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.
Banh Mi Saigon Sandwich, San Francisco
This is an example of a double-immigration sandwich. The baguette-style roll (lightened with rice flour) emerged in Indochina during French colonization, and the Vietnamese who fled to the United States following the Saigon evacuation in 1975 brought the sandwich to us. Those who shortchange this relatively new sandwich as a "Southeast Asian hoagie" underestimate the importance of the distinctive flavorings, such as sweet red barbecued pork sprinkled with slivers of lightly pickled cucumber and carrot and seasoned with jalapeños and cilantro. The increasing popularity of banh mi parallels waves of Vietnamese immigration: to Hawaii, the West Coast, and to the Eastern Seaboard. The best are still found in their own ethnic neighborhoods, usually in small storefronts like Saigon Sandwich in San Francisco, where two surprises await. The good one: banh mi here are less than $3 a piece. The other: the counterwomen often take orders from every person in line and then make all the sandwiches at one time. Waiting is the same in any language. But it's worth every minute. 560 Larkin St.; 415/474-5698; lunch for two $8.
Italian Beef Al's #1 Italian Beef, Chicago
Embrace Chicago's two-fisted frontier philosophy at Al's # 1 Italian Beef in its landmark Taylor Street location. There are no seats at Al's—but then you can't really eat an Italian beef sandwich sitting down. Instead, unwrap your lunch and spread the paper out on the counter in front of you. Lean the top of your body forward (over the counter) so the juices drip onto the paper (instead of on you). The stand is run by the grandsons of founder Anthony Ferreri, a turn-of-the-century sandwich peddler. Unlike East Coast sandwiches featuring cured pork, Ferreri had plenty of Chicago stockyards beef to choose from. His legacy is top sirloin butt oven-roasted in water with garlic and "secret" seasonings to make the flavorful juice in which the sandwiches are dipped. The stack of thinly sliced beef, as tender as a meat mille-feuille, is enhanced by giardiniera, a fermented vegetable relish made with hot peppers and celery so finely shaved that the mixture melts away when it hits the hot sliced beef, soaking it with tart, fiery flavor. 1079 Taylor St.; 312/226-4017; lunch for two $14.
Jibarito Borinquen Restaurant, Chicago
According to the 2000 census, the Windy City is home to one of the biggest Puerto Rican communities in this country, and the changing metropolis has a new sandwich: the jibarito, found in the tightly knit Puerto Rican community of Humboldt Park. Drive along Paseo Boricua, a mile-long stretch of the Division Street corridor (anchored by a 59-foot-high steel sculpture of the Puerto Rican flag), and you'll pass several places advertising themselves as La Casa del Jibarito. But it is Borinquen Restaurant owner Juan C. Figueroa (known as Peter) who can take credit for the success of both the sandwich and the restaurant, since he chalks up his recent expansion to jibarito sales. The sandwich's innovative "bread" is made from twice-fried green plantains, sliced and pressed into a rough rectangular shape and brushed with garlic and oil. Fillings are more traditional: pork cooked slowly, in the Cuban style; chicken fried, then chopped, skin and all. The jibarito is an unusual reversal of the typical sandwich textures: creamy on the outside (the plantain "bread") and chewy on the inside. It is also an odd blend of old and new—the Latin ingredients are diluted by a layering of pedestrian American fixins' (iceberg lettuce, unripe tomatoes, American cheese, mayo). Judging from the crowded tables, the jibarito is well on its way to becoming a local institution. After all, that's how immigrant culture spreads in this country, one sandwich at a time. 1720 California Ave.; 773/227-6038; lunch for two $15.
FRANCINE MAROUKIAN also writes for Esquire and Town & Country.
• Don't underestimate the emotional pull of a sandwich. The appeal is often more about nostalgia than taste.
• Don't knock the hole-in-the-wall. That "joint" is often operating in its original location and deserves respect as an institution.
• Don't suggest changes. No one—especially not the sandwich maker—wants to know about your "improvements."
• Do learn the proper ordering code. Lines are always long, so listen to patrons ahead of you and follow their lead.
• Do appreciate the bread. It's always an important part of a sandwich's mythology.
Did you enjoy this article?Share it.