by Dean McCord
photographs by Nick Pironio
A sandwich is simple, easy to assemble, and quick to eat. The perfect portable meal. From the classic BLT to the Himalayan-sized creations of a New York deli to a tea party’s petite, crustless morsels – as long as the bread is fresh and the contents tasty, it’s hard to go wrong. Which is why you can get a decent sandwich pretty much anywhere. But a great sandwich, a memorable sandwich, is another matter. Fortunately, Wake County is home to more than its fair share. I’ve made it my mission to scout out some of the best. I found them in fancy bakeries and gas stations. I found them created by Iranian deli owners, James Beard award-winning chefs, and Philadelphia expats.
The result is the list that follows of 12 truly memorable, well-made sandwiches. Some may be unlike anything you’ve had before; others will remind you of home or a trip abroad. They’re not the only great sandwiches to be found, but they’re a more-than-solid start. None are to be eaten with a knife and fork. They might be messy, but they can all be consumed with your hands. The bottom line? These are some darn delicious sandwiches.
Cuban Pork Sandwich at Oakwood Cafe
A good Cuban sandwich is pretty easy to find: ham, roast pork, cheese, pickles, and mustard on soft Cuban bread, pressed until the outer crust is crunchy. But finding an amazing Cuban is rare. An amazing Cuban requires time to get the pork just right – marinating it in a combination of orange juice, lemon juice, garlic, onions, spices, and herbs, and then roasting it for hours. Such an amazing Cuban can be found at the Oakwood Cafe in downtown Raleigh. Owner Norberto Meccia is reluctant to discuss the secrets behind his sandwich, other than to say that all of his food has to be good enough that he could eat it every day without getting tired of it. He’ll talk about his ham (he uses smaller, leaner pork). And about his pickles and mustard (everyday, off-the-shelf varieties). But ask Meccia where he gets his Cuban bread, or the recipe for his roast pork? You’ll get a laugh. And then silence. But his sandwich is no secret. I believe it’s the best Cuban sandwich in town.
$10.50 for lunch, $11.50 for dinner; 300 E. Edenton St.; 919-828-5994; oakwoodcaferaleigh.com
Mediterraneo at La Farm
Often the most overlooked part of a sandwich is its most essential ingredient: bread. That will never, ever, happen at Cary’s La Farm Bakery, where owner and master baker Lionel Vatinet makes impeccable bread. Since La Farm opened its cafe several years ago, customers have feasted on a number of its great sandwiches, but the one that turns the bread into a featured attraction is its Mediterraneo. Essentially a Caprese salad sandwich, it combines fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, and balsamic vinegar on airy focaccia. It’s a classic combination, “especially in the summertime when we all want local tomatoes every single day,” Vatinet says. “We thought the focaccia bread would be a great partner for juicy tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella, and this bread really soaks up some of the balsamic vinaigrette, too. We dust the top of the focaccia with rock salt which just works so well with summer tomatoes, bread, and herbs.” It’s actually a hearty sandwich, even though it isn’t overstuffed – perfect for a summer picnic.
$6.95; 4248 NW Cary Parkway, Cary; 919-657-0657; lafarmbakery.com
Pepper Cheesesteak at Anvil
“If it ain’t from Philly, it ain’t a cheesesteak.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that line, and I’ve generally had to agree with it. It’s not that you can’t get cheesesteaks outside of southeastern Pennsylvania, it’s just that they never seem to be as good. Almost, but not quite. Then I had the pepper cheesesteak at Anvil’s Cheesesteaks in south Raleigh. Owner Bob “Anvil” Thompson is from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and worked in a cheesesteak shop as a child. He moved across the country, met his wife, Barbara, and realized that all he wanted to do was open a sandwich shop. In 2010, he opened Anvil’s in Raleigh. Anvil starts with top round steak and slices it thinly with a commercial slicer, then chops it finely. The steak is simply seasoned with salt and pepper and cooked on a flat top. It’s the additions that make all the difference, and my favorite is a combination of grilled onions and bell peppers, finished with some minced hot cherry peppers and provolone. All served on an oven-toasted bun. Is it as good as a Philly cheesesteak? I’ll let you decide for yourself.
