Innovative chefs are channeling their creativity into the humble sandwich—as much a symbol of the new seriousness of casual cuisine as it is an endless opportunity to reinvent everything from the bread to the spread.
For the past decade, we’ve lived in an era of pumped-up burger cooks, who have done impossibly good—and not so good—things with ground beef and a bun. Now, finally, there’s news for everyone who has had more than enough burgers. It’s time to make way for the sandwich chefs and their incredible creations.
It’s not as if elite cooks haven’t made a sandwich before: Superchef Thomas Keller has launched some amazing ones at his nine-year-old Bouchon bakeries. But now, well-trained chefs are opening up dedicated sandwich places, where they make almost everything from scratch and redefine classic concepts. “I see a lot of chefs going to sandwiches,” says Roy Choi, an F&W Best New Chef 2010. He knows more than a little about culinary trends, having helped launch the food-truck craze a few years back with his Los Angeles-based Kogi BBQ Korean tacos. “The new sandwiches are extremely well-composed,” he says. “It’s the 2.0 of casual food becoming more complex.” After all, chefs have been curing their own meat for years; they just needed a place to put it besides a charcuterie plate.
Likewise, many of these chefs have been experimenting with bread. At Bäco Mercat in L.A., for instance, Josef Centeno bakes a special flatbread he’s dubbed the “bäco,” using it as a base for sandwiches like his crispy panko-crusted fried shrimp with spicy cardamom. As a rule, chefs also like to play around with sauces, and sandwich experts are no exception. At the New York City-based No. 7 Sub shops, Tyler Kord makes an updated smoky French dressing that wouldn’t be out of place at an elegant restaurant; instead, it tops his grilled-asparagus hero. And that sandwich is cheaper than anything you’d find at a fancy place: just $9.
Son of a Gun in Los Angeles tucks potato chips into its lobster roll for crunch. sonofagunrestaurant.com.
The new Asian-accented 903 in San Francisco wraps a layer of nori around its baked tofu sandwich. 903 Cortland Ave.; 415-678-5759.
Pane Panelle in Manhattan makes crispy Sicilian panelle (chickpea fritters), a key part of sandwiches like the Panelle Parm. panepanelle.com.
As an ode to the Texan specialty Frito Pie, The Monterey in San Antonio tops barbecued pork po’ boys with corn chips. themontereysa.com.
Chefs are putting an intense focus on vegetarian fillings, layering on multiple cheeses, adding fried fillings like plantains and otherwise going all-out for deliciousness.
Saltie; New York City
Most of the sandwiches here are vegetarian; the Spanish Armada is stuffed with an egg tortilla and pimentón aioli. saltieny.com.
Noble Pig Sandwiches; Austin
This Texas deli starts serving its pressed cauliflower-and-three-cheese sandwich right at 10:30 a.m. noblepigaustin.com.
Little Water Cantina; Seattle
Meatless choices include the PLT: fried plantain strips and habanero tartar sauce (plus lettuce and tomato). littlewatercantina.com.
Victory Sandwich Bar; Atlanta
Victory’s Beeter sandwich combines smoked-beet “pastrami” with white kimchi and Thai chiles. vicsandwich.com.
Reinventing Sandwich Spreads
Chef Bryan Voltaggio tops his pressed lamb sandwich with a honey-spiked aioli and eggplant relish at Lunchbox in Frederick, MD. voltlunchbox.com.
Tyler Kord of NYC’s No. 7 Sub puts his spin on traditional sauces: Smoky flavors infuse the French dressing on the grilled-asparagus sandwich. no7sub.com.
Jose Garces uses harissa mascarpone to flavor his chickpea-fritter-and-squash sandwich at Philadelphia’s Garces Trading Co. garcestradingcompany.com.
Rethinking Sandwich Breads
Philadelphia’s venerable Italian sandwich spot Paesano’s now offers the option of gluten-free bread for choices like suckling pig with broccoli rabe. paesanosphillystyle.com.
In Orange County, CA, Bruxië created Belgian-style, yeast-risen, savory waffles for sandwiches like prosciutto and Gruyère with whole-grain mustard. bruxie.com.
What’s a bäco? It’s the supple, chewy flatbread created by Josef Centeno as an alternative to standard pita for the sandwiches at L.A.’s Bäco Mercat. bacomercat.com.
At breakfast and lunch at Napa Valley Biscuits in Napa, fried chicken breasts spread with apple butter become towering biscuit sandwiches. 1502 Main St.; 707-265-8209.
The Picnic Basket; Santa Cruz, CA
Choices like sweet potato-chèvre are sustainable. thepicnicbasketsc.com.
The squash with snap pea pesto is a locavore favorite. eathomegrown.com.
The loafless meat loaf clocks in at 190 food miles. slocolocal.com.