Sandwiched: Bread to Perfection

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
May 2011

Yes, the innards are typically the sexier part of the sandwich equation, but a sandwich—a truly unforgettable sandwich—is much more than what happens in between two slabs of functional processed wheat product. What makes for sandwich magic—the stuff of banh mi and Reuben dreams—is the chemistry between two slices of bread and all the good stuff crammed between them.

And in an age rife with “in-house,” “hand-crafted,” and “artisan-sourced” product, bread really matters. No mere carbohydrate work-horse of lunch menus, bread is becoming a further expression of the integrity and even locality of product on the table. So whether you’re baking it in-house or outsourcing to the experts, or just looking for a way to give your sandwich menu some soul, take a look at these six faves: sandwiches where the bread doesn’t just contain the contents—it cradles, coaxes, and catapults the filling into new dimensions of desirability.

IN-HOUSE
Smoked Creekstone Farms Brisket Sandwich
Chef Noah Bernamoff of Mile End – Bushwick, NY

Smoked Creekstone Farms Brisket Sandwich at Mile End

Smoked Creekstone Farms Brisket Sandwich at Mile End

Noah Bernamoff may well be the house-made prophet of Boerum Hill. The Montreal transplant is meticulous about everything on his hometown homage of a restaurant menu, and sandwiches—staples of the Jewish deli scene—are no exception. “All of our sandwiches have a specific bread or roll attributed to them,” says Bernamoff. So it’s no surprise that “sandwich development is a long process that goes through numerous trials.” The magic at Mile End begins with the protein. “Once we have vetted the finished meat or fish product on its own,” says Bernamoff, “we bring our baker [Richard Maggi] into the conversation.” Bernamoff and Maggi often work with deli classics and “designated bread pairings,” but Maggi explores those breads and improves upon them in flavor and texture. Beyond respecting tradition, anything from the dryness of the contents to the “assertiveness of the protein and condiments” helps Maggi and Bernamoff determine what bread is most appropriate. Because the meat of Bernamoff’s Smoked Creekstone Farms Brisket Sandwich is pleasantly robust, the flavor of the rye is a key counterpoint. “Our baker spent several months perfecting the perfect rye flavor and texture.” The idea, says Bernamoff, is to create a sandwich, “where the balance between bread/roll and protein is never lost … thus making the first and last bites completely identical.” And, in the case of the Smoked Brisket, delicious enough to make a Montrealer homesick.

OUT-SOURCED
Ginger-rubbed Catfish Num Pang with Honey and Crushed Peppercorn
Chef Ratha Chau of Num Pang – New York, NY

Sweet Pulled Oxtail Num Pang at Kampuchea

Sweet Pulled Oxtail Num Pang at Kampuchea

With a restaurant that literally means “sandwich” in Cambodian, you expect a little extra bread savvy. And Chef Ratha Chau, unofficial Cambodian culinary ambassador to New Yorkers, doesn’t fail to deliver. Nor does Parisi, the Italian bakery where Chau sources bread for his roster of sandwiches. OK, so Chau doesn’t do in-house bread-making. But that’s because he’s found the ideal bread, a crusty semolina out of one of New York’s oldest and most respected bakeries operations. “All of our bread is made by hand the same way we made it in 1903,” says Jennifer Parisi, torch-bearer of the family bakery legacy. The bread for Num Pang “is hand-rolled [and] hand-scaled,” says Parisi. “It’s a special recipe and size that we only make for them.” So instead of stretching his already diminutive kitchen beyond capacity to satisfy Flatiron lunchers and NYU students looking for some pickled exoticism in their late night dining, Chau concentrates on developing the symphony of flavors and textures that make num pang a new must-have Cambodian specialty (by way of Union Square). At his old outpost, Kampuchea, we had combinations like Pulled Oxtail with Tamarind and Shrimp Paste Sauce, House-cured Bacon with Pickled Charred Chili, and Ginger-rubbed Catfish with Honey and Peppercorns. The menu at Num Pang is following through with serious, sandwich-only focus. And the textural crunch of Parisi’s semolina bread is just right to support the meaty variety of Chau’s creations, not to mention reinforcing that tangy crunch of (wonderfully) ubiquitous pickled carrots.

TAG TEAM
Razor Clam Po’ Boy, Apple-Cabbage Slaw on House-made Ciabatta
Chef-owner John Stewart of Meat Cheese Bread – Portland, OR

Razor Clam Po'boy at Meat Cheese Bread

Razor Clam Po'boy at Meat Cheese Bread

Behind the “bread” portion of Meat Cheese Bread is Baker Adam Kennedy, who hijacks the Portland restaurant space overnight to churn out all manner of variously leavened loaves for the next day’s service. “When we get here in the morning,” says Chef-owner John Stewart, “the bread is magically ready.” Chef Stewart can then step in with “super local” staples like the Razor Clam Po’Boy (“you go anywhere on the beach, and they serve razor clam po’boys”) and his ciabatta hoagie is ready to go. “I feel the bread can make or break a sandwich,” says Stewart. Having an expert baker like Kennedy on hand guarantees Stewart has the highest quality bread, customized for his sandwiches. For his version of the po’boy—no doubt under intense local scrutiny—Stewart tenderizes razor clams with a hammer and some elbow grease, gives them a quick flour-egg-wash-panko-christening, and fries them in hot oil and butter; the end result is meaty and not at all tough. The crispy fried coating, added to the crunch of the toasted ciabatta (made with 50 percent poulish, or French sourdough starter), reinforces the meatiness of the clams. “I think it’s crucial to toast this bread on hot sandwiches,” says Stewart, and not just for textural contrast. Beyond “a great chew” and flavor, the toasted ciabatta adds “another layer of heat” to contrast with the cold, creamy, house-made apple slaw, also known as happiness, inside.

