Flavor building is at the crux of menu development, and today’s focus is on bold, complex combinations. Sandwiches have always offered a blank canvas for innovation, where chefs play with each layer, unlocking signature builds with stunning creativity. The challenge is finding sandwiches with the most potential and the biggest crave factor. The Vietnamese banh mi has taken off, and consumers’ willingness to try something that adventurous points to their enthusiasm for flavor innovation within this familiar category. Although global sandwiches are part of this story, they’re not the only entry point. Classic sandwiches play here, too, as long as each component is mindfully considered and the flavors are both tantalizing and inventive. Here are 12 sandwiches that hold great potential—either for reinvention or adaptation.
1. Döner Kebab Sandwich
Middle Eastern flavors and forms are red hot right now, catapulted into stardom thanks to their bold and crave-worthy flavor combinations. Turkey’s döner kebab offers just a bit more modern mystique than the Greek gyro, but delivers a similar experience, with juicy, tender beef or lamb cooked on a vertical spit, then sliced thinly. Shawarma, al pastor and döner kebab bring a flavor system worth exploiting in handheld form.
Zesty Feta Döner: Zesty feta spread, pepperoncini, romaine, cabbage, tomato, onion, green pepper, cucumber, tzatziki
—Spitz, multiple locations
Döner Durum: Thinly sliced crispy beef and lamb döner kebab, tomato, lettuce, spiced onion, yogurt sauce; wrapped in a Turkish tortilla
—Ottoman Taverna, Washington, D.C.
2. Steak Sandwich
Satisfying, substantial and flavorful are three qualities that keep this sandwich in regular rotation. The steak sandwich offers plenty of potential for signature takes, with both global influences like chimichurri and modern cuts of meat leading the way. The Gaucho Brazilian Grille in Blacksburg, Va., serves up the Ximango Sandwich, starring picanha, also known as the beef coulotte. It’s tucked into garlic bread with smoked provolone, sautéed Vidalia onions and red pepper, served with a choice of dipping sauces, like chimichurri or guava agrodolce.
New York Steak Sandwich with brioche, creamed spinach, whiskey peppercorn sauce
—Wildwood Kitchen & Bar, Sacramento, Calif.
Flank steak with romesco, grilled scallions and aged cheddar on country bread
—’Wichcraft, New York
3. Grilled Cheese
Comfort food’s biggest champion, this childhood classic has often been taken to new heights. Today, modern touches include global mash-ups, as well as eclectic add-ins that ratchet up flavor and interest. Outerlands in San Francisco taps into the skillet trend with its Cast Iron Grilled Cheese Sandwich, starring house-baked bread brushed with garlic oil, piled with cheese and grilled in a cast-iron skillet.
Pizza Party Grilled Cheese: Pepperoni, sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions, provolone, homemade marinara sauce on Texas toast
—Everdine’s Grilled Cheese Co., Naperville, Ill.
Farmer’s Breakfast: Cheddar, applewood-smoked bacon, roasted potatoes, chive butter
—The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, San Francisco
4. Croque Monsieur/Madame
Perhaps one of the greatest gifts from France is the classic café sandwich, the croque monsieur. Starring ham, Gruyère and sometimes béchamel, this sandwich is then slathered with butter and toasted until crisp and perfect. The croque madame adds a fried egg to the build, making it a potential breakfast player and giving it the extra unctuousness that eggs deliver. Innovation here comes in the form of tweaks to the protein component, the featured cheese and a play on the béchamel. At Brasserie Jo in Boston, Nicholas Calias, executive chef, swaps out the ham for corned beef and adds choucroute, turning it into a Croque Corned Beef & Choucroute.
Croque Monsieur: Toasted French ham and cheese with Dijon mustard and Gruyère Mornay on country white
—Le Reve, Wauwatosa, Wis.
Croque Monsieur: DC ham, Gruyère cheese, Mornay sauce
—DoveCote, Orlando, Fla.
Croque Madame Waffles: Thinly sliced ham over two waffles made from a Belgian batter with Gruyère; topped with Mornay sauce and a fried egg
—Corridor Brewery & Provisions, Chicago
5. Cubano & Medianoche
The Cubano has become less exotic over the last few years, and is primed for signature flavor moves, maybe changing up the classic combination of ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on Cuban bread. The Medianoche, the Cubano’s lesser-known cousin, follows the same build, but stars a soft, sweet, eggy bread called “pan suave.” Meaning “midnight,” Medianoche derives its name from the sandwich’s popularity as a late-night snack.
Cuban Sandwich: Pulled pork, ham, apple mustard jam, Gruyère
—Coffeemania, New York
Medianoche: Roasted pulled pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, mayo and mustard on semi-sweet bread
—Tropicana, Austin, Texas
The BLT’s perfection in both flavor and texture can make innovation seem like gilding a lily. Unless, of course, it’s done really well, enhancing rather than masking, elevating rather than fussing. Today’s upgrades include wedges of avocado, runny poached eggs, crispy crab cakes, braised chicken thighs—all signaturizing this classic without taking away its promise. One example is the Chicken Guacamole BLT at Hyde Park Bar & Grill in Austin, Texas, with grilled chicken breast, guacamole, lettuce, tomatoes, onion and bacon on a toasted brioche bun.
