This article is not about the best sandwiches in 15 cities. The word “best” is subjective and essentially meaningless.
Must-eat is something different. It has the same meaning to everyone with good taste. It means that when you’re in one of these cities, you have to eat it at least once. And heck, it might also be the best sandwich you ever eat. But you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.
This article won’t talk about po’boys in New Orleans or cheesesteaks in Philly. Those would be too obvious. Oh, and no hot dogs or tacos, either. They’re not sandwiches! Plus, you can find plenty of advice elsewhere on where to eat them.
If the sandwiches below are extra recognizable to you, congrats! You have great taste. Here are the must-eat sandwiches in 15 major cities.
New York City: Chicken Parm Hero (Parm)
Google Maps tells me that my old company’s office in SoHo was located a three-minute walk from the first Parm that opened its doors. But because there are approximately 1,000 other lunch spots between those two points on the map, I didn’t go for a while. Until I did.
The now uber-successful Italian-American eatery has since expanded to multiple restaurants, but you can still line up and order a chicken parm sandwich on Mulberry Street like I did. You’ll want to. The sandwich is a breaded, enormous hunk of chicken covered in overflowing, melty mozz and a red sauce you’d be equally happy to drench pasta in. Get it as a hero on a sesame roll. You’ll need 10 napkins to finish it.
It’s both a mess and it’s perfect, which is the most appropriate sandwich for NYC.
Denver: Lamb + Harissa Sandwich (Brider)
The folks behind Brider are no strangers to the Colorado restaurant scene. The chef and beverage director are behind OAK at Fourteenth and Corrida, two of Boulder’s best restaurants, and Acorn, one of Denver’s. They’re three of my favorite eateries on the planet. Brider is where to get food of equal quality and creativity for much, much less dough. Not a single sandwich here disappoints (especially the porchetta and kimchi), but the lamb and harissa is the must-eat.
It’s on oversized, buttered, pillowy ciabatta bread that, at first glance, appears that you’d have to unhinge your jaw to eat. Fun fact: you don’t! Just smash that sucker down and get every bit of the tender lamb, creamy tzatziki, fresh cucumbers, pepper relish and arugula into your mouth as you wish. You’ll only be taking breaks every few bites to shovel the extra-crispy chips from the local potato experts at Morgan Handmade Rations into your mouth.
Portland, Oregon: Pork Meatball Banh Mi (Lardo)
It’s a given that PDX is a food-lover’s paradise, but it should also be said that Lardo is a sandwich-lover’s paradise. (And shoutout to Sammich and Bunk for putting bread-based masterpieces into the world, too.)
Like many Portland brick-and-mortar eateries, Lardo started as a food cart. This one has a chef with a fine dining background, and the sandwiches are truly high art ― even the vegetarian ones, like a jackfruit play on a buffalo chicken sandwich.
But let’s talk about the Pork Meatball Banh Mi. Unlike most banh mis, it’s served on ciabatta with enormous pork meatballs, Sriracha mayo and the usual assortment of pickled veggies, cilantro and cucumber. It’s both familiar and unique at the same time, and it’s the type of sandwich that you say you’ll split with a friend but then come to regret that decision.
Los Angeles: Serious Barbecue Sandwich (Hole in the Wall)
LA has plenty of beloved sandwiches: the French dip at Philippe’s, all of Canter’s and Bay Cities Italian Deli’s Godmother. But there is nothing more LA than a sandwich only available in limited quantities from Monday to Friday at lunchtime that costs $50. And for all those reasons, it’d be open for scorn, but this sandwich is from Adam Perry Lang. He knows his BBQ. He also knows Jimmy Kimmel! Is this Hollywood or is this not Hollywood?
Back to the sandwich: It’s one pound of pit-cooked shaved prime New York strip steak, pickle salad, sweet onions and freshly grated horseradish. It’s meant to be shared. It’s certainly cheaper than having dinner at his uber-popular steakhouse APL next door. And it’s equally great to eat, to photograph and to tell a story about. What’s more Hollywood than that?
Philadelphia: The Schmitter (McNally’s)
Just a reminder: This is a cheesesteak, pork sandwich and Italian hoagie-free zone. They’re all delicious, but we’re giving you another type of must-eat sandwich here, and it’s a … steak sandwich with cheese? Oh no. But it’s not a cheesesteak!
