Like any red-blooded American, I love sandwiches. I love them a lot. They are versatile, portable, endlessly varied, and easy to make whether with fancy ingredients bought for a specific recipe, or just thrown together from whatever happens to be sitting in the fridge.
A quiet moment at work one day got me thinking this… If I had to list them, what would my top ten sandwiches be? After much thought and even some consulting with my coworkers, here’s my list, though I could go on far beyond 10 examples of my favorites.
Nothing is better, plain and simple. All you need is a bit of rye bread, just a small smear of mustard and that’s it. Also, you have to get fresh pastrami, made preferably on-premises. Supermarket pastrami is just a completely different, inferior product. The real pastrami is composed of a brisket cured in brine (like corned beef) but then smoked and then steamed right before serving. It’s this pastrami that gets that perfect mix of tastes and textures between the leaner and fattier bits, that sets real pastrami apart. Speaking of pastrami, while at the beach in May, I read the superb book “Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen” by David Sax. I recommend it highly for anyone with an interest in delis or traditional Jewish food. Needless to say, you’ll learn more about pastrami than you ever thought you needed to know.
2. Lobster Roll
Yes, I’ll grant that they’re very “hot” right now, but that doesn’t change the fact lobster rolls are in fact great and not yet nearly as “overdone” as say, cupcakes. My personal favorite is the one served at Spike’s in Point Pleasant, NJ. I like that one particularly because the cooks don’t slather the lobster with tons of mayo or dressing. See, I like the taste of lobster and unless it’s been overcooked to the point of resembling a dog’s rubber chew toy, I’d rather taste lobster than mayonnaise. One of these days, I’m going to buy a lobster from the Korean market and make one of them myself.
3. Banh Mi
Unlike the first two, here’s a sandwich that I actually eat once or twice a month. In case you don’t know, Banh Mi are the great Vietnamese sandwiches and one of the few good things you can say emerged from colonialism without having angry protesters banging down your door. Typically, they have pork, sausage, sardines, or even head cheese inside a crispy baguette with thinly sliced pickled carrots and daikon, cucumbers, cilantro, chili peppers, pâté, and mayonnaise. Here in Northern Virginia, we’re blessed with a number of these shops, with close to a dozen in Falls Church alone. Sam and I plan to do a taste test and ranking of the local Banh Mi shops like we did with two of DC’s top pizza places.
4. Italian Sub
Not only is this a favorite of mine, but it’s probably in my brother’s top two of favorite sandwiches. Few things are better than a big Italian roll stuffed with all the traditional Italian cured meat goodies such as capicola, volpi salame, Genoa salame, mortadella and provolone with some lettuce, a tangy dressing and maybe some spicy giardiniera tossed in as well. In my opinion, the two reigning Italian sub champs in our area are the Italian Store in North Arlington and Taylor Gourmet with locations in DC and Maryland (and Virginia coming soon). If you’re stuck with chains, you can’t do better than Jimmy John’s Italian sub, which for many years has served as a restorative meal to students across the Midwest.
5. Peanut Butter and Jelly
Of course, this is about nostalgia as much as anything else, but unlike some of those other items we ate tons of as kids (apple juice, bologna, etc.) this one still tastes really good. I should add here that, unlike in the picture above, I never have cut the crusts off sandwiches. I’ve always liked the crusts on bread. So, please don’t consider “crust-less” sandwiches something that I endorse. In terms of jam, I was always partial to strawberry and grape but I’m not picky about them. Nor am I picky about peanut butter and the much-argued “smooth v. crunchy” debate. They’re both fine to me. It’s cliché, but something about peanut butter makes you think of mom and dad and those happy times at school before middle school and adolescence doom you to misery until heading off to college.
While my love of PB&J is based primarily on nostalgia at this point, I feel different about grilled cheese. Sure, it is a childhood favorite for many, I’ve only really rediscovered it since I started making it w/cheese other than the orange slice of Kraft American cheese we all grew up with. American cheese just sort tastes blandly salty to me. If you want to have some real fun with your grilled cheese, start using more flavorful, “stinkier” cheeses. Obviously, you need a cheese that will melt. (Parmigiano Reggiano, despite the great flavor, melts terribly.) My personal favorites are the stronger variants in the Swiss cheese family, like Gruyère, Emmental, or Raclette. (The traditional cheese for fondue, so you know it melts well.) I think strong Cheddars work well too, as they mellow a bit after a trip across the grill.
I suspect for my readership outside the East coast, an explanation of this might be in order. Soft shell crabs are crabs that have recently shed their hard shell and are still soft on the outside. They’re only usually available from May to September but their peak season is really only between June and July. Most commonly they’re deep-fried because their soft, delicate texture doesn’t really handle other cooking methods very well. If you’re a true “softie” purist, all you need are two slices of white bread, a squirt of lemon, and maybe a big of tartar sauce to make a good soft shell crab sandwich. Lettuce and tomato are also common, and as the sandwich above shows, using a nice roll doesn’t hurt either. Unlike with hard-shell crabs, which you cover in Old Bay or other spices, soft-shells are seasoned much more delicately in order to maintain the crab’s subtle flavors.
8. Pimento Cheese
Yes, I know. Pimento cheese sandwiches are really Southern. But, they’re also really, really good too. I first had it only last year, while visiting the family of Sam’s girlfriend in Georgia. Prior to that, I swear I had never tasted the stuff. I only knew it as the sandwich that folks eat at the Masters. But wow, what a discovery. The stuff is great. I can’t say I know much about the apparently endless varieties available in the South, but clearly I need to explore them further.
9. Fresh Turkey
What I’m talking about here is not the standard, run-of-the-mill “turkey sandwich.” This sandwich involves actual turkey cut off a whole bird that’s been roasted. I take this sandwich one of two ways. If it’s using the Thanksgiving leftovers, I definitely build something like in the photo above adding leftover stuffing and cranberry sauce. But that isn’t the only way to do it. When my family used to visit the beach in Lewes, Delaware, there was a little store not far from our house that sold these “fresh turkey” sandwiches that were nothing more that turkey cut fresh off the bird, a bit of lettuce, and a touch of mayo tossed into a soft white sub roll. To this day, it’s still one the best beach lunches I’ve ever had.
An oldie, but still a classic. It’s not hard to figure why it’s so good. Bacon is good under almost any circumstance. The lettuce provides a counterpoint of freshness to the bacon’s saltiness, the tomatoes (if they’re actually ripe) add some sweetness, and the mayo rounds it all off. It’s great and it’s actually pretty hard to screw up. You can “fancy” them up, as was the fad a few years ago, but it’s really one of those sandwiches that’s just as good in its simpler, old-fashioned form.
So that’s my list and I’m sticking to it.
This week, I put the question of “what’s your favorite sandwich” out to my friends and here are their responses.
BLT with Provolone
Don’t know if it qualifies as a sandwich exactly, but I LOVE a plain bagel with nova and cream cheese, topped with tomato and onions. It’ll kill me, but I could eat that every day for the rest of my life.
Grilled cheese – American on white – with a side of fries.
Curried chicken salad with golden raisins I make myself on whole wheat toast. If it’s [a] restaurant, a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s.
Buffalo steak cut on the bias, goat cheese and caramelized onions on fresh baguette. Its cheap too.
What is your favorite sandwich? Let us know in the comments below.
All photos used via Creative Commons License