It's not always the four-star meals that stick in our memories when we travel. Sometimes the most evocative foods are simple, local dishes with everyday tastes. Look at a map of the United States: almost any port city you see could be marked by a signature sandwich, as specific to its location as the town's landscape and architecture. Not only does each sandwich let you know exactly where you are—the olive-studded muffuletta in the French Quarter of New Orleans, the toasted cubano that announces Miami's Little Havana—but together they form a grassroots guide to the connection between immigrant culture and mainstream cuisine. Whether invented in the tiny mom-and-pop groceries that dot ethnic neighborhoods or serendipitously created when newcomers layered the tastes of their homelands into existing sandwiches, these iconic combinations may very well be this country's original fusion food. Once established, these hometown favorites resist change, and a search for the best means tracking down the most authentic (and beloved) renditions. Here are 10 examples that serve as a primer on the culture of their communities—the United States, according to sandwiches.
Lobster Roll Red's Eats, Wiscasset, Maine
In the summer of 1604, French colonists settled in Maine and made it home to the oldest continuously operated industry in North America: lobster fishing. There was a time when the crustaceans were so plentiful that indentured servants (who exchanged labor for passage to America) had it stipulated in their contracts that they could not be fed lobster more than three times a week; prisoners were guaranteed the same protection by law. Although there's no single ethnic connection for the lobster roll, an abundance of lobster served so casually evidences an embarrassment of riches that remains the heritage of seaside fishing communities, where generations of family dinners have naturally revolved around the catch of the day. At Red's Eats, a picturesque roadside stand dating to 1938, the lobster roll stays true to its working-class origins. Forget the delicacy of a cocktail canapé adorned with a single medallion of tail meat. A heap of gorgeously moist lobster crowned with twin crescents of tail meat is piled into a roll that requires a good grip: a top-loading New England hot dog bun, buttered and toasted on both sides to produce a sandwich of delicious contrasts—crisp yet tender. Tiny plastic cups of drawn butter and mayonnaise are served on the side. But when it comes to lobster, nothing beats going naked. 41 Water St.; 207/882-6128; lunch for two $28.
Pastrami Sandwich Second Avenue Deli, New York City
The Lower East Side of Manhattan was once the epicenter of Eastern European immigration, packed with pushcart peddlers and synagogues. The late Abe Lebewohl (a.k.a. the Mayor of Second Avenue), owner of Second Avenue Deli and a Ukrainian refugee, was a throwback to the days when the street was lined with theaters and called the Yiddish Broadway. Pastrami, a spicy, brine-cured smoked beef belly, steamed before slicing, also has deep Jewish roots. Brining is a traditional way to preserve kosher beef. The correct way to order pastrami is on rye—no trimmings or toppings. When the sandwich arrives, use your thumbs to pick up the edges of the bread (as if you were shuffling cards) and then, because the fat-to-meat ratio is never exactly right—even at Second Avenue Deli—peer down at the pastrami and give a philosophical shrug. Add old-fashioned spicy brown mustard as needed. 156 Second Ave.; 212/677-0606; lunch for two $26.
Hoagie Sarcone's Deli, Philadelphia
On the edge of Philadelphia's Italian Market—the oldest outdoor market in the country—is Sarcone's bakery, which turns out what many residents consider the best bread in the world. In the storefront deli a few doors down, you'll find the city's true official sandwich (forget Philly cheese steaks), a hoagie made on a Sarcone roll. Named for Hog Island, where Italian immigrants labored in the shipyards during World War I, the "hoggie" (which morphed over time into the more palatable "hoagie") was a meal on the move, made with an assortment of cured pork meats (prosciutto, soppressata, coppa), sharp provolone, and a makeshift salad (lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and hot peppers, dressed with oil, vinegar, and a pinch of dried oregano). The bread—delicious as it is, with its crunchy seeded crust and soft but chewy interior—is merely transportation. (See "Muffuletta.") 734 S. 9th St.; 215/922-1717; lunch for two $16.