$7.75; 2893 Jones Franklin Rd.; 919-854-0558; anvilscheesesteaks.com
Spicy Beef and Vegetable Banh Mi at Dalat Oriental Restaurant
At Dalat Oriental Restaurant in Mission Valley Plaza, the sandwiches are called “Vietnamese subs,” but the more common name for them is banh mi, which is the Vietnamese term for “wheat bread.” And although this sandwich is an everyday part of Vietnamese cuisine, it represents far more to Dalat’s owner, Thao Le. “When I was a child in Vietnam, I was the one who had to go get the bread to make the sandwiches, and I was embarrassed to be seen carrying the long baguette across town.” Representing both the French and Vietnamese influences of the country’s cuisine, the banh mi combines a French baguette with sweetly pickled vegetables, a variety of meats, chili peppers, cilantro and other herbs. It’s my favorite sandwich in the world, with a different flavor explosion with every bite. Dalat pickles its own vegetables, prepares its own meat fillings, and procures its rolls from a local bakery. The rolls are the difference-maker, because they’re actually lighter than a baguette, with a crispy shell and a tender crumb. All of Dalat’s sandwiches are delicious, but the spicy beef and vegetable banh mi offers a perfect balance of all the flavors: sweet, sour, salty, slightly bitter, spicy, and the meatiness of the beef. To me, there’s no finer sandwich in the Triangle.
$6.50 for a six-inch, $9.50 for a 12-inch; 2109 Avent Ferry Rd.; 919-832-7449; dalat.z7z.us
Al Pastor Torta at La Cabana Taqueria
Most of us are familiar with tacos, enchiladas, and other Mexican fare, but the Mexican sandwich, or torta, is not as well known. And that’s a shame, because a torta is a meal of a sandwich, an overstuffed concoction on large, oblong, soft rolls, with a variety of fillings. My personal favorite is found in one of the more unlikely places: a gas station on Capital Boulevard. La Cabana Taqueria is in the back of a BP station, and the women in its kitchen produce some of the most consistently tasty food in the area, including the Al Pastor Torta. Pork is marinated in a blend of spices and pineapple, chopped finely, and cooked on a flat top. Hunks of avocado, lettuce, tomato, and perhaps some hot sauce result in an unwieldy sandwich, with the bread unable to contain all the filling. Ms. Muñoz uses her grandmother’s recipes, and this one in particular is a winner. Forgo the taco and burrito for once and give a torta a try.
$8.95; 3520 Capital Blvd.; 919-872-2252
Chicken Salad Pita Shahab at Lunchbox Deli
The Lunchbox Deli is a small cafe in North Raleigh owned by Iranian expats with no prior cooking experience. The chef making the spot’s tasty sandwiches is in her 70s. That all adds up to a pretty good story. But the curried chicken salad in a pita? That’s the headline. Iraj Isfahani had worked for years with the National Iranian Oil Corporation, but when the fundamentalist Iranian Revolution took place, his life changed forever. That’s when Isfahani and his wife, Manijeh Nayeri, left Iran. They took over the Lunchbox Deli in 1991. Every day, Manijeh, who now runs the restaurant with their son, Shahab, cooks 15-20 pounds of chicken breast with an assortment of spices. The chicken is finely chopped, with some larger chunks for texture. Manijeh makes her own mayonnaise and combines it with seven different spices, including cumin, curry, turmeric, and saffron. The pita is grilled briefly on a flat top to get it slightly crispy. The chicken salad is stuffed in the pita with lettuce, tomato, and banana pepper. It’s not your grandmother’s chicken salad, but heck, Manijeh is more than happy to play the role. It’s that good.
$6.50; 2816 Trawick Rd.; 919-872-7882
Peppered Chicken at Joule
The Peppered Chicken sandwich at Joule is the only item on this list that might be considered a “chef’s sandwich” –an original creation that is by no means simple. The sourdough bread is made in-house by executive pastry chef Andrew Ullom. Tomatoes are slow-roasted to concentrate their flavor. All natural chicken breasts are brined for 24 hours, coated in toasted black peppercorns, seared in a cast iron skillet, and finished in the oven. The sandwich is finished with thick and crispy Heritage Farms bacon, a simple avocado puree, and a Dijon mustard aioli. Chef de cuisine Sunny Gerhart sums it up: “It’s a pretty damn good representation of what a sandwich should be, with the creaminess of the avocado, the crispiness of bacon, the bite of the pepper, and the richness of the tomato. It’s not a fancy sandwich.” It’s probably fancier than most sandwiches, but it’s tastier, too.
