Bread, bread, and more bread
The enduring popularity of sandwiches can likely be attributed to their overwhelming customizability. Anything goes, from super simple one-ingredient wonders to overblown towers of meat, veggies, and sauces that can never be managed in one mouthful. Though the origins of these national specialties and local favorites are occasionally disputed, each and every one is worth traveling to, just to see what the hype is all about.
A regional Mexican specialty, the torta ahogada—which literally translates to ‘drowned sandwich’—is the spicy hangover cure of choice for those in Mexico’s second city, Guadalajara. The key ingredient is arguably the birote salado, a slightly salted baguette-esque crusty roll whose solid exterior refuses to crumble beneath the weight of its fried carnita (pork) filling and liberally-applied cold, spicy tomato sauce. Top with sliced onion and radish and accept the fact that eating the torta ahogada is a messy affair.
Invented in a Uruguayan bar, the chivito (little goat) is now the country’s national dish and, according to Uruguayans, their most famous culinary export. However, while the name implies that goat meat makes some kind of appearance in this fairly typical sandwich set-up, the proteins of choice are actually beef, bacon, and ham, complemented by mozzarella, lettuce, tomato, and hard-boiled eggs. Mayonnaise and a side of fries are a must.
The bacon sandwich is a thing of simple majesty, and all meat-eating Brits abroad will, at one point or another, find themselves pining for a decent one. While squishy white bread and high-quality, fatless back bacon are the only two ingredients needed to make a great bacon sandwich, you can’t go wrong with a dollop of red (or brown, I don’t judge) sauce, too. Butter should never make an appearance.
Contrary to popular belief, pita breads don’t always have to come stuffed with kebab meat. Take the popular Israeli sandwich, the sabich, which instead fills the floury pita base with fried aubergine (eggplant), boiled eggs, hummus, tahini sauce, and pickles.
INSIDER TIPWhile locals favor this simple, savory sandwich for breakfast, you can find it served street-side throughout the day, especially in Tel Aviv.
The bánh mì has become many self-proclaimed foodies’ sandwich of choice. In Vietnam where it originated, this light snack is served as an accompaniment to some kind of liquid dish, whereas Western iterations are served as a stand-alone lunch. While the airy baguette gives away the French-influence, the fillings remain traditionally dominated by Vietnamese ingredients like daikon and cilantro, plus a smorgasbord of meat choices.
Perhaps the state of Puebla’s greatest source of regional culinary pride, behind the chile poblano, the cemita is their showstopper doorstopper sandwich. Although you’ll now find versions outside of Mexico, cemitas pull together a whole host of hyper-local ingredients—like the sesame-seeded bread roll (also known as a cemita), as well as the pápalo herb which has a peppery-rockety flavor all its own. These ingredients make re-creation of the cemita elsewhere practically impossible, and attempted knock-offs far from excellent. Add stringy cheese, fried meat, and avocado into the mix and you’re on your way to a quality, overflowing cemita.
WHERE: South Africa
Cape Town’s signature sandwich was doing foot longs way before Subway, and doing them far better. While the name Gatsby evokes old world elegance and perhaps an enigmatic backstory, the South African version is anything but sleek. How can it be when a wodge of vinegar-doused ‘slap’ chips constitute the main component? Add your choice of meat, spicy sauce, and fried onions, and don’t forget to share this carb-y behemoth with your nearest and dearest.
Bocadillo de Tortilla
Think of traditional Spanish foods, and you probably think of paella. Or perhaps you’re a person with far more refined taste, and the traditional potato omelette (a.k.a. a tortilla de patata) comes to mind. Literally just that, a chunky hunk of potato and egg deliciousness, arguably the only way to improve upon a well-cooked Spanish tortilla is by stuffing it in a bread roll. A distant cousin to the Mexican guajalota (a tamal in a teacake), bocadillos de tortilla will almost certainly become your next sandwich obsession.
