What is it about a sandwich?
A short and highly personal list of the most important sandwiches I have ever eaten
What is it about a sandwich that stirs such passion in our hearts?
Everyone’s got an opinion when it comes to sandwiches—about what the best ones are, about the best places to get them, and about the best ways to make them. Even if they don’t consider themselves gourmands, one of the most reliable ways to get people talking on the internet is to state a firmly-held opinion on sandwiches.
Here’s why you should never put (condiment) on a (type of sandwich)!
Here’s the absolute best sandwich in your state!!
Here’s the definitive ranking of the 50 best sandwiches in the world and why you should go f*** yourself if you haven’t eaten every one of them!!!
Don’t get me wrong—I devour content like this like the happy little idiot that I am, dutifully clicking through slideshows, getting mad when my priors are not confirmed and feeling validated and worldly when they are.
I could try and make a list like that myself.
But it wouldn’t be honest.
The reason why so many of us have strong feelings when it comes to sandwiches is, in my opinion, because they’re so often a food that we consume in the midst of doing something else. They’re eaten on the go, in the middle of a busy day, in a special place or in a few precious moments stolen away from a decidedly unspecial one.
They’re inseparable from context, and so the best sandwiches I’ve ever had are very likely not the best ones you’ve ever had, nor could we recreate each other’s experiences by simply swapping lists.
That said, I still like to make a list.
So here’s some sandwiches that have been important to me.
Bánh mì - Ba Xuyên, Brooklyn, NY (2006)
I was fresh out of college, living on my own in a big and bewildering city that I could not afford to live in and working a job that was not what I thought I had been working toward all those years in college. I was broke in cash terms but rich in time in a way that I would not fully appreciate until years later when I finally had money and no longer had time. I was enjoying myself, but I wasn’t sure it all felt worth it yet.
I must’ve read about the sandwich in Time Out New York or something like that—the physical, print edition, because 2006 was thirty years ago—and one Saturday afternoon I set out on a mission. It took several trains and over an hour to get out to this heralded little shop in Sunset Park, but I had time, time to ride the train and stare out the window and think about the future in the way you do when you’re 24 and making terrible decisions for your future.
The sandwich was good. Really good. They also had durian smoothies on the menu, and I had one of those, too. It was delicious. I felt like I’d tried something really special, and I thought about it most of the next week at my desk.
Hummus and Butter - Copenhagen, Denmark (2003)
There was a nearly-two-year stretch of my life where I was a vegetarian—mostly for health reasons, at least at first, and then later out of sheer “well, let’s see how long I can keep this up” stubbornness. This phase unfortunately coincided with the summer I studied abroad in Denmark. I assume that the situation for vegetarians in Europe has improved over the last twenty years as it has here, but at the time the options were not especially great.
There was a small sandwich shop across the street from the school building that offered a “hummus sandwich” that consisted of a soft rectangle of flatbread, heavily buttered and then smeared with hummus and folded over. It is a take on the Mediterranean diet that only a northern European could conceive, and I ate it practically every day.
I gained fifteen pounds that summer, but I think at least part of that was the beer.
Chivito - Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay (2007)
Frankly, it’s reassuring to be reminded from time to time that Americans do not lay sole claim to brazen culinary excess. A year further into my adult life than where I was above and with more than two dollars in my pocket for the first time, I booked a plane ticket to meet up with an old friend and backpack in South America for several weeks. I’d quit the job I didn’t like and was set to start a new job that would go even worse, but I didn’t know that at the time. Things were trending up, and I’d be traveling like this all the time.
(I have not traveled like this since.)
A sandwich with steak, ham, bacon, egg and cheese on it all at once it something no reasonable person should either make or consume. I ate them every day I was in Uruguay and I’ve since made my own.
Bocadillo de Tortilla - Bilbao (or maybe it was San Sebastian?), Spain (2005)
I was hungover after a long night spent in a youth hostel drinking with strangers.
I had to make that sentence its own paragraph, because the fact that I would do such a thing feels like a lifetime or two ago now that I’m someone with a Hilton Honors account and strong preferences on business hotel chains who would rather cut his own foot off than share sleeping quarters with someone I’ve just met.
It was a different time, and so on.
My life was saved by an egg sandwich that morning, and while that’s a phrase that’s been true on more than a handful of occasions in my life, there was something especially important about this one. Even in my depleted state, I could recognize the beauty of a $3 sandwich of egg-and-potato omelet on crusty bread, a demonstration that you only really need a few ingredients in a sandwich if you know exactly what you’re doing with them. (Saving lives, that is.)
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The ‘Black Label Burger’ - Minetta Tavern, New York, NY (2011)
A sheer ostentation, this $26 burger (I just checked, it’s still on the menu and it’s $38 now) is the kind of thing that causes some people to recoil at the indulgence and others line up to make reservations a month in advance. While I understand the position of the former, I don’t think I’m revealing anything too surprising by identifying myself as the latter.
