Sandwiches have always been there for me. From my first school lunch to my last drunken night, late night snacks to a quickie meal in between shifts, I have a long history with loving sandwiches. They sate my hunger time and time again, in only the best of ways. While I love all sandwiches, the fact is this: some are just better than others. Some are truly spectacular. Some are not so great. Of course, it's hard to match up and compare sandwiches from different culinary genres, nations, background, purposes, and whatever else. Generally, I don’t like to pick favorites, but I suppose it must be done. Judging food is in our nature. It's what we do.
That said, this is not a top ten list. It's about sandwich education.
Crowning Shanghai’s best sandwich may be a dubious proposition and technically subjective in nature, but we're going to tilt at that windmill anyway. It makes for some good Internet reading and maybe you'll get a new recommendation out of it that you hadn't tried before, at the very least. I have not included the newest addition to Shanghai sandwich market, the bao, nor did I include bahn mi's because this isn’t 'Nam and those are different sorts of things entirely.
Methodology: I asked ten people from different backgrounds for their top five sandwich spots and what they order there, plus I used a bit of personal experience. Here are some random, Cavishian-style rules / notions I used for judging criteria.
1) Hamburgers are hamburgers. This is about sandwiches.
2) Notice how there's no chicken salad or tuna salad? Tuna is one of my favorite sandwiches -- why can no one in this city make one I can trust??
3) Availability matters. If some shop has a next-level sandwich, but only once a week when Ron's brother comes in, well, they're gonna lose some points.
4) Vegetarian sandwiches are simply salads with bread, this isn’t a salad list, and there never will be one, sorry-I’m not sorry. Grilled Cheese is number one, what do you want from me?
5) This is my list, not yours, your protests are erroneous, but welcomed…let it rain people, let it rain!!!
Sandwich Ordered: Club Sandwich
The "clubhouse sandwich" is cloaked in mystery, its exact birthplace being unknown to this very day. Probably a "club" somewhere.
At Element Fresh, this two-story stack of bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and toasted bread is served with old, inferior turkey and dry bread, making it one of the most disappointing sandwich on my list. Drag. I generally order a club sandwich and love them when I travel -- it’s a hotel go-to -- but this rendition from Element Fresh came up short, despite being the same price as one you might get at a fancy hotel. Lame.
Sandwich Ordered: Egg salad on rye mega. (They didn't have rye, or wheat, or white, so I had it on a baguette. Lame.)
Most often found in its natural habitat of brown paper bags, the egg salad sandwich can be generally defined as two slices of cheap bread holding a mixture of hardboiled eggs, mustard, mayo, salt, pepper, and probably some onion with celery for crunch. While its popularity is undeniable, these humble ingredients make it hard to elevate to a special culinary affair, beyond its satisfying, but simple and humble origins. Unless you're younger than 12 or over 65, eating this sandwich in public is generally considered unacceptable. Egg salad sandwiches can also smell like farts. It's not an attractive look. NYC Deli's didn't break the mold here in any regard. The sandwich was out of control messy and no way would I be caught eating it in front of a girl, but, again, it's probably ideal for diners under 12 or over 65.
However, I praise NYC for its chocolate chip cookies, most underrated cookies in town!
[Ed's Note: Their French Dip is also solid]
Sandwich Ordered: BLT on Texas Toast
The young crying Chinese girl of sandwiches, BLT's represent culinary minimalism at its best -- cool yet hot, crispy yet creamy, bacon-y, yet more bacon-y. Like old Prince tunes or mid-'90s Will Smith movies, even the name evokes an idea far greater than the ingredients that comprise it. It always sounds like a great idea, but in the end it is just bacon, lettuce, and tomato. The only thing holding this marvel of design from creeping higher on my list is that when one craves a sandwich, they rarely crave subtlety. This is a good sandwich, but if a bit more care (and frankly actually cooking the bacon) were taken…I’d venture to say this would be my dark horse choice…Texas Toast however, divine!
near Donghu Lu
Sandwich Ordered: KFC (Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich)
Somewhere inside this fried chicken concoction lurks a great sandwich. Done right, it's a veritable horn-of-plenty of crunchy, chewy, perfectly oily, deep-fried chicken thigh piled high with gochu aioli, and slaw on a simple bun. But this amazing brunch-only sandwich is one Shanghai’s great fallacies, where the cooks more often than not take the chicken, over-dredge it in an uninspired batter, and fry it in stale oil. If one could get this tower of fried goodness consistently done correctly, my hangover hunger would be ever so thankful!
