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Is a Sandwich Without Bread Still a Sandwich?

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Critic Robert Sietsema ponders a possible Japanese sandwich

It looks like a sandwich, but maybe it’s really a rice ball.
It looks like a sandwich, but maybe it’s really a rice ball.

It is my intention to celebrate the sandwich this year by finding as many tasty examples as possible, with a special emphasis on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered more normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I will do this weekly and periodically present round-ups of the ones I consider best.


Like any other country, the Republic of Sandwiches has a frontier, though one with a fuzzy border and no Trumpian wall. Can a thing be a sandwich with no bread? Well, the Scandinavian open-faced smørrebrød almost answers the question by having only one microscopic slice of it, but I can think of sandwiches that have no bread at all, like Venezuelan patacones, in which bread is replaced with fabricated rounds of green plantain, which outdo toast when it comes to crunchiness.

But what about sandwiches which contain no bread-like thing at all? I stumbled on one the other day that tests our idea of what constitutes a sandwich. 969 NYC Coffee is a pleasant little Japanese café that specializes in coffee, matcha whipped as you watch, and onigiri (rice balls). Located on a side street, it has a yellow awning, a pleasant outdoor seating area with tables, and tight interior that looks like any other coffee bar, only instead of doughnuts and bagels, it serves rice balls.

One particular form of rice balls caught my eye. In the glass case were three different ones labeled “sandwich”: pork, beef, and fish. The fish version ($6) had a standard slice of fried fish as its focus, with additional layers of scrambled egg, shredded and pickled carrots, creamy avocado, and mayonnaise. Above and below was a layer of sushi rice, and the whole thing was wrapped in laver, the dried seaweed known in Japanese as nori. The thing tasted agreeably mellow and squishy, and one thing about using rice instead of bread in a prepackaged sandwich: no stale bread!

The thing looked like a sandwich in several respects, and could be eaten like a sandwich, but was it really a sandwich, or just the term falsely applied? I leave it for you, dear reader, to decide. 37-61 80th St., between Roosevelt and 37th avenues, Jackson Heights

Japanese matcha shop in Jackson Heights
Japanese matcha shop in Jackson Heights
Best seats on an outdoor front porch
Best seats on an outdoor front porch
Look in the glass case for these rice ball sandwiches.
Look in the glass case for these rice ball sandwiches.

969 NYC Coffee

3765 80th Street, Queens, NY 11372 (646) 203-7304 Visit Website

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