The Schmitter is served at Citizens Bank Park, where the Phillies play, and sounds like the name of a former player (Mike Schmidt), but it’s not named after him. It’s named after the long-dead Schmidt’s Beer because of a longer story not worth getting into. Instead, let’s discuss this beautiful sandwich at McNally’s, a neighborhood pub that’s been open since 1927.
No self-respecting cheesesteak is on a kaiser bun with tomato, grilled salami and dressed in a Thousand Island-y type sauce. This sandwich includes all that, in addition to the requisite beef, cheese and onions. What you get is a steak and cheese sandwich with savory, sweet flavors you’ll never find in a cheesesteak sandwich. There’s a reason McNally’s has been around so long.
New Orleans: Chicken Salad Torta (Turkey and the Wolf)
It’s 2018, and Turkey and the Wolf is no longer a secret. After all, Bon Appetit named it the best restaurant in America in 2017. But you don’t need to be a fancy food writer to navigate to the sandwich shop’s Instagram and know you need to eat there. Actually, the restaurant’s Instagram account doesn’t help. It shares a lot of offbeat, sometimes hilarious posts, like ones where the chef/owner waits in the restaurant’s line and does what a lot of people do when they’re waiting.
But click the Tagged button and drool over eater-approved sammies like the potato chip-stuffed fried bologna, gorgeous collard greens with Swiss and this chicken salad torta. It’s stuff like the torta that’s what keeps people lining up. Where else are you going to find a spicy chicken salad with refried red beans, peanuts, chiles, cilantro and lime on a torta? In New Orleans at Turkey and the Wolf, and nowhere else.
Houston: Crunchy Chicken (Local Foods)
You can’t walk five feet in H-Town without running into a top-notch banh mi or BBQ sandwich. But this rundown zigs while everyone else zags, so we’re going with a sandwich from the soup, salad and sammie geniuses at Local Foods. Its menu is filled with ingredients sourced from local farms, and the fact that it’s expanded to five locations tells you everything you need to know about the quality.
Its popularity is in no small part thanks to the Crunchy Chicken, the restaurant’s best-seller that flips the lunch staple sandwich on its head. No boring chicken sandwich has ever added a nut and seed crumble (sunflower seeds, pecans, breadcrumbs), provolone, crushed housemade Old Bay chips, pickles, tomato, romaine and buttermilk ranch to a veritable stack of chopped chicken like Local Foods. Oh, and it’s on a pretzel bun. Come on!
Austin, Texas: Popcorn Tofu Po’Boy (Wheatsville Food Co-op)
Keep Austin Weird is something you might see on a bumper sticker or T-shirt, and in that vein, we’re selecting an offbeat pick for a sandwich. It’s a po’boy. Made of tofu. And it’s from a co-op.
OK, now before you start protesting against this sandwich outside of the HuffPost offices, hear me out. The popcorn tofu is perfectly breaded tiny nuggets of goodness stuffed into a freshly baked French roll with lettuce, tomato, sprouts, onions, carrots, cucumbers, pickles and covered in a cashew tamari dressing. And unlike some other more obvious must-eat Austin BBQ sandwiches, you don’t have to wait for a few hours in line to order one. There’s also a version of this popcorn tofu Buffalo-style with vegan bleu cheese dressing. No matter which tofu sandwich you eat, you’re doing your part to Keep Austin Weird.
Charlotte, North Carolina: Reuben (Growlers Pourhouse)
You can’t go wrong with a pimento cheese sandwich from The Common Market (or Pike’s Old Fashioned Soda Shop) or a supremely affordable banh mi from Le’s Sandwiches. But this sandwich pick tips its hat to the bustling North Carolina craft beer scene, as it pairs perfectly with plenty of the brews repped on Growlers Pourhouse’s solid, ever-changing tap list.
After all, sometimes a sandwich calls out for a beer, especially one that cuts through the fatty, filling Reuben we’ve selected. Ask the knowledgeable bartenders what’s currently on tap that’ll fit with this beautiful mashup of corned beef, juniper berry sauerkraut, Swiss and purple slaw slathered with Sriracha Russian dressing and piled onto marble rye.
San Diego: Avocado Highway (Big Front Door)
Well, before avocados took over toast and Instagram, they appeared in sandwiches. It’s true! And according to CaliforniaAvocado.com, America’s No. 1 resource for information about avocados grown in California, San Diego County is the “avocado capital of the nation.” So what better sandwich to eat in SD than the Avocado Highway from Big Front Door?