It’s not so much a burger as it is a dry-aged steak ground up and griddled, served on a toasted bun with no cheese or condiments other than caramelized onions. It was ridiculous and also absurdly good. More than that, it was a celebration of a particular time in my life, a time where I was just starting to think that I had things figured out and I could do grown-up things like pay $26 for a burger with no cheese.
Virtually nothing that I had figured out at the time remains aside from the wonderful woman who got us the reservation, but that’s the only part of my life then that was actually worth keeping.
Pastrami Sandwich, Katz’s Delicatessen - New York, NY (multiple times)
The sandwich transcends excess; rather, it feels like a prank, a bit of Vaudeville humor played on unwitting tourists. Look how much pastrami I just gave this schlemiel. If you order the half-sandwich, plan on taking half home, or at least on taking an Uber home.
The restaurant is a tourist magnet now, as it has been for decades, thronged by bus tours and picture-takers and list-checkers and people who just want to sit in the seat where Meg Ryan sat in When Harry Met Sally and have what she had.
It’s also a place that’s still worth having. It’s worth having the sandwich because the meat is good even if there’s far too much of it to eat, and the experience is worth having because it’s a place you couldn’t make from scratch tomorrow even if you tried. It’s a place that shows you the New York you expected to find amidst the New York that actually exists, the one that you love and hate in equal measure.
Hot Brown, The Brown Hotel - Louisville, Kentucky (2014)
The first thing that I want to know about any new place is the food.
I’d moved to New York with the intention of never leaving and then we started to talk about leaving. It wasn’t working for us the way it once had. We needed something new, and my wife had a call-back job interview in Kentucky. She booked a plane ticket to seal the deal, and I booked a plane ticket to see what it was like.
I knew it would be a lifestyle change, but I ate well that whole weekend. We capped the trip with this monstrosity of a sandwich—an open-faced construction of turkey and bacon and tomato drowned in cheesy Mornay sauce and served bubbling-hot—and after eating it, I felt better.
Not physically, mind you—no one should ever eat this when they’ve got to get on an airplane in a few hours—but a belly full of good food can make you feel better about any momentous life decision.
I’ve lived in Louisville for eight years, I have two kids with Kentucky accents, and I haven’t had a Hot Brown since.
Breaded Pork Tenderloin at the Grabill Country Fair - Grabill, IN (2015)
My wife hails from a small town in northern Indiana, and with us back within a short day’s drive, she finally got to share with me the experience of attending the “Grabill Days” —the Grabill Country Fair in Grabill, IN, not far from where she grew up.
There was fresh-cooked kettle corn, lemon shake-ups, teenagers doing an evangelical mime show, and—most importantly—there was an open-air stand frying up fresh breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches.
This was hardly the best version of Indiana’s signature sandwich that I’d ever have—the patty was clearly from a food-service company, and there were no condiments to speak of—but an average-to-good sandwich can be elevated to sublime simply by being perfectly of its time and place. Walking past the Corn Booth with a wax-paper-wrapped sandwich in my hand, I couldn’t argue that it wasn’t the best I’d ever had.
Also, it would eventually lead to me making the Kentuckiana Hot Loin, my culinary calling card.
A grilled cheese, made by somebody who loves you (1982-present)
White bread, butter (or margarine) and American cheese. You could get fancier, but you wouldn’t be making the same thing.
Mom knows just when to flip them—I still flip them too soon, and then overcorrect and burn the second side. You can’t set a timer for it; you just have to know, and that’s a skill that isn’t acquired overnight. It doesn’t matter. A grilled cheese is perfect, even if it does get a little messed up, even if you’re down to one normal slice of bread and one heel (you can turn the heel side in.) It’s an act of love and devotion, even if you’re just making it for yourself when you’ve had a rough day and can’t be bothered with anything more complex.
That just might be the best sandwich I’ve ever had.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
I just remembered a critical omission from my list, which I covered the last time I got overly sentimental about sandwiches on here, more than three years ago: the breakfast wrap my wife and I would order our last year in New York. This one merited a full newsletter on its own:
Some spring to mind:
- Lions Club BBQ sandwich: served at Clifton Day (hometown annual celebration). It's the store-bought bulk pulled pork BBQ that you get from a grocery store in a tub, but it's a time and place thing. It's childhood.
- Hokie Club, West End - I ate a lot of these at Virginia Tech in that dining hall, sometimes taking it to go. It was cheap for its size and quality. Other, arguably better club sandwiches don't taste right to me because of this sandwich
- Five Guys Burger, Springfield, VA: 2002, senior year of high-school. This was when there 5 locations in total. This was when you had to have the cool fry cook do your order so that they'd put the cup in your bag, then fill the cup with fries after, so that the whole bag was filled with fries (it wasnt always a given, and not the pre-defined scoop they do now). The particular burger was after just finishing IB tests and the school not really caring if we stayed or not, so we drove 40 minutes to Five Guys to celebrate. We were all goody goody nerds, so it felt rebellious. Everyone there was going to college and going their separate ways. It was the end of one chapter and the start of another, both for us and Five Guys (they started franchising in 2003).