Since the virus arrived like an unwanted houseguest, we’ve been more dependent on sandwiches than ever. What can you eat out when you’re running from store to store to get your shopping done in record time? A sandwich. What can you wolf down when shivering outdoors in a curbside cafe when you don’t want to sit still for a three-course meal? A sandwich. And finally, what can you carry out or make at home when you want to eat while sitting in front of your laptop working? A sandwich.
Here are my favorites this past year, going month by month. (And by the way, a hamburger is not a sandwich.)
January: Don’t be fooled by the name on the menu: warm roast beef sandwich. That listing at Soho Diner conceals Buffalo’s legendary beef on weck, which is damn hard to find in the five boroughs, popping up here and there and quickly disappearing. The bread is a kimmelweck, a variation on an Austrian roll topped with caraway seeds and rock salt, something like a spongy pretzel. The beef is rare and flooded with horseradish cream. Finally, a cup of stout beef broth is provided on the side, which should be used for sipping between bites and not for dipping this wonderfully gloppy sandwich. 320 West Broadway, between Grand and Canal streets, Soho
February: Located in the South Bronx, tiny Tepango’s is one of those Mexican combination pizzerias and taquerias that have enlivened the food scene in the Bronx, Queens, and Upper Manhattan for the last five years or so. Go for a great slice, or as in this case, go for a cemita, the signature sandwich of Puebla. This one’s served on a classic sesame-seeded roll with layers of avocado, refried beans, and crumbly chorizo. There’s a distinctive flavor provided by astringent, dark green papalo leaves, and congrats to Tepango’s for seeing to this small but all-important detail. 361 East 138th Street, between Willis and Alexander avenues, Mott Haven
March: Little did I know what lurked around the corner when I stumbled on Amuni, a new Bay Ridge Sicilian cafe, that it would be my last trip to the neighborhood for a long while. There I found all the vegetable- and seafood-focused dishes of Palermo, including lots of baked pastas and salads. One unexpected item was the muffuletta sandwich, a dish invented over a century ago by Italian immigrants in New Orleans that’s been updated to good effect here. Instead of provolone, there was fresh mozzarella, and instead of olive relish, whole green olives. The sandwich was on a hero roll, too, rather than the traditional round bread, and tasted as spectacular as it looks. 7217 Third Avenue, between 72nd and 73rd streets, Bay Ridge
April: April found me fairly desperate to return to my favorite places of the past, and especially establishments that reminded me of the pre-pandemic city of long ago. Eisenberg’s was a perfect destination, where I relished a tuna melt with well-browned slices of bread, unfussy tuna salad, and melted American cheese. So simple, so perfect. As I polished off my sandwich, I realized that another reason that I went was the fear that the place might not survive. I was wrong on that count (so far), but the fear remains. 174 Fifth Avenue, between 22nd and 23rd streets, Flatiron
May: Still not venturing very far from my West Village apartment, I biked down toward the border of Chinatown and Little Italy for Banh Mi Saigon — the city’s most distinguished purveyor of Vietnamese sandwiches — soon after it reopened for takeout only and lines began to form. One of the secrets of its excellence is that the place doubles as a bakery and makes its own crusty baguettes. My regular selection, banh mi No. 4, contains the traditional layering of ham, pate, and the pale boiled sausage cha lua, garnished with pickled carrots and daikon, fresh cucumber spears, cilantro, and mayo. Working in concert, the mayo and chicken liver pate meld and work a special magic. 198 Grand Street, between Mulberry and Mott streets, Chinatown
June: When outdoor dining opened up big in June, I was quick to take advantage of it. As the weather warmed up, eating al fresco felt like a sunny vacation in the seaside Riviera. One of the first places I hit up was Serbian restaurant Kafana, where I had this splendid ground-meat sandwich known as a pljeskavica. The onion-laced meat is a lamb-beef combo, and the sandwich comes with chopped onions, pureed red pepper ajvar, and kajmak, a fermented milk product similar to sour cream. 116 Avenue C, between 7th and 8th streets, East Village
