'Wich Hunt: In search of the best new sandwiches Columbus has to offer
Did you know that Nov. 3rd was National Sandwich Day? For a few moments you'll never get back, let's pretend that fake “holiday” is worth acknowledging.
Because, while promoting National Sandwich Day is laugh-inducing — I'm guessing it was cooked up by people with a stake in selling yet more sandwiches — it's undeniable that multitudes crave sandwiches to the point of obsession, especially hefty ones created in restaurants that are hard to make at home.
Consider all those spot-hitting go-tos that untold diners order nearly every time they visit a favored eatery, as if on autopilot. Then there are the renowned Columbus all-stars that have been reported on ad nauseam. In our age of will-write-for-bribes “Instagram influencers” (sigh, maybe this countryis doomed) and other 24/7 information sources (idea: a site called Help* that reviews online reviews), such commonly praised local sandwiches have become like celebrities with which every social media-hooked chowhound wants to have their picture taken.
I get it. And I get, and eat, all of those must-try sandwiches, too. In many instances they're quite good.
But there are tons of other deserving sandwiches in town that fly under the radar. Sometimes this is because they come from newer restaurants; sometimes it's because they're overshadowed by more-talked-about items on a popular establishment's menu.
Long story not-so-short: I'm always on the hunt for standout sandwiches, and as a veteran professional glutton, I've tried a lot of them. So, while planning the epic feast you're going to attack during your much-anticipated, 24-hour National Sandwich Day celebration next year, I recommend you give the following lesser-known bread-bound wonders serious consideration.
Everyday is a Holiday
Pan con Pollo, $8
“Man, that's fucked up,” mumbled a friend midway into an extremely focused, nearly wordless session of ripping into this thing. “How can it be so good?” she asked.
As usual, we'd come to Ranchero Kitchen's immaculately clean space for its wonderful, life-affirmingly inexpensive $2 pupusas — which are like quesadillas on steroids. Anyway, during that visit, we also split another of my favorite items gracing the menu of easy-to-love foods from El Salvador prepared by this terrific restaurant, which moved into its roomy new space just over a year ago after launching as a teeny eatery in the Saraga International Grocery.
Pan con pollo — even Spanish-class slackers can translate that to “bread with chicken” — is a holiday favorite in El Salvador. At Ranchero Kitchen, this gloriously messy ensemble is aneveryday favorite encased (almost) in crisply toasted “pan” that resembles a hot dog bun/hoagie roll hybrid. The disparate fillings that, in a typical illustration of sandwich magic, create a harmonious marriage include: fantastically tender and warm chicken stewed in a rich-yet-tangy, addictive gravy reddened by achiote and accessorized by a slaw-like amalgam of zippy pickled cauliflower and carrots, sprigs of fresh watercress, cucumbers, onions and mayo. Served with a side of the drinkable meaty gravy, this could pass for a distant cousin of the Carolina pulled pork sandwich with a French-dip accent.
Flat Brat Society
Mangalitsa Brat Burger, $9
Ray Ray's Hog Pit
By now, most people know that Ray's Ray's has the best barbecue in town. But do you know that Ray Ray's also makes a killer cheeseburger? OK, it's not technically a cheeseburger, but tell that to your slavering mouth when it gets within chomping distance of the incomparable Hog Pit “flat brat” burger.
For nearly a decade, James Ray Anderson (aka “Ray Ray”) has been the godfather of Columbus food-truck culture. As the head honcho of three-year-old Anderson Farms in Granville, where some of the most prized pork in our area is now raised, Anderson has also become the hogfather of Central Ohio.
The rarest of Anderson's heritage breeds — his sultans of swine, his potentates of pork — are the Mangalitsas. The highly marbled, flavor-packed meat that comes from Mangalitsas (a wooly-coated strain that originated in Hungary) is the porcine equivalent of Kobe beef.
Ray Ray's flat brats, which look like thick-ass burger patties, are made with 10 ounces of prime Mangalitsa meat derived from a whole-hog grind (so it includes cuts normally used for bacon, ham, pork loin and so forth) and then seasoned with a proprietary, mild bratwurst-style spice blend created for Ray Ray's by North Market Spices. This gets a smoke-infusing sear on the grill. Melted Swiss, frilly Napa cabbage, onions, pickles, honey mustard and a toasted sesame-seeded bun complete the recipe for this finger-licking, nowhere-else-has-it pig out.
