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More in the Middle Upping the ante on proteins makes sandwiches and handhelds more craveable than ever

This Modern Croque Monsieur gets flavor complexity from rosemary roasted ham and sun-dried tomato chutney, while rich Comté cheese adds extra indulgence. Photo courtesy of lactalis culinary/ Président. Beef, pork, chicken, fish, lamb. If that sounds like a boring list of sandwich fillings, it isn’t. From house-cured pastrami to slow-braised pork belly, wood-smoked chicken to fire-grilled mahi-mahi, the proteins that are finding their way into sandwiches and other handheld items are flavorful, distinctive and truly craveable.

The usual meat-centric arsenal of marinades, spice rubs and flavor-boosting cooking methods—combined with unique condiments, spreads, cheeses, vegetables and upgraded breads—are being showcased to put plain old chicken salad and roast beef on the back burner.

“The great challenge with sandwiches is that you can taste everything that’s in them in one single bite,” says Jim Heflin, corporate chef for Park Tavern, with locations in Chicago’s United Center and MB Financial Park in Rosemont, Ill. “That means they really demand a lot of attention to the details, like flavor profile and texture.” And because Park Tavern is both a gastropub and a high-volume sports bar during events, the sandwiches have to be both familiar and aspirational in order to appeal to all comers.

“We like to start with a classic, then elevate it or introduce something new,” says Heflin of such deliberately oversized “guilty-indulgence” sandwiches as the French Dip (jazzed up with charred onions, Swiss cheese, grainy mustard aïoli and red wine jus on garlic toasted baguette) and the Brisket (a riff on traditional Italian beef with giardiniera, grilled onions and red ale-spiked mustard). The prep treatment on the brisket verifies Heflin’s “flavor first” approach: The meat is brined for at least 12 hours, dried off and spice rubbed, then slow smoked in Park Tavern’s custom rig for 10 to 12 hours before being sliced and tossed in house barbecue sauce.

Park Tavern’s massive beer program also informs the Smoked Chicken sandwich, in which chicken breast is brined, marinated, house-smoked and paired up with tomato, arugula, onions braised in Finch’s Threadless IPA, bacon, Brie and honey mustard on a Tuscan roll.

Chicken and turkey, in fact, are making sandwich news as a better-for-you and more affordable alternative to beef. According to the foodservice data and insights solutions company, Food Genius, the most-featured protein used on sandwiches and wraps is chicken, offered at 83 percent and 80 percent of operator locations nationwide, respectively. As for turkey, the big bird is viewed as “a healthy alternative protein, and as more consumers become mindful of healthy options when dining out, operators will be more inclined to develop innovative uses for the mainstay sandwich protein,” says Food Genius CEO Justin Massa. Turkey is currently mentioned on 39 percent of menus nationwide, but only on 9 percent of wraps and less than 1 percent of tacos, adds Massa, providing a big opportunity for growth in terms of other types of carriers.

There’s certainly no such thing as a plain old chicken sandwich anymore. Take the popular Chicken & Waffles Sandwich served at The Pullman Kitchen in New York City. A twist on the Southern classic courtesy of former Louisiana chef Bruce Dillon, this sandwich sees buttermilk fried chicken breast between cornbread waffles, boasting an added zing of pepper jack cheese and some sweetness from maple syrup. “Salty, sweet, spicy, all in one delicious package,” says co-owner Carolyn Pincus.

The sandwich also served as the prototype for Pullman’s new Grilled Beast of Midtown East. The $25 man-versus-food-style offering is basically a grilled cheese sandwich taken to prodigious proportions with inclusions of fried chicken, bacon, ham, three cheeses (melted pepper jack, cheddar and Muenster), kale, tomatoes, spicy cherry peppers and two maple syrup-drizzled cornbread waffles stuffed between slices of grilled sourdough bread. Accompaniments of roasted fingerlings and house pickles are added for good measure.

Schlotzsky’s has long been known for its oven-toasted Original (smoked ham, Genoa and cotto salamis, and melted cheddar, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses layered with black olives, red onion, lettuce, tomato, mustard and a signature dressing on toasted sourdough bun), and the Austin-based chain is not about to give up on its flavor-layering philosophy anytime soon. “We never have done anything simply,” laughs CEO Roddy Kelly. “And because hot sandwiches taste so different from cold sandwiches, we are always looking for ingredients and flavor combinations that our oven-toasting process brings out.”

This is especially true of Schlotzsky’s LTOs, ambitious little numbers that are created for the express purpose of delighting customers—not as a means of testing potential new menu items, according to Kelly. Through the years, this has meant a love-’em-and-leave-’em roster, including:

Hickory Ham & Gouda (part of late 2013’s Winter-rific promo, accessorized with lettuce, tomato, red onion and barbecue sauce); Albuquerque Turkey (last summer’s Route 66 promo included this smoked turkey sandwich snazzed up with bacon, cheddar, mozzarella and Parmesan layered with fire-roasted vegetables, chipotle mayonnaise, shredded lettuce and signature dressing on toasted jalapeño cornbread); and Roast Beef Muffalotza (Spring 2013 promo with a tribute to the New Orleans classic in the form of shaved roast beef, olive mix, Parmesan and mozzarella, lettuce, tomato, red onion, Creole mayo and Schlotzsky’s Louisiana Hot Sauce).

The most recent LTO promotes quality with the Hand Carved Line, comprising Roasted Turkey with Avocado & Havarti Cheese; Hickory Smoked Ham with Bacon, Havarti Cheese and Honey Dijon; and comforting Braised Beef with Mushrooms & Fire-Roasted Vegetables, which also gets a flavor jump from chipotle mayonnaise and both Swiss and mozzarella cheeses.

