Legends only.

By David Landsel
January 11, 2021
Advertisement
A classic pastrami sandwich at Katz's Delicatessen in New York City
| Credit: Spencer Platt / Getty Images

"All of humankind has one thing in common—the sandwich," renowned late-aughts philosopher Liz Lemon once theorized, on NBC's 30 Rock. "I believe that all anyone really wants in this life is to sit in peace and eat a sandwich."

We want a lot of things right now, but most days we'd settle for some peace, quiet, and absolutely a sandwich. The former can be tricky, but the latter—small mercies—is not hard to find. Roughly as old as the country and invented by the Earl of Sandwich, an Englishman who never seemed to have time for a proper sit-down meal, Americans have spent the entirety of our nation's existence seeking to perfect the humble art form.

A Muffuletta sandwich at Central Grocery in New Orleans, Louisiana
| Credit: Melina Mara / The Washington Post / Getty Images

And what work we have done, drawing on our heritage to create a sandwich culture as vast and diverse as we are. By now there are many countries that do at least one sandwich well; not to brag or anything, but we've got dozens, from the muffaletta, created by Sicilian immigrants in New Orleans, to lobster rolls made with the day's catch in Maine. There's Italian beef in Chicago, roast pork in Philadelphia, pork tenderloins in the Midwest, Cuban-style sandwiches (and a lot of arguing about who makes it best) in Florida—we've got it all.

Not that we really needed to be reminded, but after a year of countless quick meals, of park picnics, of standing around eating off the trunk of the car, our appreciation for the sandwich has certainly been refreshed. What better time for a pause, a look back at the very best of the bunch?

John Bucci, owner of John's Roast Pork, serves up a sandwich at his restaurant in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
| Credit: Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post / Getty Images

On this list, you will not necessarily find the most fashionable or visually appealing—all we wanted were icons and legends, the sandwiches that have stood the test of time. We wanted the ones with an extreme sense of belonging, the sandwiches people would fight for, and possibly over.

Stuart Litt, owner of Hygrade Deli in Corktown, Detroit, prepares food
| Credit: Tribune Content Agency LLC / Alamy Stock Photo

There were strict parameters;  no burgers, no hot dogs, no burritos, no tacos, and in nearly all cases, no barbecue. Sandwiches or not sandwiches, they can go ahead and get their own lists.

Alabama

Some of the luckiest big birds around are the ones living, temporarily anyway, the free-range lifestyle in the pecan groves at Bates Turkey Farm near Greenville, about to celebrate 100 years in the same family. An attempt to drum up business from passers-by on the recently completed interstate was a huge success back in the 1970s, and Bates House of Turkey is now what you'd comfortably call destination dining, at least for anyone who likes turkey, because that's still the only thing on the menu. Casseroles, Thanksgiving-anytime dinners, what have you, they'll do it, but the standard turkey sandwich—a generous amount of hickory smoked bird sliced onto a sesame seed bun and topped with lettuce and mayonnaise—is a simple pleasure, an essential on those summertime, heat-beating road trips to the beach.

Alaska

If you can't get a proper fish sandwich in the state known for some of the world's finest wild-caught seafood, is there any hope for the other 49? Grilled, pan-seared, battered and fried, great fish is all around you, but start out with the fresh-caught halibut at the spartan White Spot Café, straddling the divide between the mostly well-mannered downtown Anchorage tourists typically see and that industrial swathe to the east. Welcoming all comers since the 1950s, you'll find more sophisticated preparations, but the breaded and fried square on a bun with tartar sauce and cheese is an absolute classic.

Arizona

Put just about anything on the rustic, wood-fired focaccia from Pane Bianco in Phoenix and you'd have a hit on your hands, but our first love, going back to when pizza genius Chris Bianco decided to open a sandwich shop in 2005, will always be the housemade mozzarella, made in season with fat slices of tomato or roast peppers. There's always fresh basil, and splashes of extra virgin olive oil, but that's it, and there doesn't need to be anything else. The squidge of that perfect mozz, the grassy notes of quality EVOO, the aroma of fine, fresh bread—this is a sandwich to be eaten as often as possible.

Arkansas

Open since 1905 and famously a gathering place for organizers during the Civil Rights years, the little Lassis Inn in Little Rock could tell you stories, and it can also feed you some of the state's finest fried catfish, served simply with bread, some assembly required. Order the size filet you want, from small to extra large, grab the bottle of Louisiana hot sauce on the table, and you've got it—a sandwich worth traveling for, though there are other condiments worth noting, from a pickle and onion salad to that Arkansas staple, green tomato relish.

California

Pastrami sandwiches are served at Langer's Delicatessen in Los Angeles, California.
| Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

If anyone asks you what the 1970s were like in Los Angeles, drag them down—immediately, if not sooner—to Langer's Deli, the best Jewish deli in America, for the pastrami. The setting is vintage coffee shop, a bright, mid-century beauty sitting just off of MacArthur Park in the middle of one of the West Coast's most densely populated neighborhoods. Besides Katz's in New York, you won't find many classic delis serving hand-carved, thick-cut pastrami this delicate, this delicious. The house double-baked rye dusted with cornmeal and sliced continuously throughout the day is nearly unequaled in its class. The menu is a cavalcade of stars, and that #19 sandwich—pastrami with swiss cheese, coleslaw, and dressing—is a beauty, but you owe it to the meat, the bread, and yourself to start simply, with just pastrami on rye. Maybe a little mustard. Mustard would be fine.

