Table of Contents
- Our Favorite Sandwiches in America
- 1. Fried Chicken Sandwich
- 2. Po Boy
- 3. Cheesesteak
- 4. Cubano
- 5. Grilled Cheese
- 6. Bagel + Lox
- 7. Lobster Roll
- 8. Baloney Sandwich
- 9. Hamburger
- 10. Hot Dog
- 11. Hot Brown
- 12. Pastrami on Rye
- 13. Breakfast Biscuit
- 14. Primanti Classic
- 15. Roast Pork Sandwich
- 16. French Dip
- 17. Beef on Weck
- 18. Submarine | Hoagie | Hero | Grinder
- 19. Pulled Pork Sandwich
- 20. Muffuletta
- Bonus – Ice Cream Sandwich
- Pin It for Later
- Hungry for More in the USA?
- About the Authors
The Earl of Sandwich, otherwise known as John Montagu, gets credit for popularizing the sandwich concept in England during the late 18th century. But despite centuries of history in England and beyond, the sandwich has become an American phenomenon.
When we think about the best sandwiches in the world, most have American roots. Sure, there are exceptions like Vietnam’s banh mi, France’s Croque Monsieur and Israel’s falafel. However, in our not-so-humble opinion, most of the best sandwiches bleed red, white and blue.
America is a society ‘on the go’. The attitude of “live to work” rather than “work to live” places the sandwich at the center of every lunch plate.
We’ve witnessed more than a few European eaters enjoying sandwiches by delicately consuming them with a knife and fork. While in Lyon, we gazed in disbelief as diners gently carved their burgers before consuming them.
In other words, in America, there’s only one way to eat a sandwich – WITH YOUR HANDS! We give a special dispensation for sandwiches like Kentucky’s Hot Brown – See Below.
Our Favorite Sandwiches in America
Merriam Webster defines a sandwich as ‘two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between’. Beyond this basic definition, the variety of American sandwiches runs the gamut from simple snacks to ginormous ‘loaded’ Dagwoods. When it comes to sandwiches, the possibilities are practically endless.
Epicuriously curious, we wondered what was the best sandwich in America. Was it the cheesesteak in our home city of Philadelphia or the Po Boy in New Orleans? Or maybe it was a sandwich we were yet to eat.
To answer this burning question, we dove deep into the American sandwich culture during a 10-week road trip that took us to to more than a dozen states plus the cities of Washington DC and Toronto. This journey solidified our appreciation for the classics and introduced us to some regional specialities.
We drove our zippy Nissan Sentra across the vast United States, stopping at road stands, drive-ins and diners in search of stand-out sandwiches representing the best of each city. We ate a variety including hamburgers, deli sandwiches and subs – all best eaten at the source.
Between this crazy road trip and our other food adventures over the years, we’ve accumulated a monstrous collection of sandwich experiences. These are our picks for the best sandwiches in America:
1. Fried Chicken Sandwich
Simultaneously crispy and juicy, the Fried Chicken Sandwich may be the best sandwich in America based on its satisfyingly savory flavor and crunchy texture. The popular sandwich even has a spinoff – Hot Chicken Sandwiches invented in Nashville almost a century ago.
We’ve eaten Chicken Sandwich classics at Chic-fil-A and newer favorites like the Chick’n Shack Burger at Shake Shack. We’ve also savored regional gems at Bakesale Betty in Oakland, Flock and Fowl in Las Vegas and Federal Donuts in Philly.
Born during a time when the mere mention of the word chicken implied a healthier alternative to artery-clogging beef, Fried Chicken Sandwiches have become a staple of the American diet. They’re far from healthy, but they’re goooood.
2. Po Boy
The Po Boy reigns supreme in a city filled with great cheap eats. Typically prepared on a Leidenheimer baguette and topped with either crispy seafood or slow cooked roast beef, this New Orleans creation is a king among sandwiches.
Also called a Poor Boy, the Po Boy is a reflection of the multicultural food collage that is New Orleans. The city’s cuisine shines with contributions from Italy, Austria, Germany, France and, more recently, Vietnam.
Our all-time favorite Po Boy joint is Parkway Bakery and Tavern, though Casamento’s Restaurant, Mother’s Restaurant and Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar are worthy contenders. Beyond New Orleans, we’ve eaten excellent Po Boys at The Chimes in Baton Rouge and Khyber Pass Pub in Philadelphia.
