America's Strangest Sandwiches
From a grilled cheesecake to a hamburger bun made of crispy ramen noodles, these mad-scientist-like creations elevate the simple sandwich.
“Our menu has always been eclectic and out of the norm,” explains Tyler Kord, owner and chef of New York City’s No. 7 Sub. “We like playing with ingredients to give our guests something that they can’t find somewhere else.”
For a lot of New Yorkers, that something is No. 7 Sub’s broccoli sandwich, which has the unusual-but-inspired addition of lychees pickled in ginger and chiles.
We set out to find other wonderfully strange sandwiches across the U.S., bypassing classics like the Reuben, the po’boy, and the cheesesteak in order to toast (pun intended) one-of-a-kind creations.
Tinkering with the sandwich is nothing new; Elvis Presley changed up the original PB&J to include bacon and bananas instead, and that recipe remains a southern favorite. But it seems that with each year, the twists on American sandwiches get more, well, twisted.
Brooklyn-based Keizo Shimamoto wowed the world in 2013 when he created the first ramen burger, featuring buns made entirely of ramen noodles crisped on a grill.
“Keizo has a vision and passion for spreading great ramen throughout the world,” explains his brother and head of business development, Jeff Shimamoto. “The ramen burger has been an effective vehicle for introducing Americans to fresh ramen noodles and the wonderful taste of shoyu sauce.”
At Butcher & Bee in Charleston, SC, recent inclement weather inspired an update to the staple pastrami. “We had two cold spells in 2013, and most of the local vegetables were knocked back,” says proprietor Michael Shemtov. Lacking lettuce, the chef put cooked collard greens between the top slice of rye bread and the meat, creating an instant hit with diners.
Its popularity wouldn’t come as a surprise to Tyler Kord of No. 7 Sub: “People like food that tastes good, and if it’s challenging along the way, all the more fun.”
The Cheesycake Melt: The Grilled Cheese Truck
Founder Dave Danhi opened the world’s first mobile grilled cheese truck back in 2009 and now operates out of California, Texas, and Arizona. While he’s still tinkering with the savory grilled cheese original, he recently turned his attention to a sweet version. The Cheesycake Melt’s backbone is brioche bread, created specifically for Danhi, with large pieces of Oreo cookie baked into the loaf. “We like to overcook the cheesecake just a bit,” Danhi says, “so it gives a golden-brown toast flavor to the richness of the cheese.” The cheesecake is whipped into a spread, layered with premium raspberry preserves, sprinkled with crumbled Oreos, and plopped on a griddle until crispy. thegrilledcheesetruck.com
The Ramen Burger: Smorgasburg, Brooklyn, NY
“The best way to describe the ramen burger is a bowl of shoyu ramen that you can eat with your hands,” says Jeff Shimamoto. Created by his brother Keizo Shimamoto in 2013, the sandwich combines Keizo’s favorite foods from Japan and America. An all-Angus beef patty has arugula, scallions, and Keizo’s secret shoyu glaze. It’s the buns, however, that have earned it all the attention (Time named it one of the 17 most influential burgers). They are formed entirely from ramen noodles. “Our buns are lightly seared on both sides, giving you a slight crisp when you bite into it, but they then remain chewy on the inside…much like a regular bowl of ramen noodles,” explains Jeff. “It is currently only sold at Smorgasburg on weekends, but we are opening a full-time operation this spring at Berg’n Beer Hall in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.” smorgasburg.com
The Full-Bellied Pig: Café Patachou, Indianapolis
What mother ever said, “Hey, Johnny, you want raw jalapeños on your PB&J”? While it’s unlikely to hit lunchboxes anytime soon, Café Patachou’s newest sandwich is selling just fine with grown-ups. In between slices of toasted whole-wheat bread, there’s thick-cut Indiana-sourced bacon, creamy peanut butter, strawberry jelly, and a heavy handful of raw jalapeño slices, with seeds intact for ultimate spice impact. It’s fiery, creamy, sweet, salty—and big hearted. Owner Martha Hoover will open her 11th restaurant in 2014, and it will be a nonprofit to feed the city’s at-risk population. Sales of the Full-Bellied Pig at all Café Patachou locations will go toward that philanthropic endeavor. cafepatachou.com
The Redneck: Kitt’s Kornbread Sandwich & Pie Bar, Jefferson, TX
“It took two years of tweaking the recipe and a custom-made pan to make the perfect corn bread for our sandwiches,” says co-owner Kitt Williams. Once that was settled, she opened a dedicated restaurant—and it hardly took her two minutes to size up the hungry East Texas crowd and create The Redneck. It’s made with 1950s-style, thickly sliced fried bologna and charred on a grill until the edges curl, perfectly burnt. There’s melted American cheese, and if you want to get fancy, onions, mustard, and mayo. But don’t you dare pick up a fork; it’s called The Redneck, not The Debutante. kittskornbread.com
The Pastrami Sandwich: Butcher & Bee, Charleston, SC
Don’t let the simple name fool you. This is no Jewish deli standard, but rather the southern-influenced product of sous chef William Mote. Pasture-raised beef brisket is brined for a week in coriander, black peppercorns, and garlic. On day eight, it’s smoked for an hour, then braised for six. The sandwich gets dressed in grain mustard and horseradish aioli with a scoop of collard greens and a pinch of pickled mustard seeds—all between rye bread slices. “The idea of putting collard greens on a sandwich was not part of some master plan,” admits proprietor Michael Shemtov. “We had two cold spells in Charleston this year; collard greens were among the only produce available, but they were a great fit.” The popular sandwich is so labor intensive that it’s on the rotating menu an average of only 10 days a month. butcherandbee.com
The Hoecake: Papa KayJoe’s BBQ, Centerville, TN
The Boston butt shredded pork is legendary, and the vinegar-based barbecue sauce is made daily from scratch. But the claim to fame at Papa KayJoe’s is what they do with those two staples. “We are in the South, and corn bread is a big deal,” explains owner Devin Pickard. “The Hoecake sandwich starts with a mixture of white, self-rising cornmeal, eggs, and buttermilk, whipped up to a pancake consistency. We then take a large helping of lard and cover the griddle, ladle out that batter, and brown it on both sides.” The Hoecake comes standard with a scoop of the shredded pork between the two pancake-styled buns. But most patrons opt to dress it with the fixings of mayo-based coleslaw, pickles, and a drizzle of that tangy red barbecue sauce. 119 W. Ward St.; (931)729-2131.
