Though the sandwich was named for 18th-century Englishman John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, only on our shores has it achieved the status of delectable cultural icon. “Sandwiches are part of America like pasta is part of Italy,” says Becky Mercuri, author of American Sandwich. “Ever since our industrialization it’s been the perfect meal for a nation always on the move.” Countless regional variations reflect local ingredients, crops, or immigrant groups. The following cities lay proud claim to classic sandwiches worthy of Dagwood Bumstead.
New York: Reuben
Nebraska in the 1920s or New York in the teens or ’30s? Debate continues about the origins of this grilled assemblage of corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye, but no one doubts the Reuben came of age in the Big Apple’s Jewish delis. You won’t find a more traditional deli for a Reuben than the city’s oldest, Katz’s Delicatessen, a redbrick institution in the increasingly hip Lower East Side. Take a number as you enter and order from one of the workers who hand-carve 5,000 pounds of corned beef each week. A narrow Flatiron District luncheonette that’s been visited by the likes of Bono, Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop has reubens with corned beef or turkey; pair one with a New York fountain drink like an egg cream or a lime rickey (a blend of lime juice, seltzer, and cherry syrup).
At the corner of 9th and Passyunk in South Philly, this classic sandwich was born at Pat’s King of Steaks when, in the 1940s, cheese was added to a steak sandwich. But across the street, archrival Geno’s Steaks claims a superior cheesesteak, a combo of melted cheese (American, provolone, or Cheez Whiz) and thinly sliced grilled beef in a long roll with cooked onions and bell peppers. Whose is better? Pat’s chops its meat; Geno’s doesn’t; Pat’s stand is white clapboard; Geno’s is bright orange, and both have seating. A few blocks away, locals swoon over the gooey cheesesteaks at Cosmi’s Deli, a corner Italian grocery run by the same family since 1932. The lack of tables doesn’t deter regulars, who stand outside executing the “Philadelphia lean” (mouth to sandwich, not sandwich to mouth) to avoid splattering clothes.
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The entire sandwich—a sublime marriage of crusty Cuban bread, roast pork bathed in garlicky mojo marinade, ham, Swiss cheese, and pickles—is flattened and toasted in a press. The Cuban arrived in Florida around 1900 with migrant cigar workers from the island. At Versailles Restaurant, the longtime Little Havana haunt of community power brokers, the bread is baked in-house; whether you eat in the dining room or stand with the Spanish-speaking locals at the outside counter, a cafecito (a tiny cup of bracing coffee) is a must. Sandwiches as well as homestyle dishes such as arroz con pollo, lure gallery owners, auto mechanics, and everyone in between to Enriqueta's Cafe; the no-frills, breakfast-lunch joint is located in the central Wynwood area, home to a burgeoning arts scene.
New Orleans: Muffuletta
The aroma of olives hits you upon entering Central Grocery, a timeworn shop that claims to have originated this sandwich in the early 1900s. Named for its round Sicilian sesame bread, the muffuletta is layered with mozzarella, provolone, Italian cold cuts, and chopped olive salad; walk three blocks to enjoy your “muff” (or a half of one—they’re huge) in Jackson Square, the French Quarter park. Several blocks upriver, in a landmark 1797 French colonial town house said to have been offered to the French emperor as a residence in exile, the muffulettas come heated at Napoleon House; classical music wafts through the establishment’s shaded courtyard.