But NOLA is THE place to eat Po Boys if you want to skip the rest and eat the best.
We didn’t have to drive far to find the best Cheesesteak. In fact, we didn’t have to drive at all. Philadelphia was our home city until the epic road trip launched our nomadic lifestyle. Famous around the world, the Cheesesteak originated in Philadelphia – hence the Philly Cheesesteak nickname and its popularity in the city of brotherly love.
Pat Olivieri gets credit for popularizing the iconic sandwich made with chopped steak, cheese (either Cheez Wiz or provolone) and fried onions. In Philadelphia, the bread is almost always a soft, long baguette-shaped hoagie roll.
If you ask Philly locals where to eat the best Philly cheesesteak, the answer will usually be either Pat’s King of Steaks or Geno’s Steaks, two Philly Cheesesteak shops located across from each other in the city’s Italian Market neighborhood at 9th & Passyunk.
The debate is real, though many Philadelphians swear by other stands like Jim’s on South Street, Tony Luke’s in South Philly or Dalessandro’s in Manayunk. As for us, we’re partial to the Cheesesteaks at John’s Roast Pork in deep South Philly.
Don’t be confused by this sandwich’s name. Although it sounds like it comes from Cuba, the Cubano is an American sandwich invented in Tampa, Florida and popularized by the many Cuban immigrants who live in the Sunshine State.
A classic Cubano piles roast pork, ham, swiss cheese, pickles and mustard on Cuban bread (a flatter, wider French baguette). The sandwich is then pressed to melty goodness.
This sandwich is particularly easy to find in Miami at diner-style restaurants like Versailles that specialize in food favorites from the nearby country.
5. Grilled Cheese
Ooey and gooey aren’t always good food adjectives except when it comes to describing a Grilled Cheese Sandwich. This is a classic sandwich that tastes best when cheese and butter (and occasionally mayonnaise) are added without concern about calories or cholesterol.
Though other countries make toasties, there’s something special about the American version made with white bread and melty cheeses like American, Swiss and Cheddar. There’s not much better than a Grilled Cheese Sandwich paired with a bowl of tomato soup on a cold and windy East Coast afternoon.
6. Bagel + Lox
The Bagel + Lox is a classic American sandwich even though two of its three main ingredients come from other countries. While Poland gets credit for inventing the bagel, the concept of smoking salmon started in Scandinavian countries like Noway.
However, cream cheese is an all-American product invented in New York and associated with Philadelphia due to marketing. America’s founding city had a reputation for luxury in the late 19th century – something we’re still attempting to fathom.
Popularized by European Jews who immigrated to New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century, a Bagel + Lox sandwich is a bagel filled with lox (brined smoked salmon) and cream cheese plus optional ingredients like tomatoes, onions and cucumber. People with an aversion to salty food can replace the lox with nova.
Although Bagels + Lox are easiest to find in urban cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles, the sandwich has become a popular brunch item across America. Note: While much of salmon sold in grocery stores is machine sliced, the best lox is sliced by hand.
We ate fine versions at spots like Walla Walla Bread Company and Zingerman’s Delicatessen during our road trip, but the Bagel + Lox at Russ & Daughters Cafe in the Lower East Side remains our favorite. We also like the cafe’s Super Heebster with white fish salad and bright green wasabi roe, but that’s a different sandwich.
7. Lobster Roll
The Canadian province of Nova Scotia serves a lot of lobster rolls, but this seafood-forward sandwich is an all-American sandwich invented in Connecticut. The lobster roll remains popular in the Constitution State as well as in nearby Boston and throughout New England.
The Lobster Roll is a unique entity born of America with a ‘top split’ toasted, buttered, short hot dog-style roll filled with lobster chunks combined with a mixture of mayo, celery, lemon juice and a dash of hot sauce.
Don’t be confused by its lowbrow appearance. The lobster roll is a luxury sandwich sold for luxury prices. It’s worth it and so are you.
8. Baloney Sandwich
Although Bologna, Italy gets credit for inventing mortadella, Baloney Sandwiches are as American as it gets. This sandwich puts sliced bologna sausage (similar to mortadella) between two slices of plain white bread with optional add-ons like mustard and mayonnaise. Some people grill their Baloney Sandwiches and others add cheese but these are optional steps.
