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What makes a great sandwich? Is it the bread? The filling? The quality of the ingredients? Or is it how all the components work together? Whatever the formula, these 15 sandwiches have it down pat, because they’re the absolute best restaurant sandwiches in America.
Way back in 1939, Al’s #1 Italian Beef started as a small food stand, later morphing into an iconic Chicago franchise with 11 locations in Chicago and shops in Las Vegas, California, and Texas. During the Depression, owner Al Ferrari and his family began slicing roast beef very thin and placing it on small fresh loaves of Italian bread, unintentionally creating a legendary sandwich.
To make this beauty, sirloin is rubbed with a secret spice blend, dry-roasted, thinly sliced, made into a sandwich, and then dunked in Al's signature “gravy” (more similar to au jus). Customers can choose how much or little they want, but Al’s encourages customers to get their sandwiches “wet.” When topped with the signature giardiniera, a tart and spicy pickled vegetable blend, this sandwich is a masterpiece.
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If you’re in New Orleans and looking to try the definitive version of this legendary cold cut sandwich, follow the crowds and head to the place that invented it: Central Grocery. Sliced genoa salami, mortadella, ham, and provolone are layered onto a distinctive round loaf; the bottom loaf is brushed with olive oil, and the top gets a couple spoonfuls of proprietary "olive salad" before the giant sandwich is sliced into wedges.
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This tiny sandwich shop has achieved astounding levels of renown since opening in 2010, but that’s what meticulous ingredient sourcing and attention to detail will get you. The slow-roasted beef and roast pork sandwiches here are astounding, but the true masterpiece is the Spuckie: ciabatta filled with fennel salami, hot capicola, mortadella, fresh mozzarella, and an olive-carrot salad.
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A Brooklyn institution anchoring the very-Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook, Defonte’s has been going strong since 1922, and is turning out Italian sandwiches that are absolutely legendary. To get an idea of what makes this place so good, order the Hot Roast Beef: fresh, hot roast beef, thin-sliced and piled onto a fresh Italian loaf with fresh mozzarella, thin-sliced fried eggplant, and a ladle of jus. Each component melds into the next, and the end result is simply spectacular.
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DiNic’s began in 1918 as a family-owned butcher shop called Nicolosi’s in Philadelphia’s renowned Reading Terminal Market. Gaetano Nicolosi, the original owner, passed the store onto his sons who, in 1954, began offering sandwiches. In 1977, Benny Nicolosi and Franky DiClaudio (Benny’s cousin) joined together to open DiNic’s.
DiNic’s serves a handful of classic hot Italian sandwiches such as slow-roasted brisket of beef and Italian-style pulled pork. The must-order, however, is DiNic’s roast pork sandwich. To make this beauty, a mound of juicy, thin-sliced, falling apart pork is pulled from a tub of its own juices and added to thick slices of sharp aged provolone on a semolina roll then topped with slightly bitter, garlicky, tender chopped broccoli rabe. The hot pork slightly melts the cheese below it, and the rabe ties it all together. Order one for now and one for later.
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Going strong since 1924, this neighborhood joint is the best place in the Crescent City to sample its beloved hometown sandwich, the po’boy. As all good po’boys do, this beauty starts with a long and crusty French-style roll from bakery Leidenheimer’s, and it’s topped with a mound of crispy cornmeal-fried Gulf oysters. Order it “dressed” and it’ll come topped with lettuce, tomato, and mayo.
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Katz’s Deli, on New York’s Lower East Side, is a New York institution. Its corned beef and pastrami, made on site and sliced to order, are legendary, and the simple act of taking your ticket, standing in line, bantering with the counterman, and finding a table has become as New York an exercise as, well, eating a hot pastrami sandwich.
To make the pastrami, beef navel (a fattier and more traditional cut than the more common brisket) is rubbed with a proprietary seasoning blend, cured for up to four weeks, smoked for up to three days, boiled until tender, and steamed for about half an hour before being hand-sliced to order and piled onto rye bread; a little smear of deli mustard completes the dish. Katz’s isn’t just a restaurant, it’s an experience, and its pastrami is a true labor of love.
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Countless restaurants serve French dip sandwiches, but the definitive version can still be found at the restaurant where it was invented: Los Angeles’ Philippe the Original. Because it’s been around for 105 years, the exact origins of the sandwich are disputed. (The most commonly held belief is that it was created as a way to soften up day-old bread, but nobody knows where the “French” part came from.) However, the process behind this masterpiece is no mystery: Bottom round is seasoned with salt, pepper, and mashed garlic, slow-roasted with a mirepoix until medium-rare, and sliced and placed onto a fresh French roll from a local bakery that’s been dunked into jus made with homemade stock and the intensely flavored pan drippings. (The “single dip” means that just the top half is dunked, but the more popular “double dip” includes both halves.)