Colorado

For his first few decades in America, Italian immigrant Carmine Lonardo worked as a meatpacker in Denver, and while he probably would have preferred the plant didn't close in the 1970s, generations of Italian sausage lovers from across the Front Range are pretty happy about it. The house links from Carmine Lonardo's Specialty Meats & Deli in Lakewood, which Mr. L. started making to earn a bit of money all those years ago, is now a staple throughout the region. The deli, operated by Carmine Jr. and other members of the Lonardo family, does a great cold cut sub, but you're really here for the straight forward sausage sandwiches, made with provolone and peppers, bathed in marinara.

Connecticut

The protocol may have been a little different this time around, but the lobster shacks of New England—already geared toward a more out-of-doors experience—managed to mostly keep last summer feeling a lot like any other. The soft breezes blowing off the Mystic River kept the air naturally fresh at Abbott's Lobster in the Rough in Long Island Sound-adjacent Noank, where crowds of eager eaters stopped in for deviled eggs and the finest Connecticut-style lobster rolls in the land: meat (here, a quarter pound, though you can get more), melted butter, toasted bun, end of story.

Delaware

So they can't decide whether to call them subs or hoagies, and with Baltimore and Philadelphia braying in your ear, it's surprising Team Hoagie hasn't won the war yet, but we can all agree that what you call your sandwich hardly matters, as long as it's good. From the streets of Wilmington to the sands of Rehoboth, talented makers are not difficult to locate, some of them even bragging serious longevity. Gaudiello's in Wilmington's Trolley Square neighborhood had been around for decades, but after a local chef bought out the previous owners, the shop has been quietly moving toward the top of the charts, largely on the back of the Special Italian Hoagie (yes, this is a safe space for hoagie people), featuring the usual wide selection of cured meats, provolone, veggies, high quality olive oil, housemade red wine vinaigrette, and fresh Italian bread, another necessary this part of the world has never been short on.

Florida

Just over a century ago in Tampa, Spanish-Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez Sr. created a sandwich at his restaurant called the Mixto. He hoped it would honor the contributions of the many immigrants who breathed life into the Ybor City neighborhood, where the restaurant was located, and the city of Tampa in general. Ham for the Spaniards, Genoa salami for the Italians, mojo roast pork for the Cubans, and for the Germans and Jews, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard. The sandwich and the restaurant—Columbia, pride of Ybor—are still with us, thankfully. Like always, you'll find yours served on Florida's best Cuban bread, baked since 1915 just around the corner at La Segunda. Florida is a big state of course, filled with people who have a lot of ideas about where to find the best Cuban-style sandwich. Down south in Miami, make the slightly chaotic Enriqueta's your first stop, where they'll stuff croquetas into your Cubano if you like, and yes, you do like, very much so.

Georgia

Welcome to biscuit country. Chicken biscuits, breakfast biscuits, breakfast biscuits with chicken on them—they're everywhere, from Hugh Acheson's Empire State South in Atlanta, where the weekday breakfast biscuit with fried chicken, pimento cheese, bacon marmalade, and scrambled eggs sets the bar incredibly high, to, well, every truck stop and roadside café in the state. You will find yourself in more than capable hands at the roadside Stilesboro Biscuits out in Kennesaw, as well as Atlanta's Home grown GA, where the somewhat giant Comfy Biscuit features both fried chicken and sausage gravy, because of course one or the other isn't enough.

Hawaii

Somewhere between the invention of liquid smoke and the rise of today's fast-paced lifestyle, Kalua pork—traditionally a whole hog affair, rubbed with local sea salt, wrapped in tropical plant leaves, and cooked in the ground—made the leap from luau labor of love to every pressure cooker in town. And why not? However you make it, it's going to taste pretty good, but when it comes to barbecued meat, you're never going to beat low and slow. Adherents to tradition, like Helena's Hawaiian Food in Honolulu, aren't the sort of place you rock up for a sandwich; they're more into the plate lunch scene here (it's a great scene, get to know it). But at the Highway Inn, with two O'ahu locations, and around almost as long as Helena's, they do a great Kalua pig sandwich on slider rolls. The prep—a Ti leaf wrap and plenty of Hawaiian sea salt—is traditional; the hit of Kiawe smoke flavoring (Kiawe being Hawaii's answer to mesquite) and a trip to the oven is not. The old-timers who have eaten here their entire lives might know the difference, but they're not complaining, at least not too loudly. At Kono's, a much newer establishment, with multiple locations on O'ahu, they're proud of their 12-hour cook, and pork is essentially the star of the show, served in everything from a breakfast burrito to the classic pressed sandwich, on a sweet Hawaiian roll. 