Perhaps we were influenced by the catchy Oscar Meyer jingle, but the Baloney Sandwich is a memorable part of both of our childhoods. We ate the simple sandwich at home and carried it to school in cartoon-decorated lunchboxes.
After eating hamburgers around the world in countries like Slovenia, Vietnam and Portugal, we can attest that American burgers are the best burgers in the world. We like ours grilled to light pink medium rare before we add fresh tomatoes, sliced onions and various condiments.
The history of hamburger is as clear as mud with Hamburg, Germany and various American cities staking a claim to its origin. Regardless of where the humble hamburger was invented, it’s fair to say that it was perfected in the USA where’s it’s since achieved ‘national dish’ status.
Hamburger variations run the gamut with toppings like cheese, chili, bacon and even avocado in the mix. We rarely say no to a Patty Melt with a hamburger patty, onions and cheese fried inside two pieces of rye bread. As for vegetarians, they say yes to the plant-based Impossible Burger.
10. Hot Dog
Although Hot Dogs are ‘as American as baseball and apple pie’, this sandwich’s history traces its roots back to sausages in Germany. This lineage hit us as we cruised through the Frankfurt airport and couldn’t help but notice the many Hot Dog, i.e. Frankfurter, stands.
History aside, the Hot Dog is firmly entrenched in the American food culture throughout the country. Families grill them during the summer and street vendors sell them in carts in cities like Chicago and New York.
If we had to pick our favorite hot dog, it would be either a grilled all-beef Dog with spicy mustard and sweet relish at Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island or a loaded Chi-dog in Chicago. “Dirty water dogs” sold by street vendors on the streets of NYC are also a favorite.
There are also all kinds of regional Hot Dog variations. Travelers will want to try Half Smokes in Washington, DC, Poi Dogs in Hawaii, Coneys in Detroit, Sonoran Dogs in the Southwest, Corn Dogs in Dallas and Tijuana Dogs in California.
11. Hot Brown
Most sandwiches are best eaten without utensils. The Hot Brown is an exception to this rule. However, using a fork and knife is worth the extra effort when it comes to this sandwich invented at Louisville’s Brown Hotel in 1926.
We stopped for Hot Browns after our tour of the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort. It was our first time eating the classic Kentucky sandwich made with turkey, bacon and cheese and smothered in a decadent Mornay sauce. Needless to say, it was love at first bite.
12. Pastrami on Rye
The Pastrami on Rye is a classic New York sandwich introduced by Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and Romania more than a century ago. While much has changed in NYC since those halcyon days, the Pastrami on Rye remains a standard order at lower Manhattan spots like Katz’s Delicatessen.
For the uninitiated, pastrami is typically beef brisket that’s been brined, smoked and served warm from a steam table. We’ve eaten great versions at Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal and The Grange Community Kitchen near Buffalo, but nobody does it bigger or better than Katz’s.
Katz’s was immortalized by the movie When Harry Met Sally. Ironically, Sally ate a turkey sandwich in the movie while Harry ate pastrami. That’s why we’ll always ‘have what HE’S having’ when we eat at New York’s most famous Jewish deli.
13. Breakfast Biscuit
The word biscuit can be confusing since British people use this word the same way that Americans use cookie. In America, a biscuit is savory bread, more akin to a scone in Western Ireland than an actual twice baked pastry. It’s made with buttermilk, soft flour and a whole lot of butter. Though tasty on its own, the American biscuit doubles as an excellent sandwich platform.
Thanks to fast food chains like McDonalds, breakfast biscuits are available across America. However, the best ones are served in the American Southeast. We ate excellent Breakfast Biscuits in cities like Nashville, Asheville and New Orleans during our road trip – all at local cafes and none flanked by golden arches.
14. Primanti Classic
Originally served to hungry truck drivers in the 1930s, the Primanti Classic is Pittsburgh’s most beloved sandwich. A blue collar sandwich created in a blue collar city, it’s a whopper of a sandwich thanks to the inclusion of french fries and coleslaw served inside the sandwich.
Bring a big appetite when you try a Primanti Classic in Pittsburgh or another city with a Primanti Brothers. Thanks to ingredients like grilled meat, provolone cheese, coleslaw, tomatoes and french fries, it’s a hearty meal hiding in plain sight between two thick slices of Italian bread.