$9.50; 223 S. Wilmington St.; 919-424-7422; ac-restaurants.com/joule
Shrimp Burger at Jack’s Seafood and Soul Food
This shrimp burger is probably the simplest sandwich on this list. First of all, it’s not a burger. Thirty or so fried shrimp, slightly larger than popcorn shrimp, sit on a hamburger bun. That’s it. You might add some slaw or tartar sauce, or even some cocktail sauce, but no more, because it’s all about the shrimp. But, oh, those shrimp! Owner Carlton Sutton is not a chef – he’s been in the janitorial business for 33 years and is the fourth owner of Jack’s Seafood and Soul Food. But he knows not to mess up a good thing. Jack’s has been around for 40 years, and the place cooks the shrimp the same way it has since it opened: Sweet shrimp are simply breaded with milk and flour and quickly fried. One bite will take you to the North Carolina coast. Who knew such a simple sandwich could be so good?
$4.59; 1516 New Bern Ave.; 919-755-1551; facebook.com/jacksnewbern
Pork Baguette at Bida Manda
The pork baguette from downtown Raleigh’s Bida Manda could be a first cousin – no, a sibling – of the Vietnamese sub from Dalat, but this sandwich is inspired by the flavors of Laos. “Our pork baguette is a direct influence from Vietnam and China,” says co-owner Vansana Nolintha. “Ours starts with pork neck that is slowly cooked with lemongrass, hoisin, and garlic marinade, flavors that are representative of Laos. We then push for the sandwich to be very herbal with a lot of cilantro.” Bida Manda’s bread is truly a baguette, and chewier than Dalat’s, and the sandwich also has the classic addition of chicken liver paté. Served with an Asian slaw of daikon radish and carrot, this sandwich makes for a perfect lunch. But it’s not exactly like the sandwich Nolintha would have had growing up: His had a lot more fish sauce added, because he liked a lot of “funk” on his baguette.
$8.90; 222 S. Blount St.; 919-829-9999; bidamanda.com
Dabeli at Hot Breads Cafe
Shipra Jain was an accomplished home cook when she opened Hot Breads Cafe, an Indian bakery, five years ago. Per Indian custom, she focused on cakes and pastries that did not include eggs, and she also had Indian sandwiches on her menu, including the dabeli, which is best described as an Indian potato sandwich. I never knew such a thing existed, but they do, and they’re amazing. The dabeli is not an ancient Indian food; it’s a form of street food created most likely in the ’60s and popular ever since. Hot Breads’ version looks like a burger, but its filling is mashed potato mixed with tomato and a masala spice mix. The potato mixture is served on a house-baked bun (egg free, of course) and served with sev (crunchy noodles made of graham flour), peanuts, onions, and two different chutneys: garlic and tamarind. The end result is a ridiculously amazing combination of textures, flavors, and aromas.
$4.49; 1901 NW Cary Parkway, Morrisville; 919-677-1331; hotbreadscafe.com
The Hot Sicilian at Side Street Restaurant
There isn’t really a classic deli sandwich on this list, but the Hot Sicilian from Side Street Restaurant might be the closest thing to it. Smoked ham, smoked turkey, Thousand Island dressing and slaw, on a squishy white sub roll, all warmed through, is what makes up the Hot Sicilian. Or should we just call it the Hot Mess, as the slaw and dressing make for a wet, messy, but utterly fantastic sandwich? Owner Mary Lu Wooten, who bought Side Street in 1979, knows that the sandwich’s name is a bit of a misnomer. “It really has nothing to do with Sicily,” she admits, but the recipe came with the restaurant when she bought it. “It’s a sopping sandwich,” she says. And you’ll want to sop up every last bit.
$6.75; 225 N. Bloodworth St.; 919-828-4927
Salty Chipwich Ice Cream Sandwich at Bittersweet
A sandwich is a meal, self-contained. But every meal should end on a sweet note, and there’s a sandwich for that, too. Bittersweet’s Salty Chipwich Ice Cream Sandwich is not just a couple of cookies smashed around some ice cream. The cookies are sea salt chocolate chip – the type you’d expect from a great bakery. The filling is a rich vanilla ice cream. But the truly inspired component is the coating: bourbon caramel corn. Put them together and you end up with a sandwich that is salty and crunchy and sweet and soft, a perfect conflux of tastes and textures. The sandwich was created in a late-night craze, when some customers with the munchies ordered a number of Bittersweet’s dessert offerings and combined them, with the bourbon caramel corn on top. Owner Kim Hammer realized that this combination worked in some bizarre fashion. “I first tried to focus on this as a sundae, but then realized that this was a perfect match for an ice cream sandwich. After making a trial sample the next day, I had my bartenders try it; and they were initially silent, but then they said, ‘What the hell is this? It’s amazing!’” Bittersweet’s ice cream sandwich takes 3 days to make, and it’s available only Wednesday through Saturday, or until they run out, which means you shouldn’t wait until the weekend.
$8; 16 E. Martin St.; 919-977-3829; bittersweetraleigh.com