The Tsunami: The Blind Squirrel, Round Rock, TX
Taking ingredients one might find in a sushi roll and reassembling them inside of a fried pancake to then serve as a sandwich to Texans came naturally to owner Jack Raia. His creation begins with a warmed scallion pancake. He smears wasabi cream on the base, with a second layer of pickled ginger. The proteins are Scotch-smoked salmon and poached, chilled red shrimp—all topped with a garnish of spring mix, alfalfa sprouts, and raw, sliced red onions. It gets a last touch of Sriracha and unagi sauces before being wrapped and cut on the bias. blindsquirrelsandwiches.com
The Chicken & Waffle Ice Cream Sandwich: Coolhaus Ice Cream Trucks
“Although we have done many sweet-meets-savory flavors, fried chicken and waffles posed a particular challenge,” admits Coolhaus founder, Natasha Case. “You don’t want pieces of actual chicken in ice cream.” Her popular dessert sandwich begins with creating fried chicken, spiced with cayenne, sage, and black pepper. The skins are removed and placed in her proprietary caramel and left to infuse, leaving behind the flavor once they are strained out. That crazy caramel is then swirled through a brown butter ice cream base, and crumbled, crispy waffle pieces are added for texture. Choose two cookies—perhaps double chocolate sea salt or maple sugar—to act as the bread slices. Try it for yourself at one of the Coolhaus trucks (Los Angeles, New York City, Austin, and Dallas) or at the two storefronts in L.A. eatcoolhaus.com
The Pig Ear Sandwich: The Big Apple Inn, Jackson, MS
Many, many people have become converts to this unusual sandwich, which focuses on a part of the swine most menus never promote. Pig ears are an old-South item that the Big Apple Inn has served since the 1930s. The ears are plucked from a pressure cooker when super tender and hit with a bit of slaw and mustard, then sandwiched between thin, slider-style buttered buns. When the joint first opened, the now-famous sandwich was priced at a dime. Today, it’s still a bargain at $1.05 with tax and still comes in the wax-paper wrapper. The meat is sliced thin and has a taste similar to grilled ham. As for the spice, it’s your choice of not-hot, mild, or hot. 509 N. Farish St.; (601) 354-4549.
The Doh! Nut: PYT Burger & Bar, Philadelphia
It’s part burger. It’s part breakfast. We aren’t sure how to classify this invention, but we do know it’s insanely delicious. The beloved Doh! Nut has been on the menu for more than two years and starts with a fresh glazed Krispy Kreme donut that’s cut in half and put on a grill to toast. Staff lay down an all-beef, grilled hamburger patty with American cheese. The finished donut-burger comes with several strips of bacon that have been covered in Hersey’s chocolate. And in case that’s not decadent enough, for $13 you also get a big pile of waffle fries. pytburger.com
The Boricua: Belly Shack, Chicago
The Boricua delivers crispy, sweet, and a bit of spice in equal balance. “It’s like taking a trip through Chicago’s neighborhoods in one bite,” says Bill Kim, chef/partner of Belly Shack. The sandwich substitutes traditional bread for thinly sliced plantains that are crispy-fried to order. You can have it with tofu or lemongrass chicken, but we’re partial to the marinated Korean bulgogi beef. It’s sliced then hit with a little miso sauce, chopped mushrooms, and brown rice. “Our Boricua combines some favorite food items from two cultures, using Korean BBQ beef and plantains,” says Kim. crgchicago-public.sharepoint.com
The Big Easy: Ajax Diner, Oxford, MS
To make this down-home dinner in a bun, fried steak (tenderized steak dredged in flour and pan-fried) is covered in a layer of creamy, buttery mashed potatoes with a roux-style, beef-stock gravy. Another layer of butter beans, with tiny bits of bacon and butter from the cooking stock, is the finishing touch. The sandwich has a cult following—and traces its origins to New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. “Back when Eli was at Ole Miss, he would eat with his family at Ajax on Fridays before home games. He almost always ate the same thing,” explains owner Randy Yates. Now you can have that exact meal between two buns. ajaxdiner.net
The Broccoli Classic: No. 7 Sub, New York City
Chef/owner Tyler Kord has been experimenting with broccoli sandwiches since high school. And this weird love affair has blossomed into one of America’s best sandwiches. Broccoli is diced and lightly steamed, “with a little salt so that it stays bright green and crunchy,” explains Kord. “We pile it onto the sandwich and toast the sub.” Next it’s sprinkled with crumbly ricotta salata cheese and crispy fried shallots, with a smear of cold mayo. The final, oddly harmonious element is chopped, sweet lychees that Kord pickles Korean style, using the heat of ginger and chiles. “I love an egg and cheese sandwich from a bodega as much as the next guy,” says Kord. “But you can get that anywhere.” no7sub.com