It’s important to note that the chef who created these sandwiches is named Sheep. Before this gig, he worked in the kitchens of the city’s finest restaurants, but before that, he made dough by selling quesadillas to Phish fans in some of our nation’s finest parking lots. He’s since graduated to two locations, partly on the strength of the naturally vegetarian (but completely satisfying!) sammie with a stack of avocado, tomatoes, a parmesan crisp (not usually seen outside of fine dining spots), lettuce, and oil and vinegar on a torpedo roll.
Phoenix: South Bound Dump Truck (Switch)
While everything Phoenix-based pizza wizard Chris Bianco pulls from an oven is delicious (including the focaccia at Pane Bianco), it takes a certain amount of confidence to put “Dump Truck” in the name of a sandwich and still have it be appetizing enough that people want to eat it. They have no such problems at Switch, a comfort food emporium specializing in twists on Southern classics.
Your must-eat here is the South Bound Dump Truck, a fried chicken sandwich with lettuce, tomato, bacon, onion jam and Tabasco maple mayo on a pretzel bun. You could probably eat half of it and be fully satiated, so make sure to save room for the side of ultra-thick, seasoned fries Switch serves with it.
San Francisco: Torta Cubano (That’s It Market)
There are billions of sandwiches to choose from in San Francisco, and I’d like to write about every single one, but I’ve been told I have a word limit. So let’s go with one sandwich that’s seemingly a billion sandwiches put together: the Torta Cubano. It’s usually a red flag to order anything deemed “The World’s Largest” from what’s essentially a convenience store, as it sounds like something a tipsy person would order at 1 a.m.
Good news: That’s It Market is open until 2 a.m., when you can eat the Torta Cubano made with ― *deep breath* ― beef or chicken milanesa, ham, chorizo, eggs, bacon, hot dogs, lettuce, tomato, queso fresco, sour cream, mayo, jalapenos and avocado. It’s somehow only around $10. And despite the name of the restaurant, we guarantee the words “that’s it?” will never leave your lips after eating this.
Chicago: Fried House-Made Bologna Sandwich (Au Cheval)
If this were a must-eat burger list for the Windy City, Au Cheval’s would be at the top. But this enduringly popular upscale eatery is also home to the must-eat sandwich: one made with fried bologna. Some of the most memorable things we eat in adulthood are elevated versions of the foods we grew up with, and fried bologna certainly sticks out for many. Anyone with a few slices of bologna and American cheese could make one in a pan in a couple minutes.
But Au Cheval’s version is the ultimate in simplicity and attention to detail: It’s a serious stack of perfectly griddled house-cured mortadella (not store-bought bologna; there’s a difference!), American cheese and mayo on a brioche bun. It will feed a few hungry people and probably remind them of an after-school snack they had once upon a time.
Seattle: Rajun Cajun (The Other Coast Cafe)
Shoutout to the Caribbean sandwiches at both Paseo and Un Bien, but there’s something about a spicy sub that makes it extra craveable. And let’s get it out of the way: both the political consultant James Carville and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette sports teams have the same nickname as this sandwich, but this is spelled differently. And it’s made by an East Coast-style sandwich shop based in Seattle.
No matter how it’s spelled, the Rajun Cajun will fill you up and provide a satisfying kick. It’s served hot on a baguette with plenty of Cajun turkey, pepper jack, tomato, onion and spicy salsa mayo. (Pro tip: if you need your mouth on fire to be truly happy, the Detonator is the same sandwich with habanero mayo, habanero jack cheese and pepperoncini.)
Boston: The Double Awesome (Mei Mei)
Disclaimer: No lobster rolls were allowed for this Boston pick. We love ’em, but we couldn’t resist a more offbeat sandwich pick for Boston, especially because this one eschews bread for a scallion pancake.
You can find the aptly named Double Awesome at Mei Mei, an inventive Chinese-American restaurant run by three siblings. It started as a food truck and later expanded into a restaurant, and you can understand why they’ve been successful when analyzing this sandwich, which is an herbaceous, savory, handheld scallion pancake smothered in a local greens pesto and filled with two soft eggs and Vermont cheese. Whether you eat it for brunch, lunch or dinner, you’re making the right decision.