Ever had a sandwich change your life?
Hey, it could happen; I’ve had a few.
I went from a typical picky eater as a child to someone who will eat absolutely anything because of sandwiches. Just about everything — any unusual condiment or protein or vegetable — tastes delicious between two pieces of good bread. I don’t make the rules.
In terms of cultural impact, putting fries and slaw on sandwiches isn’t exactly up there with the invention of Heinz ketchup or the emoji. But it is ours, Pittsburgh. Savor it.
However, there are other sandwiches out there that deserve attention. Secret sandwiches.
OK, maybe they’re just hidden in plain sight, waiting to be eaten. Going beyond Primanti Bros. and the usual suspects, here are our favorites that deserve more attention:
1. The Jack Ham: Redbeard’s Bar & Grill, Downtown
He wasn’t the scariest element of the greatest defense of all time, the 1970s Steel Curtain. (That would be Mean Joe Green, for obvious reasons — or the haggard, snaggletoothed nightmare Jack Lambert). But the smart, shifty Jack Ham was the guy in the middle who held it all together. This sandwich kind of sneaks up on you like Jack Ham on the pass rush. Even though it’s got aggressive flavors, pulling in opposite directions — grilled Capicola ham, a fried egg, mayo, a slightly sweet Brioche bun — something holds it all together. Probably the provolone, the Jack Ham of cheeses.
2. Italian Hoagie: Rialto Pizza, Greenfield
In the darkest depths of the pandemic, my family ordered an Italian hoagie from our local pizza place for my birthday. I can’t remember ever enjoying a meal more. Atop a fresh, 12-inch Italian bun from Mancini’s — just the right combo of soft inside and flaky, crunchy exterior — it’s piled high with Capicola, pepperoni, mozzarella, ham, lettuce, tomato and Italian dressing. Oh, and lots of pickles. That’s it. While the rest of the world worked at home and worried, someone was out there making perfect sandwiches. It temporarily restored my faith in humanity, all by itself. That’s the power of a sandwich. Rialto’s pizza is also good enough to warrant a spot on our 19 best places for pizza list.
3. Montagnard Baguette: La Gourmandine Bakery, Hazelwood, Lawrenceville, Mt. Lebanon and Downtown
I have this mild obsession with finding the exact delta point between the best AND the cheapest of everything. Like what’s the best cheap beer on the market (or cheapest good beer)? If I apply this logic to sandwiches, the winner would be the $6.85 (formerly $5, sob) baguettes from the French bakery La Gourmandine. They slice their own freshly-baked baguettes down the middle, put in something simple like butter, prosciutto and cornichons — the Montagnard — and that’s all you need. It’s delicious, filling and easy to eat while walking. Everything inside La Gourmandine is delightful, which is why it’s on our list of the 22 best bakeries in Pittsburgh.
4. Hungarian Style Kielbasa Sandwich: Huszar Legacy Bar & Hungarian Restaurant, Deutschtown
This is pure Pittsburgh on a bun — a Hungarian-style kielbasa sandwich with sweetened sauerkraut, fresh red onion and honey mustard. There’s nothing like the juicy, garlicky snap of your first bite into the king of all tubular meats, the kielbasa. But everything is great at Huszar — try the Mushroom (Gomba) Paprikas while you’re here.
5 & 6. Goat Rodeo Sandwich & Veggie Beast Sandwich: Farmer x Baker, Aspinwall
Farmer x Baker resides in a converted metal shipping container planted dockside at Allegheny RiverTrail Park. As the name may indicate, almost everything here is fresh from a local farm, and they do their own baking, including their own superior handmade bagels. It’s vegetarian heaven here, with bagel sandwiches such as the Veggie Beast, featuring a glorious array of pickled eggs, beets and greens, and the Goat Rodeo sandwich, with Gibsonia dairy Goat Rodeo’s award-winning chèvre, season jam, eggs and vegan house sausage.
7. Eggplant & Halloumi Bánh Mì: Mediterra Cafe, Mt. Lebanon and Sewickley
Every sandwich here is amazing, helped significantly by the fact that Mediterra is primarily a bakery and makes all its own bread. Though Lucy in the Strip is still the undisputed queen of authentic bánh mì around here, the Vietnamese-French baguette sandwich offers a great palette of flavors to experiment with. This particular one adds eggplant and the salty, smoky flavor of halloumi (a goat and sheep’s milk cheese from Cyprus) to the equation, with pickled carrots, cucumber and cilantro accented with a sweet tomato-ginger jam. If you need two sandwiches, go for the Spanakopita Grilled Cheese on fresh sourdough, or the Mushroom Melt with pickled mustard greens and Earl Grey chutney.
8. El Catracho: Cafetano Coffee Roasters, Strip District
This Honduran-flavored coffee shop has good enough coffee that it probably doesn’t need good food — but it has it anyway. The El Catracho grilled panini doesn’t look like much, but its gooey interior of eggs, spicy fried beans, Honduran cream and queso fresco tastes like nothing else in town.
9. Emil’s Fish Sandwich: Emil’s Lounge, Rankin
I love everything about this homey dive bar in Rankin, from its barely-navigable prehistoric website to its lovingly made grandma’s house-style dishes like lasagna and stuffed peppers. My dad used to get giant, arm’s-length fish sandwiches wrapped in newspaper from random Pittsburgh bars with his father, and I imagine they tasted just like this one. At Emil’s, it’s dubbed “The Fish that Catches You,” and is fried so crispy and brown that I’m not even sure what kind of fish it was originally (cod, I think, or maybe Monongahela mudfish). It’s an overdose of edible nostalgia, and I’m here for it.
10.+ Various ice cream sandwiches: Forsythe Miniature Golf & Snacks, Carnegie
Is this cheating? It says “sandwich” right there in the name. What are the rules here? This is not only one of the three best mini-golf courses in Western Pennsylvania, but it also has an amazingly fun snack bar with the best ice cream sandwiches anywhere. There are giant chocolate chip cookies with mint ice cream covered in Andes Candies bits. There’s Pumpkin Crisp, with butter/sugar cookies and pumpkin ice cream, topped with cobbler crumble on the outside, for which I’ll gladly bend my “no pumpkin spice!” rule. There’s also the Frosty & Fries — chocolate ice cream between two butter cookies, rolled in potato chips — which is way better than it sounds. To be fair, every ice cream sandwich here is pretty much a hole-in-one.