Idaho

This might be one of those parts of the country where someone selling Italian subs ends up posting descriptions of all the meats and cheeses for efficiency's sake, but after forty years in business, it appears customers at Cobby's in the Boise 'burbs know their cotto from their capicola—they're certainly ordering enough sandwiches starring one or the other. Decades after Pat Moroney posted up here and started his dream business, there are two locations in the area. From Italian sausage sandwiches to a simple mortadella and provolone on focaccia, this might not be the Italian deli you grew up with elsewhere, but it works.

Illinois

The exact origins are tough to pin down, but the legend of the Italian beef, pride of Chicagoland, is too good to prove incorrect. Immigrants working the stock yards would bring home the tougher cuts, seasoning and slow-cooking them into submission, yielding an aromatic, irresistible jus. Sliced thinly and served on Italian bread, you had a sandwich that may not have looked like much, but damn, if it wasn't delicious. There are stories about beef being prepared this way for parties and functions, too, which brought the concept out of home kitchens and into the public eye; entrepreneurial types would soon introduce this great idea to the marketplace. Since the 1930s, give or take, Italian beef has been one of Chicago's finest quick meals. Today, the sandwich isn't much more complicated than it was at the very beginning—an absorbent commercial-grade roll from a local institution like Gonnella, shards of slicer-cut beef, liberal amounts of giardiniera, hot or sweet peppers, and as little or as much of the jus (otherwise known as gravy) as you want. Hot and Wet, Sweet and Wet, Hot, Sweet and Wet, or even Dry (but why would you?), try it all the ways, at all the places. Let us know how you get on; we'll be at Johnnie's in Elmwood Park, not far from O'Hare, where they still roast their own beef in-house (the lengthy process has lured a lot of other places into cutting corners). Their combo sandwich, made not only with the best beef in town, but also a whole charcoal-grilled Italian sausage, is a riot of flavor and texture. For even better results, top with giardiniera, all the peppers, and a gravy deep soak.

Indiana

Serving Indianapolis for over a century, Shapiro's is not the only Jewish deli in the Midwest, it just happens to be the finest—a sparkling clean, well-oiled pastrami and corned beef machine. Long lines of regulars are served cafeteria style, enjoying beautiful Reuben sandwiches on some of the best rye bread this side of Langer's in Los Angeles, peppered beef, brisket, outstanding chicken soup, and housemade cheesecakes. Maybe it's just our New York showing, but walking in here feels like coming home. Four generations of Shapiros have worked hard to make this place indispensable to a city that might have otherwise lost interest decades ago.

Iowa

From top-notch bacon (Vande Rose Farms) to some of the country's finest prosciutto (La Quercia), America's largest pork producer does a bang-up job with one of its main exports. The pork tenderloin, locally one of the most popular ways to get a hit of the other white meat, is less renowned beyond state lines, and we're never sure why—who wouldn't want a massive hunk of center-cut pork loin, pounded vigorously, breaded or battered, and fried until perfectly crisp, still juicy on the inside? Typically found hanging out of a standard size bun with mustard and pickles, there are other sandwiches in Iowa, some of them quite well-known, but this one is absolutely the best. Not only does the local pork producers association hand out awards for the best tenderloin each year, but the state has also created a "Pork Tenderloin Trail," featuring twelve of the best makers. Breitbach's Country Dining, up above the Mississippi River in Balltown and the oldest bar and restaurant in the state, does an excellent job.

Kansas

Brought to the Great Plains by the large community of Volga Germans that resettled here as early as the 1870s, the bierock is a filled yeast roll, typically stuffed with beef, cabbage, onions and seasonings, that can be found in various forms and shapes and under assumed names throughout the region. But it's Kansas that seems most intent on keeping the original traditions alive. You'll find them year round, but bierock fever tends to spike during the fall, when the weather begins to cool. Go either way in Wichita—old school at M&M, a restaurant dedicated entirely to the local favorite, or new wave at Prost Biergarten, where some of the best buns in the state are delivered all over town in the restaurant's electric Smart car, which is named Franz. Not within range? Becky's Bierocks, busily baking in the tiny town of St. Francis, ships nationwide.

Kentucky

A whole century after a chef at the Brown Hotel invented a late-night snack for hungry guests in search of sustenance, Louisville has yet to come up with a more appealing name for the hot brown sandwich, which honestly sounds more like a warning than an enticement. We like to think of the hot brown as the beginnings of a fine turkey club: roast bird, strips of bacon, and slices of tomato on toast. Plot twist—the whole thing is then flooded with rich Mornay sauce before hitting the broiler, emerging a delicious mess that requires a knife and fork to consume. The sandwich is now served all over town, but the original is still the best.

