is no more than three feet away from where I sit. They then mount it with heaps of tuna salad and top it with a few thick slices of cheddar, all while taking orders from the new customers who have just entered the restaurant. More often than not, I like to eat alone during the day. I think it’s because I am in a rush, but in reality, it’s a way to slow down my day for even 25 minutes. When I go to B&H—as I wait for that enormous sandwich with a side of house pickles, perfectly seasoned—you see a mix of East Village’s finest: businessmen, older neighborhood crowds, young literary types. The staff is an amazing mix of Eastern European ladies and Mexican dudes, all lovingly taking shots at one other (and customers) in spanish while serving old school, jewish deli food. Whenever I eat that buttery, crispy seared sandwich—soft, warm, tuna and slightly musky cheese—the world outside stops, and I feel like I am on the set of a 90’s PBS after-school show called “Diversity Cafe,” but with more cursing and way less frivolous hugs. *Side note: They were severely effected by the gas explosion that happened a few doors down from the restaurant on 2nd Ave. They have been closed due to inspections and red tape, but will open back up very soon. The 73 year old restaurant has a lot of loyal customers, whom raised about $26,000 to help the restaurant survive the temporary closure.” (Photo: B&H/Facebook)
Philly Cheesesteak at Alla Spina
Address and phone: 1410 Mt Vernon St, Philadelphia, PA (215-600-0017)
Warshaw says: “I have no interest in dabbling in the Pat’s vs. Geno’s vs. Jim’s conversation, which is tired and old and pointless. (If you’re sober, get a roast pork sandwich at DiNic’s. If you’re drunk, does it really matter?) In the gray-shaved-meat camp of cheesesteaks, there is bad and there is fine, and the difference between these two ends of the spectrum is miniscule. Instead I point you north, through Center City, up Broad Street, to Alla Spina, the beer bar owned by the Marc Vetri crew. Sit down at the horseshoe bar, get a glass of fancy craft beer, and order the North Philly Cheesesteak. You will receive a pretzel bun filled with intensly porky sausage bedecked with a swath of “spicy beer cheese,” a glorious emulsification of cream cheese, asiago, and Allagash White, and you will eat it with a primal ferocity that will shock you. Is it anything close to a “Philly cheesesteak”? Nah. Is it lame to recommend something chef-y and fancified instead of a Whiz-y, foil-wrapped classic? Maybe. But after four years of living in Philadelphia, I can say this: this is not just one of the best “cheesesteaks” around, it’s one of the best sandwiches around.”
Oyster Loaf at Casamento’s
Address and phone: 4330 Magazine St, New Orleans, LA (504-895-9761)
Bolois says: “What is it about Bunny Bread that inexplicably calls my name? It’s certainly a far cry from the crusty French bread that the 100-year-old Leidenheimer baking company supplies to po’boy shops all over town. But when I returned home to Los Angeles from Jazz Fest back in 2013, all I could think about was an image of Al Green on stage throwing roses into the crowd, and this white, processed loaf I had never heard of before—a Midwest-Southern equivalent of Wonder Bread. My grain-bowl worshipping friends thought that was a totally dumb thing to obsess over, and admittedly it felt sort of dirty, especially in the context of other bread-and-filling icons like the muffuletta and po’boy. I first learned about it at Casamento’s, a time-honored restaurant on Magazine street that shuts down for three months during the summertime (go figure). There, the bread forms the backbone of their oyster loaf sandwich, a distant—and somewhat neglected—cousin of the po’boy. Toasted, chewy, and sliced thick, the bread is slightly sweet—reminding me ever so slightly of Japanese milk bread—and acts as a brilliant foil to the pool of salty juices spilling out of the fried Gulf oysters, which are dredged in corn flour to give them a more robust crunch. A schmear of mayo brings it all together. This year I missed seeing the Reverend belt out “Love and Happiness,” but I really missed that damn Bunny Bread too.