Look around: From take-out counters to high-end kitchens, sandwiches are hot, even the cold ones. I’ve spent months tracking the trend, traveling to West Marin, San Carlos, and the east side of Oakland in search of grilled cheese, pastrami, and authentic banh mi. I watched my entire lunch hour pass while I waited in line for porchetta. I’ve tasted countless trendy sandwiches that I immediately forgot, and I’ve stumbled upon others that I couldn’t get out of my mind. Some challenged my notions of what a sandwich could be, while others confirmed what I already believed about what belongs between two slices of bread. In the end, it came down to one thing: Was this a sandwich I wanted to eat again? Here are the 40 sandwiches I’ll be going back for.
With a baby strapped to her chest and her trademark bright blue wig on her head, Alison Barakat, aka Bakesale Betty, oversees the production of more than 1,000 fried-chicken sandwiches five days a week. The buttermilk chicken and spicy slaw combo draws a crowd that stretches down the block. The other offerings here, such as a chunky egg-salad sandwich, and the brisket sandwich layered with crushed potato chips, may be less famous, but they’re every bit as worthy of the wait. 5098 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510-985-1213
At her brand-new bakery in Bernal Heights, Mutsumi Takehara bakes all the breads for her just-a-bit-different assortment of sandwiches. Pink Lady apples, gouda, and rosemary go onto oat-walnut loaves, while the beef katsu sandwich seasoned with yuzu, miso, and horseradish gets its own brioche bun. The richly satisfying mushroom croque-monsieur, with sautéed crimini and oyster mushrooms, is made with her delicately crumbed pan de mie, topped with béchamel and swiss. Heartier appetites will call for the pork belly sandwich, which includes Japanese mustard, nori, and swiss. 833 Cortland Ave., S.F., 415-642-8580
The wide, lofty space here is made for long, solo lunches, when you want to hide behind a magazine and take a break from the office drama. There’s a list of more-than-respectable sandwiches, including slow-roasted turkey with balsamic onion jam and their version of a Philly cheesesteak, with pickled poblanos. But the star of the lunch lineup is the cubano sandwich, made with a Cuban-style roll burnished with chipotle aioli and filled with pork shoulder brined in orange juice and molasses, slow-roasted with plenty of garlic, then layered with salty country ham, gruyère, and pickles. 680A 2nd St., S.F., 415-896-1127
Anchor & Hope
New England–style lobster rolls seem far removed from our own foggy left coast, where Dungeness crab and briny Pacific oysters rule the day. But Anchor & Hope’s lobster roll, served in a top-loading bun, offers a taste of coastal Maine summers. (Just add corn on the cob and blueberry pie.) Drawing from the other side of the world, the kitchen also excels with its Vietnamese shrimp fritter sandwich, lashed with jalapeño aioli, and a modern riff on the old-school tuna melt, made with ahi and fontina. 83 Minna St., S.F., 415-501-9100
This corner takeout counter is a beacon for hungry financial district workers, who come for some of the city’s finest sandwiches. The short list includes a lamb-and–feta meatball sandwich and a terrific egg salad, but it’s the exceptional rendition of the classic reuben, with housemade corned beef, russian dressing, and swiss cheese, that I end up walking out with every time. 37 New Montgomery St., S.F., 415-284-9960
When Daniel Patterson, of the two-Michelin-starred Coi, paired up with former Delfina chef de cuisine Lauren Kiino last year, it proved to be an ideal merger of culinary sensibilities. Their casual, Italian-inspired outpost at the Ferry Building has maintained a commitment to pasture-raised meats, which are the base of the short, rotating list of sandwiches. You can almost always get a porchetta sandwich paired with housemade Dijon, and a brisket sandwich that’s often served with a tomato sauce. They make sure to offer a vegetarian option, such as the stellar broccoli rabe with Bellwether Farm ricotta sandwich. But the warm egg-salad sandwich, bound with an anchovy-rich bagna càuda butter and a top layer of melted provolone, has earned the rank of the restaurant’s signature sandwich. Ferry Building Marketplace (Market St. at Embarcadero), S.F., 415-391-7599
Haight Street may be a gritty strip of sadness and gloom, but a visit to this lovely little bar with a recently added lunch menu can help restore your faith in humanity. There are three sandwiches on the menu, including sliders filled with cola-marinated pulled pork, a mushroom banh mi with five-spice aioli, and a fried-rockfish sandwich made with a filet that’s trapped in a shaggy wig of savoy cabbage. A tangy malt-vinegar rémoulade keeps things sharp, and the housemade chips seasoned with Old Bay make it all but impossible to say no to a midday ale. 1725 Haight St., S.F., 415-666-0822
SERIOUSLY SUPERIOR SANDWICHES (INSIDE AND OUT)
Memphis-style pulled-pork sandwich
You can order a PBR if you want, but considering that you’re in Napa, you might want to go with the Silver Oak cab instead.
