The Ever Expanding State of Sandwich

These unions are anything but ordinary

Just how important are sandwiches? Whether at breakfast, lunch, dinner or any time in between, diners consume more than 45 billion a year. Their prevailing popularity demands attention, thanks in part to the haute sandwich effect ignited by Tom Colicchio’s ‘wichcraft in New York, Graham Elliot’s grahamwich in Chicago and other celebrity chef concepts. Upscaled ingredients, blurred geographic boundaries and combinations influenced by what’s happening on the center of the plate are breathing new life into the sandwich world, where unusual combinations are making a home between the slices. 

“Chefs, no matter how high the toque, are always fine-tuning the sandwich,” says Joseph Brady, managing director of the Foodservice Research Institute, which reports that the frequency of sandwiches on menus increased 20 percent in cutting edge independents, 13 percent in casual independents and 8 percent in casual chains from 2005 through 2009.

A study conducted last year by restaurant research firm Technomic, Inc., shows the surge is continuing. When 43 percent of consumers say they eat at least four sandwiches per week and buy half of them at restaurants or other foodservice locations, it pays to be sandwich savvy. 

But before overhauling sandwich offerings, operators should take stock of what’s going on between those slices of artisan and specialty breads, pretzel rolls, naan, bagels, pita and even waffles.

Fill-er Up 

Housemade meats and cheeses, heritage pig breeds and farm-specific, sustainable meats are standard at chef-driven sandwich shops and restaurants. At Cochon Butcher in New Orleans, the classic muffuletta is compiled with housemade Italian meats such as salami, while the Cubano is filled with roasted pork and housemade ham ($10). Pork overload is the name of the game at Noble Pig in Austin, Texas, where the house sandwich combines pulled pork, spicy ham and bacon ($8). 

Proteins, such as heritage pork and local prosciutto, are piled on grahamwich’s Cuban Press ($11), while chicken breast and cherrywood-smoked bacon hook up with cranberry wasabi ($5.99) at Erbert & Gerbert’s Sandwich Shop based in Eau Claire, Wis., with 50 locations nationwide.

It’s almost expected that chefs translate their center-of-the-plate thinking into sandwiches. Fine dining Chefs Matthew Bickford and Mike Ryan offer tuna confit on focaccia with black olives, cucumber and preserved lemon ($12.50) at their casual Be’ Wiched Sandwiches and Deli in Minneapolis. Chef-owner Ryan Pera of Revival Market in Houston is clearly influenced by his fine dining days at the Four Seasons Hotel and other white tablecloth restaurants with his confit Gulf fish sandwich with remoulade, kale, peperonata and salsa verde ($12).

Hold the Meat 

Recent menus show that lobster is on a roll, while local and seasonal seafood like smelt, shad roe and soft-shell crabs have a get-it-while-you-can appeal (e.g., “fresh sardines when available” at American Sardine Bar  in Philadelphia).

Vegetarian customers are always grateful for meatless options. Falafel, Portobello mushrooms and hummus fill pitas at Colorado’s Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill. Vegan coconut curry hummus on organic naan and organic tofu po’boys, gyros and BLTs lighten things up at Urban Cannibals in Atlanta.

When in doubt, add a fried egg to the fillings, just like Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh and Paris Sandwich in New York.

Sandwiches Without Borders

Global flavor mash-ups are an easy way to energize the menu. Chai Pani in Decatur, Ga., serves an Indian-accented Sloppy Jai: spicy lamb hash with tomatoes, ginger, onions, cilantro, green  chutney and sweet yogurt served on toasted buns ($9.99). In Charleston, S.C., Butcher & Bee offers Korean short rib with spicy slaw and a fried egg on brioche ($12). 

But the bánh mì is the inspiration of the moment. At Double Dragon in Portland, Ore., Chef Rob Walls devotes a section of his menu to eight versions of bánh mì. His revamped versions of the traditional Vietnamese sandwiches have fillings such as orange sesame soy curls and chicken chorizo ($8 to $12).

Chef-owner Michael Voltaggio of Ink.Sack in Los Angeles brings together pork butt, pork belly, chicharrones, pickled vegetables and onion spread ($6) for his smaller portion bánh mì but also offers a vegetarian version, swapping out meat for tofu and choosing a mushroom spread over the onion one ($4).

At Star Provisions in Atlanta, Chef-owners Clifford Harrison and Anne Quatrano’s rendition features glazed pork belly and pickled chile on a toasted baguette ($13).

New Oldies

Regional sandwich classics are getting contemporary revamps on their home turf and taking trips across state lines.

Blossom in Charleston, S.C., does a Lowcountry spin on the BLT with lump crab and fried green tomato, applewood-smoked bacon and crab remoulade ($12).

Cheesesteaks get a second life with Korean bulgogi at Sandwich Shop in Los Angeles, and braised short rib with taleggio, pickled shallots and chive aioli on onion ciabatta ($15) at HBH Gourmet Sandwiches in Brooklyn, N.Y. 

A “Hot Bama” Brown co-opts the Kentucky favorite with flash-fried seasoned turkey, Parmesan and blanco cheese, mushroom beef gravy, Conecuh bacon and sliced tomato on toasted sourdough ($9.49) at Baumhower’s Alabama chain. 

“All the menus we see tell us that there’s no limit to creativity,” Brady says. “If anything, our appetite for sandwiches will continue to grow in terms of diversity and variety.”

Alice Van Housen is the Chicago editor of Zagat Survey who writes for numerous national and local publications.

Spread the Love

If it spreads, chefs are using it, be it bechamel, chimichurri, aioli or pesto. Garnishes can be found in pickles of every persuasion. Kimchi, kraut, Sriracha and pimiento cheese have cultish followings.

HBH in Brooklyn, N.Y., uses spaghetti squash “sour kraut” on its Reuben sandwich ($13/$15) while bacon relish brightens a grilled green bean sandwich with soft-boiled egg, Parmesan and aioli ($8) at Meat Cheese Bread in Portland, Ore.

Noni’s in Atlanta spreads it on thick with a combination of housemade mozzarella, Sriracha, sweet pickles and seasonal fruit preserves on its prosciutto and turkey “Patricia” ($9).

Unique Sandwich Concepts 

Bäco Mercat In Los Angeles serves Chef Josef Centeno’s flatbread sandwiches stacked with a variety of fillings (pork, beef, poultry, seafood and vegetables, $9 to $14), topping out with an oxtail hash creation and a meatball sandwich with raisins, pine nuts and tomato.

Fóumami Asian Sandwich Bar in Boston serves Pan-Asian fillings on freshly baked shao bing bread, described on the menu as “crisp and flaky on the outside, chewy and soft on the inside” ($6.75 to 7.95).

The globetrotting sandwiches at Viennese import Duran European Sandwich Café’s first U.S. location in Chicago are not only smaller, they’re open-faced ($2.50 to $3.50).

MEAT IN THE MIDDLE

According to Foodservice Research Institute, 85 percent of sandwiches “spring from a protein platform.” Primary proteins are:

Chicken 27%

Beef 26% 

Pork 21%

Multiple proteins show up in 10 percent of all sandwiches, with second protein popularity going to turkey, bacon and ham. In addition, hot sandwiches reign supreme, with 30 percent more listings on American menus than their cold counterparts.