Even before the embrace of international cuisines over the last 25 years, Americans were not starved for sandwich variety.
Armed with refrigerator and pantry mainstays like cold cuts, condiments, spreads, salads, jams, jellies, a few leaves of lettuce, and maybe a tomato slice, even the least creative kitchen hands could manage to pull together something reasonably tasty at lunchtime.
Today, though, with our international horizons significantly expanded, the sandwich landscape is an embarrassment of riches. To a list that includes traditional submarines, heroes, hoagies, clubs, grinders, burgers, and pitas, let’s now add the Cubano, the Vietnamese bánh mì, the Chinese bao, the Italian piadina, the Mexican torta, the Chilean chacarero, the Spanish empanada, and the Uruguayan chivito.
I should note here that I like to define the term sandwich perhaps a bit more loosely than others might. To me, a sandwich is any starch carrier—not just breads and rolls, but also crêpes, steamed dough, pastry dough, flatbreads, and so on—with some sort of topping or filling. And that definition, you’ll no doubt agree, provides a wide degree of latitude for menu development pros. It offers a whole world of possibilities. By simply assembling carriers and contents in various combinations, the options are almost endless. So let’s begin where culinary trends so often do these days: on the street.
If you visit a large city in China today, you’ll likely come across any number of familiar franchises: McDonald’s, Burger King, and Starbucks, to name a few. But as you leave those locations, you’ll typically see several street-food vendors manning carts just a few feet away, each catering to a loyal clientele. The variety of foods being served from these mobile meal stations is sometimes astounding: egg foo young, crispy duck with a crunchy salad, various types of dim sum. Similar scenes play out in urban settings all over the world, and locals in each spot get the distinct privilege of being able to select from any number of enticing offerings.
Those humble vendors don’t have access to giant clamshell grills, ovens or broilers, first-class refrigeration, mountains of storage space, serious marketing budgets, a global purview, or a creative menu development team. But modern quick-serve chains do. And so, with some imagination and inspiration from the streets, it’s possible for enterprising chains today to pull off a handful of novel sandwich creations. And perhaps they could even assemble a kind of “sandwich passport” for patrons seeking a little international intrigue. Here are some examples of how this might work in practice:
Mainstreaming the bánh mì: French colonists left decades ago, but Vietnam hasn’t lost its taste for this crispy baguette made with wheat and rice flour, nor for the sandwich that bears its name. The natives enjoy them with sausage, head cheese, ham, tofu, and cuts of grilled pork pâté, plus pickled vegetables, cilantro, cucumbers, and chili peppers. Some of those elements obviously wouldn’t suit North American palates, but substituting pork with grilled chicken or turkey could make for an approachable and exciting sandwich offering.
Steamy bao buns that stick with guests: In Santa Monica, California, Take a Bao built a whole concept around the considerable appeal of the steamed, succulent Chinese bun that makes a terrific wrap for nearly any sweet or savory filling. The store’s unusual concoctions include glazed steak with marinated cucumbers, Japanese radish, pea shoots, and sesame seeds; grilled teriyaki chicken breast with caramelized onions, shiitake mushrooms, pickled daikon, and scallions; and barbecued pork, pickled red onion, and marinated cucumbers. The idea could be applied to just about any sandwich chain, or be modified to suit an Italian chain’s needs. After all, a steamed bun filled with mozzarella and ricotta cheese, spicy beef ragout, onions, peppers, and sausage would represent a logical and tasty alternative to the traditional calzone.
Chacareros to go: Several years back, Chile native Juan Hurtado moved his sandwich cart north—way north—to Boston, and his chacareros have been drawing eager fans to two city locations ever since. The sandwiches consist of grilled steak or chicken on a cornmeal-based bread, with steamed green beans, cheese, fresh tomatoes, avocado spread, and hot sauce. If the combination sounds slightly odd, consider that the concept has spawned long lines and several local imitators.
Perhaps the best thing about each of these notions is that while their origins may be relatively exotic, their form and function are immediately accessible to Westerners. In each case, there is a portable starch carrier, a filling comprising a range of different meats and vegetables, and a clear desire to satisfy hearty appetites.
My advice for menu developers: Pick a spot on the world map, take a look at the region’s sandwiches of choice, and consider incorporating the best of the locals’ lunchtime customs into your sandwich offerings. Or perhaps create some ethnic fusions all your own.