Throughout the pandemic, sandwiches have been our salvation. What other satisfying meal can be wolfed down while standing up? During an era when eating indoors was at times prohibited, and many considered outdoor dining in temporary structures dodgy, sandwiches have been something you could eat without worrying where to sit down. No utensils necessary!
In previous decades, sandwiches were often underappreciated, and I can remember literally not having eaten one for years at a time. During the height of the carb-phobic era, even bread was suspect, and where would a sandwich be without bread? But during the pandemic, sandwiches have proven their utility when we needed them most. And you can get them anywhere, from the ubiquitous corner deli to effete restaurants that use expensive ingredients and charge a bundle.
So please join me in giving sandwiches a profound “thank you.” Here are my 11 favorites over the last few challenging months — as I tried and finally managed to get vaccinated — ranked in order of ascending preference.
11. Polpette all Parmigiana Panozzi at Coco Pazzeria You can get a great meatball hero smothered in indifferent mozzarella at any pizzeria in town, but Coco Pazzeria wreaks changes on the classic pizza parlor item. The meatball hero ($14) at this new restaurant has been exalted through the use of a crustier, more artisanal bread than is usual, a zippier tomato sauce, and genuinely good mozzarella. And its compactness makes it easier to eat. 307 Spring Street, at Renwick Street, Hudson Square
10. Catskill Roast Pork at Court Street Grocers Answer this riddle: How is a sandwich like a vacation? Well, wrap your mouth around this sandwich ($15) from Court Street Grocers and find out. It consists of slices of roast pork glazed with duck sauce — you know, the kind found in small packets at neighborhood Chinese restaurants. And the sandwich (known as the “RPG” for “roast pork and garlic”) is made with pizzeria-style garlic bread that’s a mashup of Chinese and Italian flavors. Decades ago, this sandwich was found only in the Catskills and constituted a welcome diversion from the usual resort buffets. One bite and you can imagine the green-carpeted mountains of summer. 485 Court Street, between Huntington and Nelson streets, Carroll Gardens
9. Pastrami at Hometown Bar-B-Que Industry City Sometimes we don’t expect much from sandwiches, and then they totally blow us away. Such is the case with Hometown’s pastrami ($28). Could it possibly be better than the versions at Katz’s and Frankel’s? Well, it is, piled high and pink on the bread and sliced thick. The spice crust — different than that of regular barbecued brisket, it’s more redolent of sweet spices like ground coriander — delivers a powerful punch, and the smokiness is way more than the average pastrami exhibits. This represents a real advance for a favorite deli meat. 87 35th Street, between Second and Third avenues, Sunset Park
8. Bocadillo at Ernesto’s This new Spanish restaurant in a remote corner of the Lower East Side, which opened shortly before the pandemic hit, comes alive in the early evening, when the restaurant opens. Before the rush, however, Ernesto’s opens a room next to its open kitchen on the side street at 8 a.m. It’s part coffee bar and part snack-atorium. It’s here that you’ll find the bocadillo. The mini sandwich ($12) is warmed in a convection oven, which melts the cheese and heats the salami slightly, and then is sweetened with Spanish honey — proving that sometimes a small and simple sandwich is better than a large and complex one. 259 East Broadway, at Montgomery Street, Lower East Side
7. Deep Fried PBJ at Hudson Smokehouse A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is often thought of as a snack for kids. Occasionally, adults indulge in these too, and sometimes restaurants attempt them with distinguished ingredients, though I’d argue plain old Skippy and grape jelly does just fine. But when this same cheap and universal sandwich is thickly battered like fish and chips and then thrown in bubbling fat ($6), magic happens. And once powdered sugar is dumped on like a late-season snowfall, everyone will clamor for it. 37 Bruckner Boulevard, at Alexander Avenue, Mott Haven
