It’s easy to make a sandwich: Just get some bread, throw something edible between two slices, and voila. But just because making a sandwich is easy doesn’t mean that making a great sandwich is within everyone’s reach. It takes something special to create a truly transcendent sandwich — the kind that people are willing to travel and wait in hour-long lines for. Whatever that magic touch may be, these 35 sandwiches shops have it.
But first, what, exactly, is a sandwich? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a sandwich is “an item of food consisting of two pieces of bread with meat, cheese, or other filling between them.” With a definition this broad, people have the opportunity to innovate all kinds of unique and delicious creations.
The history of the sandwich is commonly associated with John Montagu, also known as the Earl of Sandwich. The story goes that during a 24-hour gambling bender, Montagu ate nothing but “a piece of beef, between two slices of toasted bread.” This allowed him to focus on the gambling table without ever needing to stop for repast, according to PBS. Montagu’s moment of desperation, which happened during the seventeenth century, is often cited as the origin of the sandwich, but that simply isn’t true; people have been eating food inside pieces of bread for as long as bread has been around.
Sandwiches really took off in the late 1920s, when Gustav Papendick invented sliced bread. This ushered in a new era for the sandwich that helped it carve out its niche as a go-to quick meal. Parents could make their kids a snack without needing to slice the bread themselves, and children could safely put together their own lunches without using a knife.
So what makes for a great sandwich, exactly? In order to answer that question, we reached out to Food Network’s “Sandwich King” Jeff Mauro, the winner of The Next Food Network Star, host of his own Food Network cooking show, and co-host of Food Network’s popular The Kitchen. “There must be a proper meat to cheese to bread ratio,” he told us. “One element should not outshine the other. They must all work in harmony to showcase each unique flavor and texture. Also, don’t overdo it; keep it simple. Three to four ingredients max.” And as for what makes a great sandwich shop? His answer was simple: “A line outside the door or packed seats. Also, a limited menu selection. I find the less clutter on the menu, the better the food.
In order to find America’s best sandwich shops, we started by creating a list of more than 200 sandwich shops from around the country, incorporating shops from pre-existing rankings both in print and online. We also examined the places featured over the past five years in our own Sandwich of the Week column and solicited suggestions from a panel of sandwich experts from around the country. Do we have any people we can shout-out?
Chain sandwich shops weren’t included, in the interest of keeping the playing field even, so while you may love Jimmy John’s or Potbelly, you won’t find them on this list. We also left out shops that don’t specialize in sandwiches, so barbecue joints, burger joints, and clam shacks will be ranked another day.
We then divided the sandwich shops up by region and invited our panel of experts — including food writers, sandwich bloggers, and journalists from around the country — to weigh in. Experts included Food Network Star contestant Jay Ducote, the Los Angeles Times’ S. Irene Virbila, HollyEats.com’s Holly Moore, Forbes’ Larry Olmsted, and Jeff Mauro.From the Pacific Northwest to California, down south to New Orleans, to the Midwest, and all across the Northeast, terrific sandwich shops really do span the country.
When the dust settled, we noticed some geographic trends. First, we saw that while sandwich styles vary greatly in different regions, one thing is true everywhere: from the Pacific Northwest to California, down south to New Orleans, to the Midwest, and all across the Northeast, terrific sandwich shops really do span the country.
Restaurants in cities as large as New York City and as small as Ann Arbor made the list. The Midwest has 5 shops, 4 of which are located in the Windy City. The South and West Coast each have 6 shops, with New Orleans claiming 5 of those and Los Angeles chipping in 3. The northeast absolutely crushed the competition, claiming a whopping 17 of the 35 (nearly half!) best sandwich shops. The city with the most shops in our ranking was New Orleans, with 5. It just nudged out New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, who each claimed 4.
We hope you brought your appetite, because these are the 35 best sandwich shops in America.
#35 Chaps Charcoal Restaurant, Baltimore
Chaps Charcoal Restaurant / Facebook
Chaps Charcoal Restaurant came from humble beginnings, but has grown to serve some of the best barbeque-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 (in a slightly larger space). The restaurant was on The City’s Paper “Baltimore’s Best” roundup from 1991 to 2013, and has been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-in, 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. They provide an assortment of creative sandwich options, such as The Bulldog, which comes with pit beef, sausage, and cheese.
#34 The People’s Pig, Portland, Ore.
The People’s Pig got its start in 2009, when Illinois native Cliff Allen debuted a food cart in downtown Portland. Allen wasn’t sure about opening a brick-and-mortar shop, but luckily for all of us, he did. After finding the perfect place, Allen wasted no time creating one of the premier smoked meat sandwich shops in the Northwest.
One of the most popular items at the People’s Pig is the fried chicken sandwich, made using a special walnut-brown sourdough created especially for the restaurant. But their barbecue-style favorites, like the smoked pork sandwich, are not to be missed either.