France’s ‘Crunchy Mister’, or Croque Monsieur to give it its Sunday best name, was the Parisian snack of choice back in the day, and continues to enjoy popularity as a café staple. Made from France’s second most famed bread, brioche, filled with ham and then coated in a slightly seasoned layer of cheese (sometimes with the added extra of béchamel sauce), the Croque Monsieur becomes a Madame with the addition of a runny fried egg.
Thinly sliced meat (pork or beef, take your pick), is stacked miles-high with equally skinny slices of green chili pepper, tomato, and green beans, bringing a touch of healthiness to the teetering arrangement. Named for those who tend to chacras, the Quechua term for ranch or farm, loosely translated, the chacarero has long since left the countryside and taken over the length and breadth of Chile.
Porto is a destination on the rise, with plenty to offer all ages and tastes, but when it comes to dining there’s one generation-bridging crowd pleaser: the francesinha. Meat, meat, and more meat make up the filling—linguiça (Portuguese sausage), wet-cured ham and steak to be precise—while melted cheese and a fried egg top the whole thing off, Croque Madame style. However, the francesinha really comes into its own thanks to the secret-ingredient sauce that’s generously ladled atop the completed sandwich. Just like Sunny D, which also comes in an unnatural orange hue, no one truly knows what constitutes each secret sauce, but they enjoy it nonetheless.
As the name suggests, the Argentine choripán brings together chorizo sausage—butterflied down the middle so it doesn’t try and make a grand rolling escape from the side of your bread with every bite—with a crusty roll casing. Find them at football games or BBQs and add a drizzle of chimichurri sauce for the true Argentine experience. Alternatively, hop across the border for the very similar Brazilian salchipão.
WHERE: New York
If you haven’t ordered a pastrami-on-rye from that deli in When Harry Met Sally, have you truly experienced New York? Well, probably. Consider trying more than just the infamous and enormous(ly expensive) Katz’s Deli iteration, and do a round of the many, many New York kosher delis where these rye bread sandwiches filled with thinly-sliced yet lavishly marbled cured beef topped with a lick of mustard can be found in abundance.
While shawarma has made its way onto post-night-out menus across the world, in various stages of bastardization (hello, Mexican tacos árabes), many would argue that the original and best can still be found in Lebanon. For a truly local taste, order the chicken shawarma and pair with falafel and toum, or dip your toes into the world of spit-roasted mixed meat varieties.
So prized are some sandwiches, that there are all-out rivalries regarding their true origins. While it’s accepted that these buttery lobster-filled hotdog buns originate from New England, fierce debate exists between the states of Maine (who favor a cold roll) and Connecticut (who are fans of a warm lobster sandwich) as to who makes the superior roll. We’ll let you be the judge.
Speaking of legendary origin-story rivalries, the history of the famed Cuban puts the Maine/Connecticut lobster roll war to shame. So, which city was responsible for bringing the Cuban sandwich to life—Tampa or Miami? It seems the devil’s in the details, or the salami in this case: the Miami version adds Italian deli meat, whereas Tampa purists claim pork and ham is quite enough. Both agree, however, that cheese, pickles, mustard, and Cuban bread are essentials.
A classic French baguette meets generously spread butter and a small mountain of ham, in a coming together of quality ingredients known as both the Parisien and le jambon-beurre (ham-butter). Trust the country known for effortless elegance to transform a simple, even slapdash, bread and meat combo into an icon of their national cuisine.
India’s street food favorite, the affordable and filling vada pav, proves that meat is not an essential sandwich component. A deep-fried spiced potato dumpling sits at the heart of the pav (bread roll), before being topped with multiple chutneys and perhaps a chili or two, and wolfed down on the streets of Mumbai.
The po’ boy is a sandwich that’s hard to pin down, thanks to numerous variations and rapidly expanding usage of the term (po’ boys can now be found right through from Texas and into Florida). However, while the beef versions might be delicious, it’s arguably the fried seafood variety that are the most well-known, marrying prawns and oysters in perfect harmony before topping with pickles and butter, as well as some optional salad extras.