6. Roast Beef at Hudson & Charles One of the few good things about the pandemic has been how food businesses broadened their offerings in order to stay profitable. All of a sudden, some restaurants also became grocery stores and wine merchants. Where butcher shops were concerned, the West Village’s Hudson & Charles also began to stock breads, cheese, and condiments for the sandwiches prominently featured on its chalkboard menu. Believe me, roast beef bought directly from a butcher is better than most deli roast beef. In this sandwich ($12), the grass-fed roast is ultra-flavorful and deep pink at its center with caramelized edges, while the mayo, thin slice of cheese, and arugula (which lends a welcome bitter edge) are supporting actors that highlight the excellent sliced meat. 524 Hudson Street, between West 10th and Charles streets, West Village
5. Bologna and American Cheese at Sam’s Deli For me, a sandwich has been just as effective as a joint in elevating a glum, I-can’t-stand-this-anymore mood during the pandemic. My local deli, one of the few remaining in the West Village, makes just the kind of bologna sandwich I crave. I might also mention that when I was a kid, bologna was not allowed in my house; it was considered too lowbrow. So my go-to sandwich of rebellion at Sam’s Deli ($6) is bologna on whole wheat bread (for healthiness) with yellow American cheese, raw onion, and lettuce, with the quantity of mayo you expect from a deli — which is lots. 275 West 4th Street, between Perry and West 11th streets, West Village
4. Banh Mi #4 at Banh Mi Co Ut The crisp and crumbly demi-baguette doesn’t so much flank the meat filling as surround it, making this wonderful sandwich ($6.50) almost more of a wrap. That meat runs to four varieties: salami, pate, cha lua, and, wonder of wonders, a slice of real Virginia ham that seems to have wandered in from somewhere else. Along with the pickled vegetables, cucumber, and cilantro, and the slather of mayo, this sandwich is filled with assertive flavors. 83 Elizabeth Street, between Hester and Grand streets, Chinatown
3. Semkeh Pita Wrap at Semkeh I’ve found that Middle Eastern sandwiches are typically offered on three types of bread: stuffed in a pocket pita, rolled in a larger pita, or on split bread something like focaccia. At Bushwick’s Lebanese Semkeh, the rolled pita ($11) is preferred, and a number of conventional fillings are provided, including fried cauliflower, kufta kebabs, and roast chicken — all smeared with the incendiary garlic sauce toum. But there are some less common fillings, too. Semkeh (usually spelled samke) is a white-fleshed baked fish smeared with garlicky tahini. The result is something with the texture of tuna salad, but with a taste far more powerful. 53 Morgan Avenue, at Grattan Street, Bushwick
2. Green Eggs and Cheese at Ix Guatemalan soup specialist Ix (pronounced “ish”) strays into more conventional brunch territory for much of its menu with omelets, salads, and sandwiches — with occasional Italian and Korean flourishes, for one of the city’s most unusual menus. The sandwiches often come on two round rolls, as in this case, where the sourdough rolls are stuffed with spinach, poached eggs, goat cheese, honey, and horseradish mayonnaise ($12.95). It’s a very pleasing combination of flavors with no lack of moisture, so the sandwiches slide down easy. And you can hold one in each hand for faster eating. 43 Lincoln Road, between Flatbush and Ocean avenues, Prospect Lefferts Gardens
1. Fried Chicken Sandwich at D&M Bakery This maverick Chinese bakery on a dead stretch of Essex is nowhere near Chinatown, and its offerings are sparse. In addition to breads and Hong Kong-style cakes, a small collection of sandwiches are displayed in a glass case. But among all the hailstorm of fried chicken sandwiches pelting the dining public today, this is one of the best. The chicken is thigh meat, far more flavorful than bland breast meat. The fried coating is thin but substantial enough to catch just the right amount of grease. As if that weren’t enough, mayo is also provided, plus a leaf or two of iceberg lettuce. And pickle chips are sparingly added, contributing to the perfection. Did I mention that this sandwich is delivered warm? And that the cost is nearly unbelievable at $2.25? 83 Essex Street, between Delancey and Stanton streets, Lower East Side