Louisiana

When Salvatore Lupo opened Central Grocery on Decatur Street in New Orleans, back in 1906, the store became a favorite among the Sicilian immigrants working the French Market. They'd come in for lunch, pick up sandwich makings (meat, cheese, olive salad, rounds of soft sesame bread), and head back to their stalls just across the street. Lupo saw an opportunity and decided to start making the sandwiches himself; the muffuletta was born. The ingredients aren't rocket science—Italian meats, swiss and provolone, plus a generous amount of salad, which is essentially giardiniera but with the benefit of chopped olives. (You can buy the Central Grocery's own mix on Amazon.) Replicating the bread, however, is more difficult—like a great tortilla in Tucson, you might end up eating this stuff plain, given the chance. For best results, wait awhile. The longer the absorbent bread sits with the cured meats and the salad, the more the flavors fuse together. Central Grocery ships sandwiches and olive salad via Goldbelly.

Maine

The lobster business is a temperamental one, sometimes likened to a ride on a bucking bronco that just won't end. While news of the pandemic in late 2019 had fishermen on high alert, shuttered restaurants and a drastic reduction in commercial flights (how do you think those live lobsters get to Paris and Beijing?) were no match for an industry that already knew a thing or two about resilience. Turns out, for many people this year, self-care meant buying a lot of lobster. Throughout the busiest time of year, summer into fall, prices remained mostly stable. Lines at plenty of the state's lobster shacks remained healthy—nothing, apparently, was going to keep a good portion of the general public away from their summertime lobster roll. Classically, the Maine version is just cooked and chilled lobster tossed with a bit of mayonnaise, scooped onto a toasted and buttered split-top roll. You can find this everywhere—price, portion control, proximity, and happy childhood memories seem to inform most discussions about who makes them best. At Bite into Maine, a seasonal operation in the Portland area—you can't beat their seaside food truck at the iconic Portland Head Light for ambience—you can choose from an array of preparations, from lobster with wasabi mayo to a roll with coleslaw and celery salt. During the winter, head to the year-round Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland for their memorable contribution—a Connecticut-style roll, except with brown butter. McLoon's Lobster Shack ships via Goldbelly.

Maryland

One of the best restaurants in Baltimore is actually way up Falls Road in the countryside. Among all those historic homes, buffered by field and forest, Jake's Grill is essentially the only commercial business for a good while in either direction, and it's not catering to the horsey set, mind you, though you might find them lined up at lunch for a pit beef sandwich. A mess of charcoal-cooked roast beef, cooked pink as a sunset, is sliced thinly and piled on a roll spread with a horseradish-mayo sauce. (Some people want barbecue sauce as well, but it's not essential.) We've yet to find a sandwich we didn't like—try the one closest to you, but also slot in time with two superstars—the vintage Pioneer Pit Beef in Catonsville and Chaps Pit Beef, with an original location just off I-95.

Massachusetts

Surely there are lobster rolls in a coastal state bookended by Maine and Connecticut, but we're too busy filling up on clam rolls, which are the first meal we think of when we think Massachusetts, or at least the very large amount of the state located by the ocean. The tidal flats up near Ipswich are still happy hunting grounds for the state's best sandwich, which is said to have been invented on Boston's North Shore. Plump little bellies are dipped in flour and fried just enough, that briny flavor bursting forth from a griddled, New England-style hot dog bun lined with tartar sauce, typically brightened with a dash of citrus. Woodman's of Essex claims to be the inventor, but The Clam Box nearby is no slouch.

Michigan

Much like pastrami in New York, corned beef in Detroit is cherished all over town, salt-cured into submission by classic purveyors like Sy Ginsberg, Grobbel's, and Wigley's. Before hanging out in Detroit became fashionable again, you'd post up at the classic Hygrade Deli on Michigan Avenue, just out past the abandoned train station, and sometimes end up the only customer, just you and your big, beautiful Reuben sandwich or a plain old corned beef on rye with mustard, contemplating life and America and the emptiness swirling around you. These days, pandemic permitting, you'll have more company, here and at other institutions like Vivio's and Louie's Ham & Corned Beef over in the historic Eastern Market, as well as new-school hits like Mudgie's and the Russell Street Deli.

Minnesota

Well-liked enough around here to be designated the state fish, there are easier catches than the walleye, but one fresh filet on your plate and you'll see immediately why this is the one everyone wants. Subtle and sweet, firm but almost melt-on-the-tongue, you'll probably forget all about ocean-caught seafood for a moment, and perhaps ask for seconds, maybe a walleye sandwich wrapped up to go for a friend, a friend who is you. One finds these all over the state, but only the Tavern on Grand in St. Paul, where Minnesota's state fish is the specialty, has the guts to call itself Minnesota's state restaurant—you'll start here. The sandwich is nothing fancy, and it doesn't need to be—just a nice, fresh filet, seasoned and fried, on a French roll. Skip the tartar sauce, for now. This is one piece of fish you need to taste properly.

