Is the Sandwich an Endangered Species in New York City?
My favorite New York City sandwich shops are closing one by one.
It started with Lake Trout when Matt Lang and business partner Joe Carroll shuttered the tiny Williamsburg spot that served an amazing fish sandwich: fried pollack dressed with a Velveeta-based cheese sauce, shaved lettuce, tomato, and tartar sauce on a Martin’s potato roll. I knew it would be love when I saw a photo. It didn’t disappoint. Do you know how rare that is? Crispy, saucy, cheesy, and delicious —McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish had screamed to the world since 1962 that it wanted to be this sandwich since Lou Groen invented it in Cincinnati. The world just couldn’t hear it until Lang. Then one day in late 2012, Lake Trout closed.
Lake Trout's Baltimore-inspired fish sandwich, we barely knew you.
Fast forward to April 2014, when East Village local neighborhood blog EV Grieve reported that Artichoke Basille's Pizza cousins Francis Garcia and Sal Basille "forgot to renew" the permit for their 1st Avenue roast beefery This Little Piggy. This Little Piggy served the “This Way”: thin-sliced roast beef sopping with au jus and smothered with Cheese Whiz on a soft sesame-studded roll.
This Little Piggy had roast beef and Cheese Whiz.
A friend and fellow roast beef lover chided me for years (“Why wouldn’t you just go to Defonte’s?”), noting the Red Hook-based institution’s perfectly rare roast beef. I love Defonte’s, but they don’t do Cheese Whiz, and This Little Piggy was a different genre of roast beef sandwich craving: a hot, wet mess of salty beefiness and creamy goodness you’d have visit deep Brooklyn to satisfy. It was another blow, though softened by knowing that two Sheepshead Bay spots make similar sandwiches.
Stage one of demolishing a Nicky's Special at Defonte's.
Just weeks later, Francis Garcia and Sal Basille ‘s Chubby Mary’s fell. Their shrimp sandwich with vodka sauce and provolone was a revelation: fresh and airy bread ladled with sauce and a hearty portion of fried shrimp liberally coated with cheese. It had no business existing calorically speaking. It was like eating a pastaless bowl of vodka sauce on bread of near New Orleans Leidenheimer quality, just-done cooked shrimp popping between your teeth, cheese stringing as you pull away, drips and splatters pit-pattering on the wrapper.
“We make it like we eat it,” was Chubby Mary’s motto. The vodka shrimp sandwich made clear Garcia and Basille know how to eat. In my heart I knew Chubby Mary would close — something about that stretch of 14th Street wasteland. It had failed as a zeppole shop (best damn zeppole I’ve had, and I grew up eating them). Maybe the laws of the universe don’t permit someone with a cultishly beloved restaurant to open an adjacent shop and have it succeed too. I love pizza, but I’d trade Artichoke for Chubby Mary’s faster than you can say hero, hoagie, and grinder. Anyway, knowing Chubby Mary’s wouldn’t last didn’t make it easier.
Chubby Mary's vodka shrimp sandwich had no business being so good.
Then? Defonte’s of Brooklyn. Eater reported that the building on the corner of 3rd Avenue and E21st Street that houses Defonte's Manhattan location was sold to a developer who has forced them out. No rare roast beef. No turkey and ricotta. No Nicky’s Special. No damn fine sandwich in Gramercy. No fair. No how. No way. No, no, no, no, no!"Is the sandwich a dying breed? Is Manhattan just not a sandwich city? 'Maybe people just don’t want to buy sandwiches anymore,' Sal Basille suggested recently."
New York City’s essential truth is that it constantly reinvents itself — it always has and always will. Nothing lasts forever, and that goes double for restaurants. But this feels personal — like someone is targeting my favorite places. What the hell is going on?
“Maybe people just don’t want to buy sandwiches anymore,” Sal Basille suggested recently when after spotting him outside the Chelsea Artichoke, I begged him to add the vodka shrimp sandwich to Artichoke’s menu.