Outside: The soft bun from Napa’s Alexis Baking Company may not be as traditional as a couple of slices of Wonder Bread, but it tastes a whole lot better.
Inside: Tender shreds of slow-smoked pork shoulder dressed in BarbersQ’s vinegary sauce, set off with a dose of crunchy slaw.
3900B Bel Aire Pl., Napa, 707-224-6600
Sardine and seared squid sandwich
A casual conterpoint to its slicker neighbor Perbacco, this new financial district wine bar caters to the post–expense account era with a list of sandwiches that tops out at a recession-friendly $11.
Outside: An Acme roll.
Inside: A mash-up of squid and sardines from Monterey Bay, with roasted-tomato condimento and arugula.
220 California St., S.F., 415-955-1919
Pork confit sandwich with salsa verde
During her run on season five of Top Chef, Jamie Lauren earned a reputation for her skill with scallops, but the woman knows how to make winning sandwiches as well.
Outside: Toasted batard from Acme Bread.
Inside: Falling-apart chunks of pork confit and wilted greens sparked with a sharp salsa verde.
398 Hayes St., S.F., 415-551-1590
Acme Bread Company
Everyone knows Acme for its bread, but the sandwiches sold at the bakery’s Ferry Building outlet are one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
Outside: The bakery’s peerless sourdough baguette.
Inside: Just three ingredients—a slathering of butter, a few slices of cornichon, and a single layer of Fra’ Mani salami—each in perfect proportion to the others. This sandwich has a soulmate in a bakery somewhere in Paris.
Ferry Building Marketplace (Market St. at Embarcadero), S.F., 415-288-2978
La Torta Gorda
The Mission district is famous for its burritos, but we think these classic Mexican sandwiches make a far better meal.
Outside: A soft roll warmed in a sandwich press until it’s crisp.
Inside: It starts with a smear of refried beans and mayonnaise, followed by a pile of pulled pork, then avocado, queso fresco, onions, and pickled jalapeños.
2833 24th St., S.F., 415-642-9600
Fried-oyster po’ Boy
Brown Sugar Kitchen
Tanya Holland’s soul-food outpost is a haven in West Oakland, famous for its fried chicken, welcoming vibe, and these three-napkin oyster sandwiches.
Outside: A toasted soft roll.
Inside: Crisp fried oysters that hang on to their ocean flavor, plus a heap of BSK’s just-spicy-enough cabbage slaw.
2534 Mandela Pkwy., Oakland, 510-839-7685
Food trucks are so 2009, but RoliRoti was rolling through the farmers’ market long before you could buy frogs’ legs in a parking lot. Thomas Odermatt’s rotisserie truck has become an institution, with a following that thinks nothing of waiting 40 minutes for one of his oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-how-good-this-is sandwiches.
Outside: Acme Bread’s ciabatta roll.
Inside: Using a recipe he first learned at his family’s butcher shop in Switzerland, Odermatt rolls Heritage pork loin in a slab of belly meat that’s been seasoned with herbs and lemon zest and turned for hours over the low heat of the rotisserie in his tricked-out truck. The thick, sliced-to-order pieces of pork are topped with onion marmalade, spicy curly cress or wild arugula, and a dose of herbed salt. Be sure to ask for an extra helping of the crisp-as-a-cracker skin.
Thurs. and Sat. at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (Market St. at Embarcadero), S.f.; Fri. at Blue Bottle Coffee Company Roastery, 300 Webster St., Oakland, 510-780-0300
BBQ pork banh mi
Cam Huong Cafe
Oakland’s International Boulevard is famous for its taco trucks and torta shops. But for a few blocks on the west end of town, it’s also home to dozens of Vietnamese businesses, including this bustling café. Banh mi, a Southeast Asian–Gallic fusion born of the time when France occupied Vietnam, is a delicious bit of culinary détente.
Outside: A toasted French roll.