Mississippi

Settled by the French and located between two of their main outposts, Mobile and New Orleans, coastal Mississippi still has more in common culturally with those places than it does with anything to the often-distant north. Historically a place of refuge during the hot months, towns like Bay St. Louis continue to swell with city dwellers on summer weekends, and while you sometimes have to take a little drive to find what you're looking for, the food here is often very good, if not as iconic as that of New Orleans. For example: You might not drive here just to eat the po-boys, but they're better here than pretty much anywhere outside of Louisiana. The line at Pirate's Cove in Pass Christian is often made up of people from the other side of the state line, who'll swear by the house roast beef—we'll second the recommendation. In Biloxi, Taranto's Crawfish makes some of the better seafood po-boys in existence, but that's just for starters—when available, snap up a pound of peel-and-eat royal red shrimp for $16.

Missouri

Hand-written on a scrap of paper and handed down by his grandmother before her death, Alex Donley holds the recipe for the delicious salami that has contributed to Gioia's Deli winding up the oldest sandwich shop in St. Louis, boasting more than a century's worth of experience. Don't come looking for a traditional cured salami. Made fresh and served fresh, 10,000 pounds of the stuff each month, what you're getting here is something like an Italian-inflected, rustic country paté, sliced thick onto Fazio's Bakery bread (another local institution that's been around for over 100 years) and topped with pepperoncini, onion, and spicy mustard. The only embellishment worth considering is to order your sandwich on Gioia's garlic cheese bread, resulting in a toasted mess starring generous amounts of processed Provel, a locally preferred cheese alternative.

Montana

The quickest path to understanding how things work in Butte is knowing that there used to be roughly 100,000 people living in what was once the wealthiest mining district in existence. Today, the city has just over 30,000 inhabitants, and the money is mostly elsewhere, but the town isn't going anywhere, with its grand, boom period architecture and handful of classic restaurants that adeptly pull double duty—not only will they feed you, and sometimes quite well, but they are also very effective as time machines. Pork Chop John's dates back to 1924, when John Burklund began selling sandwiches out of the back of a van, a business lucrative enough that he ended up in a brick-and-mortar location not long after. The original location is still in operation—just ten stools at a counter—and the business has now been in the same family since the 1960s. The pork chop sandwich—pork tenderloin, breaded and fried, on a roll with mustard, onion and pickle—is rather iconic. Make ours a double.

Nebraska

Think Reuben sandwich, and you're probably thinking deli, maybe somewhere on a coast—think again. Times may have changed now, but back when one of the country's most iconic sandwiches was invented, you'd never find a proper kosher-style deli mixing meat and dairy. Such a mistake could only be made somewhere deep into flyover country, and it did—at the Blackstone Hotel in Omaha, to be precise. Regrettably, the hotel is long out of business, and any of the iconic classics that served the city's most popular sandwich are long gone, too. Today, a handful of much newer businesses like to lay claim to serving the best in town, but honestly, you'll find better in plenty of other states nowadays. This cannot be said for that other delightful, if less widely-renowned, Nebraska invention, the deep-fried grilled cheese sandwich. The sandwich is known as a Frenchee, possibly due to a passing resemblance to the Monte Cristo (this is purely legend, mind you, but it sounds great). You can do all kinds of things with the Frenchee, but we'll take the classic—dipped, coated, and fried—at Don & Millie's, a quirky local chainlet that any regional fast food connoisseur must visit before they die, possibly from eating too many Frenchees.

Nevada

Olivier Brouillet wasn't the first French expat lured to the desert for career reasons, but it's not every day you get someone from the South of France looking around Las Vegas and thinking, you know what, I think I'll stay, and not only will I stay, I'll summon my family here and open a restaurant in the back of an office park just off the freeway. That was 2009, and Baguette Café came out swinging, in its simple, modern space, the furthest thing from cute/French you'd have expected, more like something you'd find in, well, the back of an office park off of the highway in France. Not trendy, just good, serving up colorful quiches and tarts, decent croissants, and shots of commercial-grade espresso. With chef parents Lucien and Claudie backing him in the kitchen and lending a warm, familial energy to the enterprise, Brouillet had a hit on his hands. While the Strip was working hard to lure franchises of popular sandwich joints from around the country, some of them on this list, actual Las Vegas went ahead and made this sweet little hideout its own—a hideout that a lot of people seem to know how to find. Starting with proper French omelets on freshly baked croissants each morning, it's all good, but the tuna sandwich really does sum up the spirit of the place. It's a salade niçoise, sort of, with tuna and egg and olives and greens and what have you, except on a house-baked baguette. It's French, yes, but in the American desert, where there are no rules.

New Hampshire

They don't own maple syrup—or breakfast—here in "Live Free or Die" land, but you've got to admit there's a special quality to a sugaring season road trip to one of New Hampshire's long-running pancake houses, some of the finest in the land. Perched on a hillside and offering a panoramic view of the White Mountains, Polly's Pancake Parlor has been in business since shortly after the Great Depression on the back of their griddle cakes and maple syrup. The instant we think of sandwiches and New Hampshire, we're thinking about Polly's Panwich—quality, locally-smoked bacon, egg, and cheese (ask for the cheddar from Harman's, made just around the corner), resting comfortably between two plain pancakes. You might need a knife and fork for this one.