Stage Two: The veil.
Is that true? How do Subway, Pret A Manger, and Potbelly restaurants keep opening then? The city is rife with places to “Eat Fresh” “Natural Food” “Fresh, Fast, and Friendly.” I don’t want to eat fresh! I’m not hungry for corporate slogans and conveyor-belt toasters. I don’t want to see Jared, hear a snappy jingle, or eat a $5 chicken enchilada foot-long sub with Fritos (it’s not an enchilada and you’re not Taco Bell!). I want my goddamn sandwiches back.
Is the sandwich a dying breed? Is Manhattan just not a sandwich city? Or is this a string of bad luck Plenty of New York institutions that dedicate themselves or portions of their menus to sandwiches are doing fine — take Katz’s, Eisenberg’s, and Faicco’s. And great sandwich shops continue to open. Dave’s Hoagies downtown, the Scuttlebut at Saltie in Williamsburg, and Gotham West Market's Genuine Roadside make tremendously rewarding sandwiches, which will send you out the door smiling.
But three of these four shuttered restaurants probably closed for financial issues. Defonte’s was forced out by someone with no respect for good food, or the city’s culinary institutions. At 92 years old (though just five in Gramercy) Defonte’s may not have the storied reputation of Katz’s 126-year tradition, but it’s close. Sure Defonte's Red Hook original is still open, but this sandwich shop represents our city in the genre and there’s barely a peep of outrage. Imagine what would happen in New Orleans if Domilise’s, a po’boy shop that’s been around for more than 70 years, closed. A hundred bucks says a local reporter would document its last day with quotes from patrons and stories about dearly-departed owners Dot and Sam.
Maybe New York just isn’t a sandwich city. You don't think New York and say sandwich the way you'd think Chicago and think hot dog and deep dish, or New Orleans and po'boys. So maybe this shouldn't be a surprise. And which city does best represent the sandwich anyway? It’s a slice city, sure, but that’s no more reassuring. (You could argue there’s a steadily declining quality of the average New York City slice, so don’t get me started.)
Stage Three: The reveal.
And there are still good sandwiches around. It would be sad to lose Eataly’s Prime Rib sandwich, Minetta Tavern’s French dip, Alidoro’s Lucia, Porchetta’s porchetta sandwich, Despaña’s jamón ibérico bocadillo, or Parm’s turkey sandwich. But I wouldn’t take those losses as personally. In the case of Parm, the ricotta and hot pepper laden specimen I extolled as the best turkey sandwich you’d ever have, hasn’t been there the last few times (the difference is the roll, which hasn’t been as fresh or soft). These are great sandwiches, but they don’t resonate with the same everyman qualities as Lake Trout, Chubby Mary’s, This Little Piggy, and Defonte’s.
So don’t do it, New York. Don’t kick my dog while you’re at it. Don’t say Faicco’s is closing, that Brennan & Carr and Roll N Roaster have been razed, that the rapidly-gentrifying East Village no longer has room for the storied B&H Dairy and its tuna melt, or that Bob White’s fried chicken sandwich is making way for another 7-Eleven.
The Whit at Barnyard, the best breakfast sandwich you'll ever have.
I’m scared to confide in you my fair city, you who taught me the art of the slice and the smell of sidewalk pretzels in winter, who I grew up defending when outside your embrace and dedicated my heart to upon my return, about my yearlong weekend addiction for The Whit at Barnyard, a steak, egg, and cheese sandwich with home fries, jalapeños, and cilantro — a breakfast meal on bread that I wash down in less than 10 minutes with a not-too-sweet Arnold Palmer.
I give. I can’t take anymore. I can’t take the thought of you taking that away too. I’m already a grown man shedding tears as he writes about sandwiches.
Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Read more articles by Arthur, reach him by email, or click here to follow Arthur on Twitter. Have a sandwich you're passionate about? Please share it below.
Stage Four: Goodbye, Defonte's of Brooklyn.