Sandwich Ordered: Pulled Pork
If BBQ is America's cuisine, than the Pulled Pork sandwich must be America's sandwich, which alone should earn it a top spot. It's also one of the few times you can look at a sandwich and say, "I'm gonna take a bite outta yo' butt." That butt -- properly the Boston butt, or shoulder -- must be slow-smoked and infused with the flavor of burning wood, whether hickory, cherry, apple, or otherwise. While regional preparations vary, the end result is best thrown on a sturdy bun with at most some cole slaw. Plus: how many other sandwiches take 12 hours of attentive preparations to produce?
I dare say this sandwich does what the chicken can’t: get better with more sauce.
Sandwich Ordered: Ham & Cheese Panini
Like many of its sandwich staple compatriots, the ham & cheese suffers from its unquestioned overwhelming popularity, and too many people don't fully understand what's at play here. Generally, you're working with sliced deli meats, which tend to be watery and underwhelming, barely standing up to the bread they sit on. Which, of course, is why you're throwing on slices of processed cheese in the first place. If you're working with truly great ham, you don't make a ham & cheese -- you go straight HAM. When you have a truly great piece of ham, you don't insult it with a slice of processed dairy product, use Emmental!-- you put it on some crusty bread, give it a spread of mustard, and eat it with reverence. Funkadeli does it just right. I don’t care for anything on Yongkang Lu especially, but I’d wade through the embarrassingly inebriated to get that sandwich… to go of course.
Sandwich Ordered: Italian
This true-to-the-numbers sandwich basically packs an entire charcuterie board into every bite of a preferably crispy sub roll: cured meats (salami, soppressata, coppa, speck, bresaola…), semi-hard to hard cheeses (Provolone, Parm-Reggiano, but no mozz), Italianate condiments (pepperoncinis, olives, pesto), olive oil (mayo is for pussies), and vinegar. Brad Turley uses proper ingredients and it's not cheap, but then neither is good bourbon, so bow down and pay homage to its power, and then pray you can stand up after eating it.. food coma at its finest.
Sandwich Ordered: Ummm... The Shawarma
For 8rmb, or the upgraded wrap for 10rmb, this is the street side steal! A guaranteed gut filler on the corner of Xiangyang lu and Nanchang Lu, just beyond the soup dumpling guy. A tower of duck breasts*, sliced brazenly, stuffed in a stacked and seasoned with what I like to call “Xinjiang stick spice” or the spice mix they put on the street sticks -- a bit of cumin, garlic powder, chili flakes, black pepper, and a whole lot of Majestic Salty Goodness. Throw in a bit of fat and some shredded lettuce and away you go. Personally I’d like it better if it was lathered with Chinese mustard, but hey, it’s a quick grab-and-go and the price is right.
*On one occasion, the vendor told us this is duck. Two other times, he said it's pork. Pretty sure it's pork.
Sandwich Ordered: Reuben
That this classic bread bomb has earned a spot on the Mount Rushmore of Shanghai’s sandwiches speaks to its greatness. Unfortunately, that greatness spills over into its size like a regular customer's gut over his pants. No matter how perfectly succulent Tock smokes the meat, it's inevitably piled so high as to make eating this leviathan a Lovelaceian chore, and, once the bread disintegrates (which it always does), you're left eating a giant mound of beef with your hands. Bonus points, though, for being the only thing in the last 20 years to give Meg Ryan an orgasm. The Reuben is a mix of smoked brisket, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut & love songs; so sweet and silky it could make a wolverine purr. Respect.
Sandwich Ordered: Duh!
Though the exact birthdate of the "grilled cheese" is unknown, most "food historians" (i.e. liberal arts major) date it to the 1920s, after which it eventually became a popular special on artisanal Great Depression menus across the United States. (Interestingly, it was originally an open-face sandwich known as the "Cheese Dream", the top piece of bread not becoming regularly used until the '60s.) Of course, cooked bread & cheese has been a meal for as long as there have been bread and cheese to cook, but for clarification, the grilled cheese has no other ingredients. Yet in spite of its simplicity, the inclusion of any number of gourmet cheeses can elevate every K-schooler's wet dream into a royal affair. Indeed, there is perhaps no sandwich that can satisfy so many urges, which is perhaps why the entire month of April has been declared "National Grilled Cheese Month". If you complain it takes too long when you are seated at Grilled Cheese and CO, get a cinnabon while you wait and stop bitching, something this good takes a minute or two.
I have a three honorable mentions that are great but didn’t make the list, sorry for that, The Cuban at District and the Sausage Roll at Bad Boy Bangers, both suitable for a late night binge or midday escape to a dreamsland of obesity. Yippiekyaaaaay.