Open-faced sandwiches can certainly be more aesthetically pleasing than their bread-lidded counterparts, although they also suffer from a distinct lack of practicality. Even so, if you’re a dedicated open-face aficionado, you can’t go wrong with Sweden’s traditional skagen macka (sometimes known as Toast Skagen, or Skagen Toast). Despite the geographically confusing name—Skagen is actually a port town in neighbouring Denmark—this prawn-and-crème-fraiche-topped toast invention is Swedish through and through. If you’re craving an actually Danish open-faced sandwich though, order a smørrebrød instead.
Bake and Shark
WHERE: Trinidad and Tobago
If you’re ready to take your seafood sandwich game to the next level, get yourself to the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago to indulge in a beachfront local street food favorite, the Bake and Shark. While the name might seem like an obtuse reference at first glance, it’s actually entirely literal—‘bake’ refers to the dough balls which puff out into hollow pockets when fried, while shark is just what you’d expect. Creative license is encouraged when throwing on additional salad and sauces.
Sandwiches don’t have to be monstrously large to gain an enormous following, as is proved by the Taiwanese gua bao. This bite-sized sandwich is notable for its petite steamed dough bun, which folds over generous chunks of stir-fried pork belly, pickled mustard greens, ground peanuts (or peanut powder), and cilantro.
WHERE: Puerto Rico
Variations on the super simple ham and cheese sandwich have popped up already throughout this list, but Puerto Rico’s version of the standard sandwich combo is arguably the most compelling. Served in a traditional Puerto Rican sweet bread roll before it’s toasted and dusted with icing sugar, this snack straddles the sweet/savory line.
Sometimes known as ćevapi, as well as ćevapĉići, this Balkan favourite is the national dish of both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. While the specifics of the dish can vary from Balkan country to Balkan country, the standard ingredients are mini beef fingers, not unlike kebab meat in appearance, served in a grilled flatbread. Saucy additions can run the gamut from sour cream to cream cheese, and raw onions will almost always be involved somewhere along the line.
Tripe lovers unite for a stomach-lining sandwich … literally. A traditional Florentine creation, the pleasingly named lampredotto is actually made from the seasoned and slow cooked final stomach of the cow, which is then dished up with a spicy sauce on a soft bread bun. For the tripe averse, the not-at-all-slimy lampredotto makes for a good gateway into the world of stomach specialities.
Brazilians don’t do things by halves, and that goes double for their street-side sandwiches. The mortadela, named for its copious amount of Italian sausage meat—there’s supposedly over half a pound in each sandwich—is a São Paulo favourite, and usually finished off with cheese, mustard, and mayonnaise. Enjoy sparingly.
As with the British bacon sandwich, Japan’s spaghetti sandwich comes as it is advertised: pre-cooked and sauced spaghetti, dolloped into the heart of a soft submarine roll. This metro station snack can be served hot or cold, with or without cheese, in sliced or garlic bread. After all, this is spaghetti in a sandwich; there are no rules.
WHERE: The Netherlands
The humble croquette had a dubious rise to fame in the Netherlands, scorned for a long time as a cheap snack of questionable content, before finding its footing as one of the country’s most beloved snack foods. Today kroket sandwiches are one of the nation’s street foods of choice. Not unlike Indian vada pav, the broodje kroket benefits from the addition of chutneys or sauce.
The fancy Belgian version of a British chip butty, mitrailettes are usually served on crunchy baguette bread rather than soft baps, and combine their fry filling with sauces and fried meats. Not for the faint of heart, or the carb-free, the mitrailette will win over any potato fan.
Peameal Bacon Sandwich
Finally, head north for the greatest Canadian culinary legacy after poutine, the Toronto peameal bacon sandwich. Similar to a British bacon sandwich, except with far heftier slices of wet-cured pork loin back bacon, try it on a Kaiser bun with mustard for the full effect. (Don’t tell Montrealers that you think it’s better than their signature and similarly meat-heavy sandwiches.)