New Jersey

A search for the best Italian deli in New Jersey is not a great use of anybody's time, because the answer is always going to be whichever one is closest to you at the moment—not only because we don't want to fight, but also because there are just that many great ones. From Atlantic City's White House Subs, one of the city's finest attractions since before the casinos showed up (these days, it feels like it's going to outlive most of them), where the "half sandwich" is a foot long, to the fresh mozzarella paradise that is Hoboken, where multiple delis duke it out every year for top honors at the local Mutz Fest, nobody who wants any kind of Italian anything is leaving New Jersey hungry. Hoboken's M&P Biancamano has been in business for a whole century, with the same cheesemaker for over 30 years. We weren't going to play favorites, but their fresh mozzarella and pepper sandwich—a thing of simple beauty, on some very fine bread—might be one of the country's best sandwiches, period.

New Mexico

Some day, it's quite possible we'll look back and ask ourselves, "Why did it take so long for everyone to figure out that asadero cheese works really well on a Reuben, possibly better than Swiss?" It melts better, serving to further cultivate an ambiance of decadence, always welcome when we're talking Reubens; it tastes better with the corned beef, too. Should this idea ever go wide, make sure to credit Marie Yniguez, proprietor of Slow Roasted Bocadillos in Albuquerque, where the Duke City Ruben, one of the most popular offerings at the city's favorite sandwich shop, starts from scratch with slow-cooked corned beef, topped with housemade sauerkraut and a chipotle-infused dressing, which brings a nice heat to the situation. 

New York

A solitary espresso in the window at Caffe Reggio; a Zabar's that after all these years finally mastered the art of crowd control; credit cards at Luger's. For the fortunate ones who stayed and stayed healthy, 2020 was in some respects a special time in New York, offering endless opportunities to get reacquainted with the places that make the city so special. At the top of that list had to be a suddenly rather laid-back Katz's Delicatessen on East Houston Street, where the crowds may have thinned, but the pastrami was sliced—by hand—just as thick as always. If you think there's a more iconic New York sandwich than the pastrami on rye with mustard, you may need a refresher course on what New York is actually about. You get it here, you get it at the Second Avenue Deli, Sarge's, Pastrami Queen, Liebman's in The Bronx, David's Brisket House (classic), and Frankel's (new wave) in Brooklyn. You just get it.

North Carolina

Pimento cheese belongs to all of us now, but before word ever properly got out, it belonged to the South, and North Carolina most of all. It's said that the most pimento cheese-consumingest population in the country is found in the Charlotte region, where a great deal of the ambrosial stuff is made. And where does one procure the finest cheddar cheese, pimento pepper, and mayonnaise salad/spread in the land? We're partial to two magnificent classics, both vintage markets serving their respective communities for generations—Conrad & Hinkle, established 100 years ago in Lexington, because sometimes you have to eat vegetarian, even in one of the country's eminent barbecue capitals, and Musten & Crutchfield in Kernersville, at it since the 1930s.

North Dakota

You don't have to look far in either Dakota to find one of the region's favorite sandwiches, and you don't need to bend over backwards trying to understand it, either. It's s a roast beef sandwich placed on a plate, alongside a scoop or two of mashed potatoes, which is then flooded with substantial, ideally homemade, not out-of-a-package brown gravy. It's cold out there, it's January, you're on board, right? Thought so. Known far and wide for their fleischkueschle (fried meat pies), cabbage rolls, and knoepfla soup (dumplings), the 24-hour, legendary Kroll's Diner in Fargo and three other cities, does one of the state's best meals proud—no tricks, no surprises, just slow-roasted beef, shredded onto wheat bread, with a substantial and flavorful gravy. Comforting, essential wintertime eating.

Ohio

All-beef down to the casings shipped from Germany, the hickory smoked ring bologna from Troyer's—in business for just shy of a century, with the same family still in charge—has very much earned its spot on the food pyramid in Ohio's Amish heartland, a year-round destination for hungry travelers. There are other sandwiches in the state that are easy to love, but the nearly primitive hot bologna and swiss on a bun, made to order with serious efficiency at the very historic Troyer's General Store, has achieved longevity for a reason: its stark simplicity. That, and we're talking bologna that is really damn delicious. The whole experience—the sandwich, the vintage country store energy, the brusque pair we've often found behind the counter, working with extreme efficiency—belongs in a museum.

Oklahoma

Caught between some of the greatest barbecue states in the country, you've got to hand it to Oklahoma for sticking by its childhood sweetheart: smoked bologna. Served everywhere from nice restaurants to well-worn counter joints, what's sometimes jokingly referred to as "Oklahoma tenderloin" isn't just a local curiosity, it's a full-on, all-state passion. Take it off the menu, local restaurateurs will tell you, at your own risk. At Jamil's in Oklahoma City, nearly last of a breed of Lebanese-owned steakhouses that served hungry Oklahomans for years, the bologna sandwich is one of the top draws at lunch time (get it with a side of tabbouleh, for balance). Up in Tulsa, the city's hottest 'cue joint, Burn Co. does an all-the-meats extravaganza, featuring yours truly, that could stop hearts from just looking at the thing.