It’s easy to see how the chain slices and dices both new and existing ingredients to create multiple sandwich options, and the introduction this year of the new handheld Flatbreads core-menu line suggests yet more offerings to come, incorporating such first-time ingredients as balsamic reduction and Italian sausage.

Marinades are an important element in the sandwich offerings at Chop Bar, a casual neighborhood-style restaurant in Oakland, Calif. “We do whole animal butchery here, twice a week,” explains chef/co-owner Lev Delany. “The best way to handle the products we’re not going to use right away is get them into a marinade and divide them among batch pans, which not only adds flavor but gives us some flexibility to use them within one to four days.”

Each protein destined for a sandwich takes a different kind of flavor bath. For example, deboned thinly sliced pork leg for the Grilled Pork Banh Mi marinates in a Vietnamese-style mixture of fish sauce, sambal, lime juice, and herbs and spices, including coriander and star anise. “It’s our interpretation of Vietnam’s iconic flavors,” says Delaney. When an order for the popular sandwich comes in, the appropriate number of slices is blotted dry, tossed on the grill until cooked, then piled onto French-style bread with a quick pickle of julienne carrots and cucumber. The banh mi also gets a smear of aïoli-style mayonnaise that echoes the flavor components of the marinade, as well as whole fresh leaves of Thai basil and cilantro.

The flavor elements of Mexico are woven through the Yucatan Grilled Chicken Torta, including a zingy citrus-juice marinade with dried chiles and puréed onion and garlic. “We’re looking for an assertive flavor profile that will come through on a complex layered menu item that also includes bread,” says the chef. “We always want quite a bit of salt, acid, heat, smoke and herbaceous qualities, which might seem too aggressive if the meat were served on its own.” The chicken sandwich takes on additional flavor complexity from avocado, queso fresco, tomato and ancho chile aïoli, and it’s served on a locally sourced Mexican-style oblong sandwich bun with spicy slaw.

Hickory-smoked ham is hand-carved in thick slices at Schlotsky’s, making the sandwich more substantial and authentic. Photo courtesy of schlotzky’s.
“It’s no accident that we’re really known for our sandwiches,” says Spencer Thomas, chef at Nose Dive, a casual gastropub in Greenville, S.C., who celebrated his arrival earlier this year by making menu refinements.

Thomas concentrated on making sandwich selections more creative, as well as more locally and regionally driven. For instance, a straight-up New England-style lobster roll was swapped out for the Mason-Dixon—a lobster salad sandwich garnished with fried scallops, tomato, lettuce and dill vinaigrette. The combination of flavors and textures, as well as the temperature contrast between the cool salad and the freshly fried scallops, are what make this sandwich so successful, says Thomas.

Another sandwich revamp was the housemade pastrami. The meat itself—brined for five days, then rubbed with coriander and black pepper, then smoked low and slow until meltingly tender—was certainly worth keeping, but the presentation was upgraded from a deli-style standard into a signature Pastrami en Croute, in which the thinly shaved cured beef is crisped and encrusted in a rye loaf with Swiss cheese, slaw and a local-mustard vinaigrette, emphasizing texture as well as flavor.

Another protein that’s been finding its way into sandwiches is lamb. “You might say lamb is the original American meat—sheep have been raised here since the early Colonial days,” says Craig Rogers of Border Springs Farm in Patrick Springs, Va., who just opened a venue that also sells prepared lamb items at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.

To Rogers, sandwiches represent an approachable way to reintroduce today’s diners to a meat they may find intimidating. “Who doesn’t love a sandwich?” he asks, making sure to offer familiar favorites like lamb tacos, gyros, and smoked leg of lamb and pulled lamb shoulder sandwiches. “You can do anything with lamb that you do with pork,” he explains. Chef Nick Macri favors a go-to, Southern-style barbecue rub of chile powder, brown sugar, salt, pepper, onion and garlic for full-flavored items like the barbecued lamb sandwich.

Even something as straightforward as a tuna sandwich responds well to flavor and ingredient upgrades. The words “tuna salad” belie the understated complexity of this classic as it’s served at La Brea Bakery’s brand-new La Brea Avenue flagship in Los Angeles.

It starts, as all LBB sandwiches do, with freshly baked bread, according to chef Keith Silverton (no relation to owner/founder Nancy Silverton)—in this case, olive bread. “It’s mostly Kalamata olives, which give this nice briny tang, and the bread is on the chewy side, so it’s an amazing vehicle for the sandwich,” says Silverton. And talk about sweating the details: The bread is toasted on an open panini grill, so only the outside gets crisp, while the inside stays moist and soft.

A leaf of colorful Lolla Rosa lettuce keeps that bread from becoming soggy under the tuna salad itself, which is moistened with housemade tarragon mayonnaise (fresh leaves and tarragon vinegar make their fragrance and flavor felt, without overwhelming the balance) and boosted with cornichons, red onion (soaked and marinated briefly in lemon juice) and celery leaves (for their vegetal freshness and flavor).

While the tuna-salad ingredients are relatively traditional, great care is taken to handle them in the best way for texture as well as taste. Quick-pickling the onion and using celery leaves instead of über-crunchy chopped celery, for example, imbues these products with the same gently crisp mouthfeel as the chopped gherkins, so that everything stays in balance.

Customers are getting it, too. “A regular customer just told me that it was the best tuna sandwich he’d ever had,” says Silverton. And isn’t that the point?

About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.