America loves sandwiches. We grow up with them, take them to school and work for lunch, make them at home, and buy them on the road. There are countless huge national chains devoted to the category – Subway has more location than McDonald’s and Burger King combined. Of course, you could argue that burgers and wraps are also just sub-categories of sandwiches – just like subs themselves – but for our purposes we will stick with things other than ground meat patties that go between slices, rolls or other kinds of risen breads. Today we are talking serious sandwiches.
Like most other types of foods we love here at Great American Bites, some sandwiches transcend geography, while others are heavily regionalized. Either way, the best in class are worth traveling for. But today we are skipping your basic roast beef or BLT and taking a look at sandwiches that are associated with particular places. To keep it manageable we are going to exclude the entire category of barbecue sandwiches (pulled pork, etc.) because that’s for another day, as well as fried chicken (too many good ones) and open-faced variants (like Louisville’s decadent Hot Brown). That still leaves way too many to choose from, but these are five of the most mouthwatering, delicious, regional sandwich specialties we’ve tasted in the past several years, with recommendations where to enjoy them at their best.
Muffuletta, Central Grocery, New Orleans
We’ve tried a ton of amazing sandwiches over the years, but the muffuletta reigns supreme – it is just impossibly good. You can find them all over Louisiana and increasingly in other parts of the country, though it’s still a regional standard. Central Grocery not only makes the best one, they invented it. The muffuletta is a variation on the “Italian,” a medley of cold cuts including ham, mortadella, salami, pepperoni and cappicola, plus Swiss and provolone cheeses. The two big differences that make it a muffuletta are the roll and the relish. Central Grocery’s third-generation owner Frank Tusa told us that, “In Sicily, muffuletta is actually the name of the roll, like Kaiser.” But the meat, cheese and relish combination inside is a strictly American invention, created by Tusa’s Italian immigrant grandparents.
The roll is a very particular flat, round loaf about 10 inches in diameter, and the sandwiches are cut in quarters and sold by the half or whole. Because there is no adequate substitute for this bread, a specialty of Louisiana bakeries, muffulettas elsewhere are often inherently flawed. But the most important ingredient is the relish, variations of which are sometimes called giardiniera. Central Grocery’s “Italian Olive Salad” is a longtime secret family recipe, and very chunky, with whole green olives and pieces of celery, cauliflower, carrots, onions, hot and sweet peppers, capers, olive oil, vinegar and spices, plus lots of garlic. They sell it in quart jars and fans put it on salads in lieu of dressing or on pasta instead of sauce. It is addictively good – especially in the muffuletta.
Central Grocery’s muffulettas are big: A quarter is enough for many, a half is as big as most other large sandwiches, and a whole is usually shared, except for the heartiest appetites. As Tusa explained, “We use premium ingredients, no shortcuts, the bread is locally handmade, and it’s a good value. There’s a lot of bad fast food out there, this is good fast food. We sell out every day so we must be doing something right.” Come early and expect to wait in line.
Honorable mention: Another historic eatery in the Big Easy, the Napoleon House, is famous for their unique take on the muffuletta, serving it warm. It is also delicious, and logistically easier.
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