Oregon

Ever wonder what a bowl of pho would be like if it were a sandwich? Of course there's a restaurant in genre-bending Portland happy to answer the question for you (that's just how Portland works). As in most communities of any size west of the Cascades, there are well-trodden pathways to the pho parlors, and carts selling one, the other, or both; right here in Portland, trips to An Xuyen and Rose VL Deli are an anytime must. At Rick Gencarelli's truck-turned-institution Lardo, the classic flavors and textures of a great banh mi collab with another West Coast favorite, the French dip—say hello to the Pho'rench Dip. Quality steak is shaved onto a crusty roll along with the requisite julienned veg, plus sambal mayonnaise and hoisin, all served with a cup of rich, dark pho broth. Mix, match, dip, don't dip, down the thing like a delicious, salty consommé shot—there are no wrong behaviors.

Pennsylvania

A serious jostling in the mosh pit that is South Philly's perennially cramped John's Roast Pork rides high atop our list of post-pandemic musts, partly just to feel something after our terrible year of No Touching, but also for a sandwich, a roast pork sandwich please, the one any right-minded Philadelphian can tell you is the one you go looking for once you're ready to dine sober, in the sunlight, like a whole adult. (They make a memorable cheesesteak, too, don't get agitated.) Slow-roasted pork topped with sautéed spinach dripping garlic-infused juices and slices of melty provolone go on a Carangi Bakery roll, delivered to you wrapped up tight. You pay cash and you get the hell out, either to dine on the spartan, industrial-view patio or the hood of your car. It's one of the most memorable meals you'll ever eat in Philadelphia.

Rhode Island

Proudly home to the highest per capita population of Italian Americans this side of the Atlantic, there's always someone around to make you a classic grinder, stuffed with all the cured meats. You can find such a thing at Dee's Deli in Cranston, but we're there for something you don't see every day—a fresh Italian roll filled with garlicky broccoli rabe and thick slices of sharp provolone cheese. You don't have to be a vegetarian to get hooked on the delicious simplicity of the thing—this is one of their most popular sellers. Missing the meat? Add links of the house broccoli rabe-stuffed sausage. A winner, either way.

South Carolina

Two short blocks from a scrubbed-up King Street in the heart of Charleston, Dave's Carry-Out is as real deal as restaurants come, in a city that in recent years had leaned heavily into catering towards a more upscale crowd. A bare bones counter joint, Dave's is known well to locals for fried shrimp and the locally-favored red rice; it's also home to one of the finest sandwiches for many a mile—fish or pork chop, take your pick. Both will be battered, dragged through the fryer, and served sizzling hot on spongey white bread, with nothing other than lettuce and tomato for garnish. Sprinkle a little hot sauce, and you're in fine dining territory.

South Dakota

Ever tried pheasant salad? The annual hunt is a big deal around here, which apparently means eating a lot of pheasant throughout the year. Back during World War II, a railroad-adjacent canteen in Aberdeen serving the troops wound up inundated with pheasant brought down by local hunters, so they started making salad sandwiches. To this day, this very South Dakota thing remains on the menu not only in many home kitchens, but in local restaurants as well. You'd expect good things from a place called The Pheasant Restaurant, which is not in Aberdeen but in Brookings, where they've been at it since just about the end of the war. Here, the house pheasant salad sandwich is made with chopped apples, cranberries, and roasted pecans, topped with melted swiss on marble rye toast. Their hot roast beef and sloppy Joe sandwiches, two other Dakota essentials, are mighty fine as well.

Tennessee

Nearly a century before Nashville became one of the South's favorite food cities, the locals were blowing their own minds over baskets of hot chicken, messy and spicy and red with cayenne pepper. It would have been a serious failing had hot chicken not ascended along with the city, but who could have predicted it'd travel as well as it has—not just all over the country, but to foreign lands as well. So what if you can find it in San Diego and Sydney? We'll always brake for a moment to appreciate the classic article at the pioneering Prince's Hot Chicken, where accompanying pickles and white bread invite a make-your-own type situation. For a pre-assembled sandwich, we'll head to the new-school Hattie B's—perhaps best thought of as the South's answer to Shake Shack—for the hot chicken sandwich on a snazzy, locally-baked roll, topped with crunchy coleslaw, kosher dills, and a drizzle of the seductive house comeback sauce, a let's-try-this-at-home combo of honey, mayonnaise, and spices. 

Texas

The first torta ahogada might not be your best one, but the visual alone—a crusty, torpedo-shaped sourdough birote stuffed with carnitas, freshly emerged from its shocking orange-red, chile de arbol sauce bath—will haunt your dreams for some time, and we're betting you'll be fine with this. Hailing from Jalisco, it is only right and fitting that San Antonio, culturally one of our most Mexican cities, has become something of a proving ground for a sandwich we hope will eventually become as American as ham and Swiss. Go for one of the photogenic beauties at the smart Ro-Ho Pork & Bread, or hit the drive-thru at casual El Chivito in Balcones Heights—either way, you're in capable hands. Both establishments proudly tout their Guadalajara roots, and why shouldn't they—bib up, sink in for the first bite, and it's almost like you're there.