Barbecue Sandwich Pink Pig, Hardeville, South Carolina
Despite all the talk about urban multiculturalism, the most complex culinary unions in this country are in the rural South, where Afro-Caribbean slaves and European landowners entwined their respective open-fire cooking techniques and native ingredients into "plantation" cooking. There is probably no better example of this hybrid than barbecue, arguably America's most distinctively regional food. But as cultish as barbecue has become, it is also America's most democratic form of cooking. According to author Steve Raichlen (whose book BBQ USA includes a 500-year time line), slaves may have done the work, but landowners staged all-day feasts, and historically there have been both great black and white pit masters. At the Pink Pig, pit master Rita Thomas uses dry spice rub on a Boston butt roast (the upper portion of the pork shoulder) before smoking the meat over oak, hickory, and pecan when in season. The result is a fragrant sandwich of hand-chopped meat with crispy edges, served on a lightly sweet dinner roll. Every table offers a trio of sauces: "original honey mustard" (a tart orange condiment for which South Carolina is known), "low country fire," and "Gullah spice," a piquant vinegar-and-mustard concoction attributed to descendants of West African slaves who still inhabit the semi-tropical Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. Hwy. 3508 S. Okatie Hwy.; 843/784-3635; lunch for two $18.
Cuban Sandwich Latin American Cafeteria, Miami
The first wave of Cuban professionals fleeing Castro came to Florida in the late fifties and early sixties, and brought their money with them. Instead of suffering from the customary outsider mentality, they transformed Miami into the most Latin city in the country. They also turned it into a city of night owls who conclude many evenings in Little Havana—a stretch described by exiled poet Néstor Díaz de Villegas as "imaginary Havanas that we invent on the corners of Miami." The Cuban sandwich, or cubano, is an essential part of that nocturnal landscape. At the Latin American Cafeteria, an eight-inch roll is slathered with butter, then layered with sugar-cured Bolo ham and Swiss cheese. But the real flavor is delivered by slow-roasted marinated pork (lechón asado). The tiny dagger of tanginess needed to pierce the richness of the fillings is supplied by a layer of thinly sliced pickles. After spending several minutes on a plancha (press), to toast the bread and warm the ingredients in their own steam, the cubano is cut on the diagonal to deliver as much melted cheese as possible in the first few mouthfuls. 9606 72nd Street; 305/279-4353; lunch for two $15.
Muffuletta Central Grocery, New Orleans
Like two dialects of the same language, a muffuletta is similar to a hoagie—only different. The common elements are there: the layering of meats (including mortadella this time) and cheese. But when Sicilian wharf workers "invented" this sandwich in 1906, they used a round, soft, slightly hollow Sicilian bread known as muffuletta and topped the meats with a roughly chopped olive and pickled-vegetable mixture (a reminder that Sicily is one of Italy's leading olive- and caper-growing areas). The original-style muffuletta is still available at the Central Grocery in the French Quarter, once known as Little Sicily. A bit spongy (to absorb the olive salad) and intersected by a thick ribbon of meat and cheese filling, this huge sandwich is pre-cut into quarters and wrapped in old-fashioned sturdy white paper. Although the highly hyped grocery may look like a tourist trap, don't be put off by the discarded Barq's root beer bottles, crumpled Zapp potato chip bags, or long lines. They're ready for you. 923 Decatur St.; 504/523-1620; lunch for two $15.
Fish Taco Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill, San Diego
There is no documentation of the exact moment the first Baja pescador wrapped the fish he had caught that day in a tortilla, but it's easy to put a date and a face on the convergence of cultures—Mexican, Californian, and surfer—that landed the modern fish taco on the map: 1974; Ralph Rubio. Rubio took annual spring-break surfing trips to the Baja Peninsula and became fixated on the fish tacos he got there for 50 cents each. In 1983, Rubio put up a sign, RUBIO'S, THE HOME OF THE FISH TACO, opened his first walk-up stand in a converted Orange Julius on Mission Bay Drive in San Diego, and caught the wave. Twenty-one years, 150 regional stores, and more than 50 million fish tacos later, the foundation of Rubio's business is still a thick six-inch corn tortilla, topped with fried beer-battered Alaskan pollock, a mild white fish with a texture that plays off the extra-crispy crust. An added flavor punch comes from crema blanca (light mayonnaise with a touch of yogurt for smoothness and zing), blended salsa fresca, shredded cabbage (for crunch), and a crowning squeeze of fresh lime juice. Who cares if you can't hang ten when you can polish off two?4504 E. Mission Bay Dr.; 858/272-2801; lunch for two $12.