Fried Green Tomato BLT
—CG Public House, Kennewick, Wash.
Smoked Salmon BLT: House-cured smoked salmon, smoked bacon, red onion, arugula and Boursin on toasted flaxseed bread
—Beehive Cafe, Bristol, R.I.
BLT Breakfast Sandwich: Bacon, lettuce, tomato, drippy-yolked egg, homemade English muffin and hot sauce aïoli
—Sardella, St. Louis
7. Cemita & Torta
Exploration in Mexican flavors and forms is deepening and widening. The torta, a layered sandwich on a crusty white roll, offers the most room for interpretation. The cemita hails from Puebla, and is a type of torta built on a semi-sweet sesame roll. It usually stars fried cutlets of beef or chicken, or maybe carnitas, and also features avocado, chipotle, panela cheese, white onion and a splash of chile sauce. Authentic cemitas also include a few leaves of papalo, a green herb with a citrusy flavor.
Cemita: Mexican sesame-seed bun filled with choice of meat along with avocado, Oaxaca cheese, chipotle, papalo, pickled onions, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and black bean purée
—Cemitas El Tigre, New York
Roasted Mushrooms Torta: Cremini, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, smoky garlic mojo, poblano rajas, goat cheese, black beans, wild arugula, lime
—Tortas Frontera, Chicago
8. Turkey Sandwich
There’s something universal and comforting about a turkey sandwich, with limitless potential for innovation. At its core is the promise of moist, tender turkey, which can turn toward fall and Thanksgiving with a bit of cranberry spread and a spoonful of stuffing, or can move toward summer with fresh herbs and a citrus-spiked mayonnaise.
Roast Turkey Sandwich: Thick slices of moist meat off of a freshly roasted turkey are topped with lettuce, onion, tomato and pickles, with extra toppings like pepper Jack and avocado, on Dutch crunch bread
—Arguello Super Market, San Francisco
Turkey Panini: Hand-cut roasted turkey with watercress, citrus aïoli and provolone cheese, served on house ciabatta
—G Street Food, Washington, D.C.
9. Po’ Boy
This Louisiana staple earns attention with a unique combination of fried seafood topped with pickles, hot sauce and mayonnaise, all nestled in a French roll that’s crispy on the outside and insanely soft on the inside. Opportunities for innovation abound, from seafood to toppings. At Fishing with Dynamite in Manhattan Beach, Calif., David LeFevre switches out shrimp every May for Maryland soft-shell crab on his po’ boy, spiked with Cajun rémoulade.
Oyster Po’ Boy: Deep-fried oysters with Korean spices, kimchi coleslaw and kimchi aïoli on a toasted buttery bun
—HRD Coffee Shop, San Francisco
Po’ Boy Slider Special: Three mini versions of signature sandwiches —fried oyster po’ boy, fried catfish, fried shrimp or fried crawfish
—Windy Corner Market, Lexington, Ky.
10. Lobster, Shrimp & Clam Roll
As chefs continue to ratchet up flavor delivery in modern casual seafood dishes, they’re looking to the classic seafood rolls as an opportunity for innovation, perhaps adding regional tweaks and taking a cue from the world of jacked-up fish tacos.
Lobster Roll with aïoli, tarragon and lemon
—State Street Provisions, Boston
Clam Roll: Fried whole-belly clams, roasted tomato, pea greens
—Prospect Cafe, West Hartford, Conn.
Fried Clam Roll with celery root rémoulade
—Mary’s Fish Camp, New York
Shrimp Roll: Grilled or crispy, in a split-top butter roll, choice of sauce
—Slapfish, multiple locations
The Reuben’s flavor system has seen a lot of play recently, where chefs reinvent the format or combination of flavors (corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and rye bread). Clever iterations include the Reuben egg roll, Reuben soup—and, of course—innovation in the Reuben sandwich.
Reuben Bao: Pastrami, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing
—Tom’s BaoBao, Cambridge, Mass.
Smoked Beet Reuben: Roasted beets, kraut, Gouda and smoked Russian dressing on pressed marble rye
—On Rye, Washington, D.C.
12. Katsu Sando
Japan steps into the U.S. sandwich ring with an instant champ. Pillowy white sandwich bread slathered with sweet-savory tonkatsu sauce houses breaded pork cutlets. It’s interesting to note that chefs here aren’t just adopting the katsu sando, but adapting it by adding signature elements like a crunchy slaw or craveable dipping sauce.
Katsu Sando: Pork milanesa on pan de sal, with karashi mustard and sweet-and-sour fruit sauce
—Pao by Paul Qui, Miami Beach, Fla.
Katsu Kare Sando: Panko-crusted chicken breast, slow-cooked Japanese curry, yuzu-jalapeño slaw
—Humble Potato, Los Angeles