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    Inside the Endless Evolution of Sandwiches

  • Marveling at the ongoing reinvention of the humble sandwich in quick service.

    iStockphoto / sf_foodphoto

    Sandwiches don’t really need much more fanfare or exposure. After hundreds of years of piling meats, cheeses, veggies, sauces, spreads, and every other substance imaginable on top of everything from torpedo rolls to tortilla wraps and pita to panini, people everywhere have by now come to see sandwiches as more or less synonymous with mealtime, particularly lunchtime. So what else could there possibly be left to say or do about sandwiches? Haven’t the creative possibilities of this exceedingly simple mealtime staple been exhausted by now?

    Turns out the answer is no. To the contrary, every time we turn around here at CCD Helmsman, it seems like we’re seeing creative entrepreneurs find something new in the humble sandwich. Here are a few notable examples.

    Complete meals in a carrier

    Fifteen or 20 years ago, at the height of the wrap, pita, and burrito era, “regular” sandwiches were being marginalized. As the country’s low-carb craze took hold in earnest, carriers became thinner, less caloric, and, often, less delicious.

    Today, we’re seeing the reversal of that trend. De rigueur now are overstuffed sandwiches stacked on bread that makes no apologies for itself. In fact, consumers are increasingly enjoying complete meals in the context of a sandwich. These colossal creations often consist of meat, carbohydrates, veggies, sauces, garnishes, and even broths, all layered on some sort of bread.

    At The Crack Shack in San Diego, for instance, the California Dip consists of chicken; fries cooked in schmaltz, or chicken fat; pickled jalapeños; posole broth; and avocado, all on bolillo bread, a traditional Mexican roll. At Honeybrains in New York, the Wake & Steak sandwich is highlighted by coffee- and herb-crusted sirloin steak, roasted garlic, hemp and basil mashed potatoes, and baby greens on sourdough. And at Los Angeles’ Eggslut, the Gaucho sandwich features seared Wagyu tri-tip steak, a cage-free over-medium egg, chimichurri, red onions, and arugula, all on a brioche bun.

    While each of these treatments offers something unique and special to sandwich-loving crowds, I can’t help but wonder if there are other compelling ways to package the sandwich as a complete meal.  

    Traditionally, fast-food chains have worked to ensure the diner gets a taste of each ingredient in every bite of every sandwich. But what if we instead took a Whitman’s Sampler approach to sandwich-making? Rather than a sandwich engineered—as most are in the fast-casual and fast-food worlds—to deliver all ingredients in each mouthful such that every bite tastes the same, might it not be an interesting twist to compose a sandwich that intentionally delivers something distinctly different in every bite?  

    Think of an 8-inch-long roll that looks like a patchwork quilt of different meats, sauces, and toppings. You start at one end and the first three bites are turkey pesto with lettuce and red quinoa. As you continue, the sandwich segues into roasted eggplant and red-pepper hummus with couscous. Then maybe you close out with a portable caprese salad—mozzarella, basil, tomato, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil. Just like that, you’ve been able to enjoy three meals in the context of one handheld menu item.

    Open face, insert sandwich

    After too long in the wild as the single-slab sandwich outlier, the open-faced variant is suddenly catching a wave. Open-faced sandwiches have nothing to hide, and since guests eat with their eyes first, these slightly sloppier entries often win over sophisticated consumers with their elevated look, bright colors, varied textures, and all-around mouthwatering visual appeal. Avocado toast was the forerunner of this trend, and it remains tremendously popular. But it’s far from the only thing happening on the open-faced front. At San Francisco’s Duna, guests compose their own open-faced meal using a choice of smoked potato flatbread or caraway rye bread, and a choice of exotic spreads ranging from creamed herring to pumpkin seed dip, sprouted mung bean dip, and spiced yogurt with harissa and walnuts. Sqirl in Los Angeles sells a lot of its celebrated ricotta toast with seasonal jams, and at the Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco, the smoked salmon tartine with pickled onions, cream cheese, and meyer lemon leaves your basic bagel and lox in the dust.

    There are other notable innovations happening in the sandwich world as well. The ultra-hedonistic breakfast sandwich, for instance—often designed with the pleasure-seeking brunch patron in mind—is on the menu at Portland, Oregon’s Pine State Biscuits (the Reggie Deluxe is fried chicken, bacon, cheese, and an over-easy egg topped with gravy) and at Sycamore Kitchen in L.A., where the scrambled egg and chorizo sandwich boasts Swiss cheese, caramelized onion, and sriracha mayo. So, just because the sandwich has been done to death doesn’t mean there aren’t still endless creative ways to approach the basic form. It pays to step back, re-envision the sandwich, and try to reinvent it periodically.