15. Roast Pork Sandwich
Philadelphia is famous around the world for its Cheesesteak. But did you know that the city’s best sandwich is arguably the Roast Pork Sandwich?
Popularized by Italian immigrants that once called Philly home, the Roast Pork Sandwich fuses American and Italian cuisines in a recipe that starts with slow-roasted pork and spices and adds sharp provolone cheese, greens like broccoli rabe or spinach and an Italian roll.
The connection to Italy made sense to us once we realized that broccoli rabe is the same thing as friarielli eaten in Naples. Even before we had that realization, we loved eating Roast Pork Sandwiches at John’s Roast Pork in South Philly. In case you were wondering, their Cheesesteaks are good too.
16. French Dip
You might think that the French Dip was invented in Paris or Lyon but you would be incorrect. Despite its name and its baguette base, this hot sandwich hails from Los Angeles. Yes, the French Dip is a California classic.
Typically served ‘au jus’ with a side of beef juice, the French Dip sandwich is a carnivore’s delight with its preponderance of thinly sliced roast beef. We ate an excellent gussied-up version at Major Food Group’s Dirty French in New York City but the classic is served at Phillipe’s in Los Angeles. And, yes, we both get the irony of eating a French Dip at Dirty French..
17. Beef on Weck
Beef on Weck would likely be Buffalo’s signature food if the chicken wing didn’t claim that spot. But don’t count out this Buffalo sandwich that gets its name from caraway-seeded kummelweck bread and sliced roast beef.
Local pubs starting adding roast beef to create the local belly buster after German immigrants brought the bread to Buffalo in the late 19th century. It was a match made in sandwich heaven.
Although you can find Beef on Weck on menus throughout Buffalo, we swear by Schwabl’s version served with pungent horseradish. We ate several excellent, beefy, real deal Beef on Weck sandwiches in Buffalo for ‘research’ purposes and this was easily our favorite.
18. Submarine | Hoagie | Hero | Grinder
You might eat a Submarine, Hoagie, Hero or Grinder when you’re extra hungry and choose to eat a sandwich. All of these sandwiches are long sandwiches topped with a generous combination of meat, cheese, vegetables and condiments. So what’s the difference in these four sandwiches? In one word, the answer is geography.
While most Americans call these jumbo sandwiches Submarines or Subs, Philadelphians love their hoagies, New Yorkers consume Heroes and Bostonians chow down on Grinders. The ingredients may vary from city to city but, at end of the day, a Submarine by any name is still a ‘hungry man’s’ best friend.
19. Pulled Pork Sandwich
We have a thing for barbecue.
During our US road trip, we ate tender brisket in Lockhart and burnt ends in Kansas City. During other trips, we’ve eaten barbceue in disparate cities including Asheville, Memphis, and internationally-influenced versions in Helsinki and Paris. We’ve even eaten world class Southern barbecue in Da Nang. Sometimes, though, we want to eat barbecued meat on a roll. That’s when we order a Pulled Pork Sandwich.
Although restaurants around the world serve Pulled Pork Sandwiches, this saucy sandwich is indigenous to the American Southeast. Filled with shredded barbecued pork cooked low and slow, a Pulled Pork Sandwich tastes best when it comes with coleslaw and pickles and is topped with a Carolina-style vinegar sauce. With the addition of french fries or chips, this sandwich becomes a meal.
Although muffuletta bread comes from Sicily, the Muffuletta sandwich is a New Orleans specialty created by some of the first Italians to immigrate to America.
Those immigrants invented the Muffuletta sandwich more than 100 years ago using the aforementioned Sicilian bread plus a whole lot of tasty toppings like cured meat, cheese and marinated olive salad. In our opinion, the punchy, acidic olive salad is what makes this sandwich sing.
Bonus – Ice Cream Sandwich
The only bad part about eating a sandwich is when you’re finished and all that’s left on the plate is crumbs. That’s when it’s time to continue the fun by eating an ice cream sandwich.
Invented in New York before it spread throughout the country, the Ice Cream Sandwich replaces bread with cookies and meat with ice cream. The result is a fun dessert beloved by kids of all ages.
Pin It for Later
About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.