TRADITION
La Huerta de la Oma Sandwich: Sliced Churrasco Beef, Lettuce, Avocado, Tomato, Green Poroto Peppers, Hearts of Palm, Aji Verde, and House-made Mayonnaise
Chef Sebastian Garcia of Agriducle – Valdivia, Chile

La Huerta do la Oma Sandwich at Agridulce

La Huerta do la Oma Sandwich at Agridulce

“Churrasco” has carnivore connotations all over Latin America and Europe, from varieties of grilled pork and ribs to the actual sliced steak or a finished sandwich, as in Chile. So when Chef Sebastian Garcia of Agridulce prepares his, he keeps authenticity—and Chile—in mind. And if you’re in Chile, the classic churrasco preparation means pan amasado, or “kneaded bread,” an aptly (if obviously) named Chilean carbohydrate fixture. Often still baked in an adobe oven, where it’s kissed with just a hint of ash on the crust, pan amasado is the kind of thing most any Chilean knows how to make, where to find, and when to eat (preferably at least twice a day). And because pan amasado is slightly enriched, the texture is both light and substantial, which is a must for Chef Garcia, who needs bread strong enough to stand up to sliced steak and the Chilean equivalent of “the works.” Here, it’s lettuce, avocado, tomato, poroto peppers, hearts of palm, aji verde, and a healthy dollop of house-made mayonnaise (some qualify this as a kind of “churrasco Italiano”). This might seem like a packed sandwich, but with a canvas as food-friendly as the pan amasado—low, wide, round, and subtle—Chef Garcia incorporates a variety of ingredients without overstuffing (or upsetting) tradition.

FUNCTION
Asian Pork Meatball Sandwich with Somen Noodles, Korean Chili Paste, and Mint
Chef Bill Kim of Belly Shack – Chicago, IL

Asian Pork Meatball Sandwich at Belly Shack

Asian Pork Meatball Sandwich at Belly Shack

The sandwich and the meatball have a love-hate relationship. On one hand, meatballs offer ease of expedition: grind, mix, roll, cook, and you’re serving the hungry hoards in no time (with pretty low overhead). But ever since the first Italian meatball was awkwardly stuffed into an unwilling hero, meatball sandwiches have drooped into “sub shop” culinary irrelevance (Manhattan’s kitsch-meets-delicious Meatball Shop is the exception that proves the rule here). But at Belly Shack, the “noodle shop with a twist” outpost of Chicago Chef Bill Kim, invention and necessity work side by side in pursuit of affordable, creative fusion (it’s funky pan-Asian that’s not busy, but vibrant, and just damn satisfying). So it’s no surprise Kim’s meatball, a pork medley studded with ginger, garlic, cilantro, and lemongrass, finds new sandwich life courtesy of the bread pocket. Kim stuffs a couple meatballs into each pocket—soft, but sturdy enough to bear the weight and hold the shape of the meatballs—along with a tangle of toothsome somen noodles, addictive Korean chili paste (really, it’s a gateway drug), and a fresh shock of mint to wake it all up. The bread in this sandwich is easily and intentionally, a graceful backstage helper, the supple, slightly-chewy vehicle (or carbo-sine-qua-non) by which so much flavor is delivered. In fact, beyond the functionality of the pocket shape (too often relegated to falafel trucks), its simpler flavor profile is ideal to feature strong flavors. If Kim had gone with anything more substantial, say, seasoned or heavier bread, the sandwich would seem too busy and the glory of the pork might be (unforgivably) muffled.

CONTRAST
Shao Bing: Housemade Crunchy Sesame Flatbread with Braised Pork Butt, Asian Pear, Pickled Onion, and Mustard Greens
Chef Joël Watanabe of Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie – Vancouver, BC

Shao Bing Sandwich at Bao Bei

Shao Bing Sandwich at Bao Bei

At Vancouver’s Bao Bei Chinese Brasserie, Chef Joël Watanabe gets the best of both worlds, twice over, with his Shao Bing sandwich. Not only is the sandwich any pork-lover’s dream (Watanabë braises his pork with shaoxing cooking wine for four hours), but the house-made sesame flatbread is a textural marvel on its own. The nutty crunch of sesame seeds on the crisp exterior combine for an initial—and giddily satisfying bite—followed quickly with a chewy, yielding center that yields further (sumptuously further) to the pulled braised pork. Asian pear, pickled onion, and mustard greens give it a sweet-tangy Chinese-Cuban feel. But what sparks the sandwich to life is the bread magic, and here it’s all about the difference. By allowing for such textural contrast between the crispy, chewy bread and the soft, meaty filling, Watanabë underscores their selling points that much more emphatically. And because he makes it in-house, he has the greatest control over its texture and consistency, so his bread is perfectly matched with the pork, each and every time.