July: I’m a sucker for any sandwich with french fries stuffed inside, and that’s a common phenomenon in Greek pita sandwiches. So when I cycled past newcomer iSouvlaki — which sounds like the title of some confessional memoir — on the way to my East Village community garden one afternoon in July, I popped right in. The sandwich made with a flame-grilled pork kebab was superb, and the cubes of meat were improved with both garlic-laced tzatziki and oodles of nicely cooked fries. This is a delicious sandwich with different textures, and sharp flavors, too. The garlic is like a plunge in a cold pool during a heat wave, and the raw onion gives it a push. 139 East 12th Street, between Third and Fourth avenues, Union Square
August: When the dog days of summer arrived, I still wasn’t taking public transportation out of COVID fears. But I was taking longer trips on my bike to places like Long Island City, Fort Greene, and the Upper East Side, where I would eat dishes like birria tacos, pho ga, and sizzling sisig — leaving sandwiches for convenient eating closer to home. On a very warm Sunday, however, as I brunched at Rahi in Greenwich Village, I was blown away by the restaurant’s take on what has become a citywide obsession: the fried chicken sandwich. Accompanied by masala fries, this one is topped with onions (shredded and fried) as well as mayo flavored with mint and a medley of Indian pickles, which made for a nice creamy and acidic contrast to the fried chicken. 60 Greenwich Avenue, at Perry Street, Greenwich Village
September: What could be more succulent than ripe heirloom tomatoes at harvestime in a variety of hues running from red to yellow to green and shades in between? Pop-up Dame Summer Club brilliantly took advantage of the seasonal produce by concocting a sandwich well-known in the UK: slices of tomatoes dressed with mayo. This one included frizzled shallots on a puffy bun, and you’ve never tasted anything lusher. The sandwich renders meat entirely unnecessary. 85 MacDougal Street, between Bleecker and Houston streets, Greenwich Village
October: When October rolled around, I was going slightly stir crazy having been penned in downtown Manhattan — with occasional brief trips to nearby Jersey, Brooklyn, and Queens — for seven months. A friend lent me her apartment in Asbury Park ,and I drove down there for a few days, delighting in the off-season Jersey shore. The best sandwich I ate was the classic Taylor ham sandwich at Frank’s Deli. The roll — layered with Spam-like pork, American cheese, and a fried egg — was toasted on the griddle to create a treat that was quite different than New York City’s BEC. 1406 Main Street, between Sunset and Eighth avenues, Asbury Park, NJ
November: A looser approach to enforcing street vending regulations during the pandemic may have led to a renaissance of street food in Harlem. Many jerk chicken stands set up shop along Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr boulevards with the corner of Malcolm X and 134th Street being a particular hotspot. On weekends, Uncle Bill’s Harlem Grill puts up a string of card tables with a butane barbecue on one end. A flattop griddle produces egg and pancake breakfasts, but as lunchtime approaches, hamburgers and hot heroes prevail. Within that second category, there is something called a Harlem-style Philly cheesesteak. I watched fascinated as it was assembled with sliced steak, American cheese, and sauteed red sweet peppers with both sides of the roll extravagantly slathered with mayo, barbecue sauce, and mustard — an explosion of condiments that tasted something like McDonald’s secret sauce. Corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and 134th Street, Harlem
December: Ever get tired of the city’s iconic bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich? Yes, it makes a durable breakfast, and one I can remember enjoying everyday when I worked in an office as a secretary. But sometimes you want something a bit different in a breakfast sandwich. An able alternative recently appeared at Cutlets Sandwich Co., a new establishment midway between the Flatiron Building and Union Square. Instead of bacon, sausage, or ham, the No. 12 deploys a thick slice of herb-roasted turkey, which would totally dominate the sandwich if it weren’t for the melted sharp cheddar above it. The cooked egg gooey enough to add a bright yellow sauce, and the totality makes for a fine and filling morning repast. 900 Broadway, between 19th and 20th streets, Union Square
Like sandwiches? Check out the Sandwich of the Week column.