Sandwich of the Week: Sardine Sandwich at Sandwhich

This sandwich is packed to the gills with a super food from the sea

The sardine sandwich from SandwHich.

Lists of "healthy foods you should be eating" often include the usual suspects — blueberries, beets, pomegranates — but are nearly always headlined with that singular oily fish of the Mediterranean, the sardine. Sardines are so good for you not only because they're high in omega-3 fatty acids, but because you eat the fish’s teeny-tiny bones, which are super-high in calcium.

From the Clupeidae family, which also includes herring and shad, the sardine most likely derives its name from — wait for it — Sardinia, in whose waters some food historians believe it originated. Why some of us blanch when we hear the very word has to do with the reality of the situation of sardines in the U.S. "Sardine" is actually a generic term applied broadly to a variety of small, soft-boned, saltwater fish you’ve likely never heard of, like sprat and pilchard, all of which are tiny, iridescent-silvery, and swimming in huge schools near the water's surface in summer months in coastal waters. Because fresh sardines are available on a very limited basis, the United States has historically only known a very poor brand of the canned ones — the kind of sardines that our non-American émigré aunties might have tried to force on us as children. Ewww.

Luckily, all of that is changing now: Like good imported canned tuna, good imported canned sardines, from places like Sardinia and packed with high-quality olive oil, are available at gourmet (and sometimes just local) groceries around the country. This may expose most of us to the intensely salty-fishy pleasures of these little fishes, but it’s certainly not news to folks like Hich Elbetri, a Moroccan-born chef who cooked at Manhattan’s Union Square Café and is now the co-owner of SandwHich, a gourmet sandwich shop based in downtown Chapel Hill, N.C.

Since it opened in 2005, SandwHich has been doing what some considered unthinkable: Convincing even the most sophisticated Southern diners to put down their lunchtime staples of barbecue or Chick-fil-A or pimiento cheese sandwiches and plunk down a few more dollars for homemade gourmet sandwiches made with ingredients like local heirloom tomatoes, Amish free-range chicken, line-caught tuna fish, and Elbetri's personal favorite, good imported oil-packed sardines. (SandwHich’s staff t-shirts even read: "Sardines are not for sissies.")

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The sandwich itself is simple: A crusty baguette is stuffed with arugula, ripe tomato slices, red onion slivers, and a full eight ounces of sardines. This is drizzled with homemade vinaigrette made with olive oil and fresh lemon juice. The result is simultaneously chewy-toothsome, salty, and refreshing, like you might imagine lunch would be at your favorite café in, say… Sardinia.