With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
These words end Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus”, immortalised on the inside of the Statue of Liberty’s podium for over a century. While the great Lady was built as a monument to the freedom that the US is meant to encapsulate, the addition of this poem helped solidify its second meaning. It became a symbol of how the US offers and has given this freedom to those who need it, standing for the thousands of immigrants who took that offer and saw her mark their entrance into the country, making the US what it is today.
As tour guides and informative signs are fond of telling us, in New York City more than 200 different languages are spoken, making it the most culturally diverse city in the world. And with this range of languages and cultures comes, of course, food.
Yes, in this, the greatest city of the 20th Century, you can find anything to eat. From Italian to Korean to Cuban to Eastern European, all sorts of influences flow into this metropolis, often with a little American touch to go along with them. And, this being the US, all those influences sure do make for some excellent sandwiches.
I have eaten a lot of sandwiches in New York, from the famous and cliched to the smaller, less known places. They use different breads, different fillings, different styles of cooking, some as varied as you can imagine. And yet, in the end, they all put great food in some sort of bread. You could easily go to NYC and eat nothing but sandwiches, never getting hungry or bored.
To start, one of the great New York cliches, that famous and ubiquitous tube of unidentifiable meat in a bun, the hot dog. These really are everywhere, from roadside carts to every deli. And, honestly, most are terrible. When it comes to a hot dog, the only thing that really matters is the quality of the frank, and far too often they taste of little more than the dirty water they have been sitting in.
Thankfully, there are exceptions, places that take this sausage and bun combo and lift it to something better. One restaurant in particular shows the rest of the city how it is done, and that is Gray’s Papaya. With two locations, in Greenwich Village and on the corner of 72nd and Broadway, Gray’s sets the benchmark for New York hot dogs. In a soft bun, when you bite into their grilled beef franks it has that touch of resistance that good sausages need, before giving way to a real beef flavour. Topped with good quality sauerkraut and mustard, it’s as good a few bites as you will get anywhere. And at two franks plus their namesake papaya juice for $5, it’s hard to argue with the value.
For a less traditional and slightly more disturbing hot dog there is Criff Dogs, a temple to ridiculousness. Almost all of their sausages are deep fried, with a large number of them wrapped in bacon first, and piled high with toppings. For example, the Chihuahua, with sour cream and guacamole. Or my personal favourite, the Tsunami, a bacon wrapped dog with teriyaki sauce, green onions, and a mountain of fresh pineapple, the sweet juiciness of the fruit balancing the fatty fried bacon. Absurd, but strangely wonderful.
Sticking with the New York cliches, it is hard to go past the Lower East Side institution, Katz’s Deli. Known to many as the location of the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in When Harry Met Sally, Katz’s real fame comes from their hot pastrami on rye sandwich. Freshly cooked slabs of rich, fatty pastrami are sliced in front of you and piled high on a some soft rye, with a little mustard to keep it spicy. Simple and ridiculously large, but made great by the quality of meat and the generations of experience making them. Have some pickles on the side and wash it all down with a cream soda and you have one of the justifiably quintessential New York experiences. Like seeing the view from the Empire State Building at night, this is something that you should not leave the city without trying.
But maybe you’re looking for something a little less meaty. Just down the road from Katz’s is one of the city’s best known places to get another every-present New York sandwich, the bagel with lox and cream cheese. Russ & Daughters has been sending out various forms of cured seafood for generations, since the days that Joel Russ, an Eastern European immigrant, pushed a cart around the Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th Century. This is a place that knows what they’re doing, and their version of this classic sandwich is very good. But for my tastes, it wasn’t perfect. The quality of smoked salmon is undoubtedly excellent, but the balance between that and the cream cheese was just off for me. (That said, the herring with cream and onion was outstanding, but that’s for a different post.)
Instead, my favourite lox bagel comes from across the East River, in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. On the bustling Bedford Street and open 24 hours, Bagelsmith was a stunning bagel. The actual bagel had that balance between soft and chewy, the cheese was smooth and creamy, and it came with a good layering of cool salmon. It had that balance right, making it a great snack or meal for any time of day or night.
Speaking of late night snacks, one of the most talked about “sandwiches” of recent years (if you stretch the term a little) has been the pork belly steamed bun that helped make David Chang’s Momofuku empire famous. A piece of fatty braised pork belly, wrapped in a soft, fluffy piece of steamed bread (not far from supermarket white bread, really) with some green onion and a smear of hoi sin. You probably don’t need that description, though, as it’s been mentioned by nearly every food writer on the planet in the past five or so years. And it was certainly very good, the quality of the hoi sin sauce being especially high. But I felt that the pork itself had less flavour than I would expect.
My feelings were similar about the Chairman Bao at BAOHAUS, also in the East Village. This was, again, a steamed bun with pork belly, but here with peanuts, coriander and Taiwanese red sugar. The flavours worked well, but the taste of the pork just got lost. They had more success with their Haus Bao, which was the same but replacing the pork with incredibly rich braised beef cheek. A stunner.
Probably the best pork sandwich I found, and a strong contender for best sandwich in the city, came from Porchetta, a specialist in the field. They being by taking a top quality pork loin, wrapping it in pork belly (with the skin on, of course), rubbing it with aromatic spices (in particular fennel pollen) and slow roasting it. Then, they slice it warm and put it in a ciabatta. Simple to the core, but the quality of roast, the purity of the pig flavour just make it a world class sandwich. When eaten alongside some roast potatoes that are served with the left over pieces of crackling, it’s a porcine lover’s paradise.
While this was the pork champ, the Cuban sandwich at Cafe Habana came fairly close. Roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickle and chipotle mayonnaise, it’s hard to do a dish with those ingredients badly. Here they deliver brilliantly, balancing the gentle heat of the chipotles with the sharp pickles and fatty pork. It was, however, also enormous. Even I struggled to get through it, but it was well worth the perseverance.
You can’t talk about food in buns in New York without mentioning burgers, and, at the moment, the name on everyone’s burger loving lips is Shake Shack. Now, I must admit that I went to the store in the Upper West Side, rather than the Madison Square Park flagship, but I understand that the burgers are pretty similar. A thin, classic style meat patty, properly tasting of beef, was served on a sweet brioche with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and tangy Shake Sauce. A classic, pleasing burger.
However, for that classic style, I found the messy, dripping with sauce offering from The Burger Joint to be more interesting. Yes, the place is hard to find, the ordering is chaotic, and getting a seat takes a lot of determination and lucky, but provided you have enough serviettes to sop up the juices you are sure to spill, it was a stunning feed.
If you wanted to go with a completely difference style, one that makes a burger with a huge lump of meat, then sitting at the bar at the Spotted Pig might be an option. Here the meat patty itself was enormous, cooked medium rare and incredibly juicy. The only other thing in the bun was some blue cheese, cutting through the meat with some tang. Simple and delicious, but very different from most US burgers.
The choices in New York are vast, and I am sure there were many more great versions that I didn’t get around to sampling, so get out there yourself to see what’s available. For my choices, though, if you only have one sandwich in New York, make it Katz’s pastrami on rye. The perfect combination of taste and tradition, it’s also simply a stunning sandwich. If you have time in New York for a second one, Porchetta’s amazing pork roll is hard to go past. And if you only have $5, the special at Gray’s Papaya is unmissable.
New York really is a wonderful town. It’s a city where, whatever you like, you can find it, so just go and look.