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    Why the Future of Sandwiches is Global

  • Popular ethnic varieties add spice to a traditional menu item.

    Istockphoto / Bonnie_Phan
    Sandwiches may seem simple, but quick serves are elevating the dish with global flavors.

    It’s been more than 250 years since “sandwich” entered the world’s culinary lexicon, named for John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich (he reportedly invented it as a snack for gambling sessions). While the term encompasses a variety of menu items having grain-based carriers, some of the fastest-growing sandwiches in America are those that feature global flavors, Datassential research shows.

    Kyle Chamberlin, project manager for the Chicago-based market research firm, says sandwiches are such a ubiquitous category that they present brands “an easy way … to experiment with different ingredients and tastes without much risk.”

    Of the 15 fastest-growing sandwich styles on American restaurant menus, about half are ethnic or regional specialties, Datassential reports. Some of the fastest-growing flavors include sriracha, lemon grass, daikon, and hoisin.

    The global sandwich gaining the most traction is the bánh mì, a Vietnamese fusion of native and French cuisines. A typical bánh mì has cooked pork, cucumbers, daikon, and pickled carrots, plus French culinary ingredients pâté, mayonnaise, and jalapeños, all on a baguette. Chefs across the U.S. have been putting their own takes on the classic bánh mì, and that includes Alison Fong, chef at Boston’s Bon Me, which has more than a half a dozen brick-and-mortar locations along with eight food trucks and two large carts.

    “Ours is definitely not the traditional version, although the definition of traditional depends on where you grew up eating sandwiches,” she says. For her, that was Boston’s Chinatown, so some fillings have a Chinese twist, including proteins like char siu barbecue pork and Chinese salt-and-pepper chicken.

    A sandwich from Cambodia with ingredients similar to the bánh mì is featured at New York’s Num Pang, which also includes various Southeast Asian influences. “The flavors tend to be very bright, so we can create a memorable, flavorful experience without being heavy,” says cofounder and CEO Ben Daitz.

    There are Chinese influences in the five-spice glazed pork belly sandwich with pickled Asian pear, but the sausage in the seasonal, slaw-topped Grilled Khmer sandwich—which has cilantro, chile, and fish sauce—is more traditionally Cambodian.

    Naan is often linked to Indian food, but The Kati Roll Company uses nonleavened paratha flatbread to roll up its spicy mixture of ingredients. The word “kati” means skewer, and the rolls are a popular Indian street food. “The menu has become more diversified over the years, but it is centered on one product and varieties of that,” says Anil Bathwal, cofounder and managing director of the 16-year-old, New York–based operation. The most popular roll is the chicken tikka that uses chicken marinated overnight in yogurt and spices, and which is grilled over an open flame.


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    Another sandwich growing in popularity, according to Datassential, is the torta, which has been the namesake item at Chicago-based Tortas Frontera, part of Rick Bayless’ Frontera enterprise. The sliced baguettes feature fillings like cochinita pibil (a Yucatan-inspired pulled pork) and pepito (braised ribs and caramelized onions).

    Other Latin American sandwiches are becoming popular across the U.S., like the Cuban sandwich with ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard. There’s also the chicharron and the butifarra, which are served at Peruvian Brothers’ three food trucks and catering company in Washington, D.C.

    The chicharron extols “the history behind our culture,” says Giuseppe Lanzone, who is from Lima, Peru, and co-owns the business with his brother, Mario. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, “they brought their pigs, and the Incas had thousands of varieties of potatoes. They found potatoes and pork went well together.” Peruvian Brothers’ chicharron has salted pork tenderloin, grilled sweet potato, and a criolla sauce (typically made with tomatoes, peppers, and onions) on a fresh, toasted French roll. The butifarra has slow-cooked pork loin, lettuce, and criolla sauce.

    Arepas are key at Miami-based Amaize Amazing Arepas. The flat, round, doughy corn cakes from Colombia and Venezuela can be stuffed with various ingredients. Amaize features Venezuelan-style arepas, says CEO Rene Prats. Typical is the Mechado Mix that includes shredded beef, black beans, baked plantains, and shredded white cheese. “We also have create-your-own versions,” he says.

    Mediterranean flatbread is the carrier of choice for the Greek gyro, which is a staple of several expanding quick serves. Gyros evolved from a similar sandwich from neighboring Turkey, doner kebab, and features meat sliced from a vertical rotisserie. While thin slices of pork form the typical gyro meat in Greece, the American version uses a combination of minced lamb and beef, says Lambros Kokkinelis, founder of Davie, Florida–based Gyroville.

    “Americans tend to equate lamb with Greek food,” he says, but Gyroville also has grilled or barbecued chicken, cheese, and falafels. Traditional gyros also have tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and tzatziki sauce.

    Flatbread sandwiches are also important across the Levant region of the Mediterranean. Falafel and shawarma—thinly cut meat from a vertical spit—are the most popular fillings for the pita pockets at New York’s Mamoun’s, says Galal Chater, one of Mamoun Chater’s sons. The shawarma here is lamb, but other meats are also available.

    Much of the menu features Syrian recipes from his father. “When he came to America, this was the way he knew how to cook,” Chater says. “This is the fast food he grew up with.”

    Denver-based Garbanzo Mediterranean Fresh offers thick-walled Israeli-style pita pockets as an entrée style to stuff with Mediterranean-influenced proteins, vegetables, and sauces. “We don’t call it a sandwich, even though it is,” says marketing director Devin Handler.

    Garbanzo units feature falafel, chicken, and steak kebabs; hummus; tabbouleh; baba ghanoush; tahini; and other Levant favorites. But ingredients from other regions of the Mediterranean are also represented, such as Greek-style gyro meat and tzatziki sauce.