Utah

Topped with shards of deep-pink pastrami and nearly bursting forth from an inadequate paper wrapper, the house favorite at Crown Burger rose to become one of Salt Lake's most iconic meals for good reason, and yet there's so much more to the menu at this family-owned institution, where the ketchup-mayo combo known around here as fry sauce, aka Utah's favorite condiment, flows like a river in springtime heat. Around since the late 1970s, even some of Crown Burger's greatest fans haven't yet discovered the cut-above-fast-food ribeye steak sandwich, cooked to order and fully customizable; we might go for the house onion rings and lashings of fry sauce.

Vermont

A few million jambon-beurre (literally, "ham-butter") are sold every day in France, and, yes, this is the most basic of sandwiches, but when you contemplate the ingredients for just a moment—quality cooked ham, French butter, a crackling fresh baguette—you realize that simple is sometimes best: What else, truly, could such a sandwich possibly need? In the United States, too often the answer is other things that might sound like they belong, and yet they do not. At the highway-adjacent Red Hen Baking Co. between Waterbury and Montpelier, no such temptation has been indulged; all you get are piles of locally-smoked ham and liberal amounts of Vermont Creamery butter stuffed into a fine house baguette. In other words, you get everything you need.

Virginia

In a perfect world, the I-81 struggle through America's Secretly Biggest State would have been long ago ameliorated by modern conveniences including a third lane in each direction; in the meantime, better to think of this essential leg of the Northeast to Deep South fast route in terms of the many small detours one can make in order to feel human again, after yet another hour or staring at the rear end of the same tractor trailer. These fast escapes should involve—at least once—a dive into Virginia ham culture, and one of our favorites will always be the frills-free experience at Fulks Run Grocery, just a short hop from the highway northwest of Harrisonburg; on Fridays they fry up slabs of the house specialty, but we'll take a country ham sandwich any day—salty, formidable, stacked on a bun acting merely as a vehicle for its precious cargo. (Upgrade your experience with homemade pimento cheese.) Condemned to I-95 instead? Slow down for the Smithfield ham on a roll at the delightfully antiquated Sally Bell's in Richmond, where after all this time they still sell a great box lunch, a kind of Southern-fried bento, lovingly assembled.

Washington

Can we buy you a fish sandwich? Bordering on the Pacific wilds and as close as you can get to those chilly, bountiful Alaskan waters without being in Alaska, the Puget Sound region and environs may have changed immeasurably in the last couple of decades, but this remains a fresh seafood paradise—if you're hungry, we'll start you off with the seared halibut at the Seattle Fish Company, a proper neighborhood fish market in West Seattle, or if you're downtown and can't be enticed, the legendary Market Grill at Pike Place Market, where any hurdles are worth overcoming for classy grilled fish sandwiches on a baguette slathered in herbed aioli and topped with fresh veggies. 

West Virginia

Are pepperoni rolls a sandwich? Chunks, sticks, slices—however you get it in there, just get it in there—of the stuff baked into amply-sized white rolls have been one of the state's favorite portable foods since mining's heyday, but we're inclined to see those as a snack, rather than a complete meal, unless of course you eat two or three of them. Let's meet for lunch, we'll talk about it—say the vintage Cam's Ham in Huntington, in business for roughly 70 years on the back of one thing—the not so humble ham sandwich. Flaked, sugar-cured ham goes on a toasted roll in piles, there's a secret sauce—think mayo, or is that Miracle Whip, with a bit of pickle juice, relish and some seasoning—and a ton of shredded lettuce. Sink your teeth into that. 

Wisconsin

You're not likely to hear a word spoken against the bratwurstin any corner of America's Dairyland, but appreciation translates to obsession in  otherwise steady-as-she-goes Sheboygan, population 48,180, where some of America's finest tube steaks are split, grilled over charcoal, stuffed onto the locally-favored roll, which, like the brats, are an obvious descendant of a German original. Top with mustard and onion, consume immediately, ideally at a backyard barbecue during the peak of summer, but finding a double brat on a hard roll is far from difficult—in Sheboygan, the vintage Charcoal Inn South is a time-honored must; in Madison, hit up the more recent Old Fashioned Tavern, across from the Capitol, also known for their love of another Wisconsin institution—the classic cocktail.

Wyoming

Hard to believe it's already been a decade since Kevin and Ali Cohane disrupted the baked goods situation in high-flying but still underserved Jackson; launched after an instructive stint in Paris, Persephone Bakery has slowly expanded its footprint in one of the country's best ski towns, and like any proper French-influenced bakery, they do a great baguette, here best experienced slathered in butter and mustard, and stuffed with ham and gruyere. The sunny enterprise manages to pull off the all-too-rare Jackson hat trick, managing to make nearly everybody happy, almost on the strength of their baking alone. We're easy, fine, but we'd buy that baguette, take it home, load it up with the good butter, and pronounce it the best sandwich ever. Until the next one, anyway.