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The Cuban sandwich actually originated in Florida, not Cuba, and in many ways it’s the unofficial sandwich of Miami. Just about all Miami Cuban sandwiches contain the same ingredients — ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard on Cuban bread, pressed until melty (salami also works its way into it in Tampa) — but quality can vary from place to place. The definitive version can be found at Versailles, located in Miami’s Little Havana. Fresh Cuban-style white bread loaves are baked in house; ham is glazed with brown sugar, pineapple juice, and cloves before being baked; whole pork legs are marinated and slow-roasted for three hours daily; and imported Swiss cheese is sliced thick. A good Cuban sandwich depends on the quality of its ingredients, and the ingredients in Versailles’ version are just about perfect.
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No trip to Atlantic City is complete without a visit to White House Sub Shop, now sadly down to just one location (the original) on Arctic Avenue, because the boardwalk location shut down along with the rest of Trump Taj Mahal in October. But that’s OK; it’s been going strong since 1946, and it’s still worth the pilgrimage. When you go, there’s only one sandwich you need to order: the Italian. Genoa salami, provolone, ham, and capicola are piled onto a soft and chewy Italian loaf, topped with lettuce, tomato, sliced onion, chopped roasted peppers, Italian seasonings, oil, and vinegar. A full-length sandwich runs about a foot and a half, so you’ll probably want to share it. And if you want to double the fillings, make it a White House Special. There’s almost always a line around the block at this place, but the wait is well worth it.
Since 1930, the corner of Weccacoe and Snyder avenues has been home to John’s Roast Pork, a South Philly institution if ever there was one. Their roast pork sandwiches — made with an old family recipe and house-roasted daily — are the stuff of legend. But their cheesesteak is every bit as good as the roast pork, and arguably better.
John’s cheesesteak toiled in relative obscurity until 2002, when the Philadelphia Inquirer’s restaurant critic Craig LaBan hailed it as the city’s best. And it is essentially a perfect cheesesteak. It starts with a soft and crusty seeded roll delivered fresh from nearby Carangi Baking Company every morning, which has some of its insides scooped out before being loaded with a full 12 ounces of thin-sliced loin tail (which has less gristle than the usual rib-eye). Meat is grilled to order atop diced Spanish onions and allowed to brown on one side before being flipped and separated, but not chopped. Five slices of American cheese are then added (sharp and mild provolone are also available) and folded in as the cheesesteak continues to cook; this way, every bite of the sandwich is loaded with meat, onions, and cheese. Fried Italian long hot peppers and ketchup are optional, but certainly don’t detract from this cheesesteak’s perfection.
Most lobster rolls are served on hot dog buns, which puts them into questionable sandwich territory, but this one’s served on a local bun, leaving no doubt about whether a lobster roll is a sandwich or its own entity altogether. It also happens to be one of the best — if not the best — lobster rolls in America. Each comes packed with plenty of fresh lobster meat, in big chunks, dressed with either butter or mayo, and it’s best enjoyed right outside the stand, on a picnic table right in the heart of this adorable town.
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Chaps Charcoal Restaurant came from humble beginnings, but has grown to serve some of the best barbecue-style sandwiches on the East Coast. It opened in 1987 in a 12-by-15 shack with no phones or electricity; fast-forward 25 years and Chaps is still in the same location and thriving (with a slightly larger space). The restaurant was on the Baltimore City Paper’s “Baltimore’s Best” roundup from 1991 to 2013, and has been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives and the Cooking Channel’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
Their best known sandwich is without a doubt the Pit Beef sandwich, for which they take an entire bottom round and grill it whole before slicing it to order. It’s then grilled again to the perfect temperature and placed on a roll with your choice of toppings.
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If we had to crown one pulled pork sandwich as being America’s best, it would be hard to argue with the version being sold at Payne’s, which has been a Memphis landmark since 1972. Pork shoulders are rubbed with seasonings and slow-smoked before being pulled, chopped, or sliced, piled onto a sort bun, and topped with a squirt of thin sauce and a pile of tangy slaw. Each sandwich is carefully constructed with plenty of chewy outer “bark” and soft meat, and it truly is pulled pork perfection.
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In Iowa and Indiana, the humble pork loin is turned into one of the most delicious sandwiches you’ll ever find, all thanks to some pounding and deep-frying. And this legendary sandwich was reportedly invented by Nick Freienstein nearly 110 years ago in the small Indiana town of Huntington; his restaurant is still in business, and they’re still using his recipe to turn out massive tenderloin sandwiches. A four-ounce slice of lean center-cut pork loin is pounded down into a huge patty; marinated in buttermilk, eggs, and flour; breaded in saltine crumbs; deep-fried, and served on a five-inch hamburger bun with onion, lettuce, and tomato. Imitators abound, but the original is still the best.