Inside: Tender slices of barbecued pork with mayonnaise, topped with a bracing mix of crunchy pickled carrots, jalapeños, and cilantro that gives this sandwich a distinctively Vietnamese flavor.
702 International Blvd., Oakland, 510-444-2500
Torta la tesorito
La Casita Chilanga
Middlefield Road in Redwood City, aka Little Michoacán, is lined with taquerías, panaderías, and tiny shops like this one, which is known for its glorious, gut-bomb sandwiches.
Outside: A traditional telera. The massive rolls, branded with grill marks, make a sandwich that can easily feed two.
Inside: Smoky, shredded pork leg with everything, which here includes refried beans, crema, avocado, and salsa.
2928 Middlefield Rd., Redwood City, 650-568-0351
THE CHEESE STANDS ALONE
There are moments in life that demand the perfect grilled cheese, whether it’s thanks to a rain-soaked afternoon, a cloudy mood, or an appetite-building hike on a windy beach. Toasted bread oozing with mellow gruyère has healing powers. Here are my favorites.
It’s hard to make a bad sandwich when you start with the best bread in the country. Tartine Bakery’s stunningly simple combination of walnut levain and Humboldt Fog goat cheese is a sonnet disguised as a sandwich. 600 Guerrero St., S.F., 415-487-2600
Hog Island Oyster Co.
Though Hog Island Oyster Co. is famous for its Sweetwater oysters, its sleeper hit is its grilled-cheese sandwich—a rich combination of cave-aged gruyère, creamy fromage blanc, and a sweetly spicy mezzo secco from local cheesemaker Ig Vella. Share it with a friend and a bottle of crisp white wine. Ferry Building Marketplace (Market St. at Embarcadero), S.F., 415-391-7117
Before Christian Caiazzo opened Osteria Stellina, he sold grilled-cheese sandwiches at the farmers’ market in Point Reyes Station. Called GBD (meaning “golden, brown, delicious”), the sandwich still draws lines to Osteria’s market tent, but now fans don’t have to wait till Saturday. Their favorite grilled cheese—made with sourdough that’s baked down the street at Brickmaiden Breads, plus asiago-style Estero Gold and mozzerella that spills out of the middle—is available six days a week on the restaurant’s lunch menu. 11285 Hwy. 1, Point Reyes Station, 415-663-9988
Grilled-cheese sandwiches may be the official food of perpetually fogbound Ocean Beach. At Outerlands, the Outer Sunset’s headquarters for the knit cap and tight jeans crowd, the loaves of dense-crumbed white bread are baked fresh daily. Then thick slices of it are layered with cheddar, swiss, gruyère, and provolone and painted with garlic butter before they hit the hot cast iron, which gives these sandwiches the ideal crisp-creamy combo that grilled-cheese lovers live for. 4001 Judah St., S.F., 415-661-6140
NO BEEF WITH PASTRAMI
Like bagels and foldable slices of pizza, pastrami is one of those iconic New York foods that former residents of that city complain we don’t have here. The Bay Area still needs a decent bagel, and the pizza question may never be resolved—but when it comes to our four best pastrami sandwiches, former Gothamites can shut their pieholes and eat.
Manhattan has Katz’s Deli, Los Angeles has Langer’s, and San Carlos has the Refuge, an under-the-radar wine bar that makes world-class pastrami. The fatty, hand-carved slices of beef are cured in-house and perfumed with pepper and coriander. Piled onto caraway-studded rye bread, they make a sandwich that apologizes to no one. 963 Laurel St., San Carlos, 650-598-9813
They do it all at Orson: bake the sourdough rye in-house and cure the beef with chili flakes and caraway. Order the pastrami sandwich grilled with swiss cheese and a side of duck-fat fries from the lunch menu, then schedule an appointment with your cardiologist. 508 4th St., S.F., 415-777-1508
The burger at Spruce gets all the love, but the pastrami sandwich here deserves some attention, too. It’s grilled with Cypress Grove gouda and served with a bright dose of red-cabbage slaw. 3640 Sacramento St., S.F., 415-931-5100
The addition of emmentaler cheese isn’t exactly kosher, and no self-respecting deli would ever serve pastrami on a baguette, but Wood Tavern manages to break all the rules and still come out with a sandwich that can go head-to-head with its counterpart at any New York delicatessen. 6317 College Ave., Oakland, 510-654-6607
Jan Newberry is San Francisco’s food and wine editor.