No Meat? No Problem!
Falafel Sandwich, $8.50
I'm often asked what the best restaurant in town is. Because “best” is a slippery word in such a context, my answers vary. But, if factoring in only cost, flavor and healthiness of ingredients, my answer is always Brassica. Pro Tip: Try the new Brassica in Bexley, which is big and roomy and offers a parking lot.
The slowly growing, locally raised, stylish, Mediterranean-leaning chain is primarily known for dynamic salads assembled with a cornucopia of boldly seasoned vegetables garnished with zesty dips and sauces. When topped with house-smoked brisket, house-cured lamb bacon or juicy, roasted chicken meat, these mammoth salad mounds are ridiculously good meals that are best mopped up with the house-made whole wheat pita bread.
But Brassica also makes some of the best falafel in town. And when the non-greasy, properly nubby, notably zippy orbs fashioned from organic chickpeas are stuffed into the warm, puffy, soft and surprisingly sturdy house pita loaves withallthe fixings — such as creamy hummus, tangy baba ganoush, roasted-to-sweet cauliflower tweaked with vinegar and jalapenos, pickled onion threads, tart-sweet freshly pickled cucumbers, tender roasted carrots heated by harissa, beets brightened by mint and vinegar — you've got a colorful and vibrant vegetarian sandwich that's as healthy as it delicious.
Hot Chicken Sandwich, $12.50
Preston's: A Burger Joint
Preston's is a newly unfolding Columbus success story with some yet-to-be-written chapters. A collaboration between two talented chefs with a penchant for local sourcing — Catie Randazzo (formerly of excellent Challah!) and Matthew Heaggans (formerly of the Swoop food truck, Crepes a la Carte, Bebe at the Hey Hey, Flatiron Diner and The Rossi) — Preston's has lately become an in-demand, ambitious brand. And by recently moving into Eugene's Canteen (formerly Da Levee), as well as the enormous Woodlands Backyard, and by assuming Challah's former businesses — a food truck usually parked outside of Seventh Son, and the concessionaire in Woodlands Tavern — trendy Preston's has rapidly extended its presence over the past few months. Given its full title, most folks know the company as, well, “a burger joint” specializing in diner-style patties.
But humankind cannot live on locally raised beef alone. Good thing Preston's also makes a huge, distinct and excellent Nashville-with-some-twists chicken sandwich. Two thick-yet-tender, buttermilk-brined, crackly fried, schnitzel-like breast pieces are coated in a house hot sauce offering a sneaky, cumulative heat, plus a leavening blast of ginger. These are piled high into a toasted sweet and puffy bun garnished with tart house pickles, herby mayo, lettuce and red onion. Expect these audacious flavors to perform a chicken dance on your tongue. And expect more dining fun in the future from this dynamic cooking duo, which hopes to open ambitious Ambrose & Eve relatively soon.
Still Gonzo After All These Years
Johnny's Sub, $13.75
O'Reilly's is a boundary-defying Clintonville haunt that can be hard to define. A neighborhood rarity where longtime Clintonvillians bend elbows next to newer area denizens coping with bloated housing prices, O'Reilly's fills many bills. It's an unpretentious Irish pub with a smoke-'em-up patio. It's a dive bar with reliably good pub grub (and bathrooms that have received a recent, major and much-needed upgrade). And it's a blow-off-steam watering hole whose devotees run the gamut from Wexner Center frequenters to Bob Seger fans.
Sure, the formidable Pepper Burger is the much-acclaimed king here. But Johnny's Sub — to try it is to love it, and not just because its menu description includes “formerly the gonzo” — is the perfect order for undecided diners not in the mood for a burger. Likely dreamed up by someone who'd had a few, it's a feeds-two “three-fer” that combines elements of an Italian sub (pepperoni, salami, banana peppers, green peppers, onions, Italian dressing) with a club sandwich (ham, bacon, turkey) and a BLT (B, L and T). But rather than a sloppy mess (perhaps like its inventor when the thing was created), this is a well-constructed, easy-to-handle sandwich with heated-up meats, a toasted, sesame-seeded Auddino's sub bun and — spackling everything together — blistered provolone and cheddar cheeses. You might call this gonzo-wich the edible equivalent of a place whose character is difficult to pin down, but you'll definitely call for it again.
Fish Gyro, $7
On paper, Panini Opa is a sleek, primarily Greek (and nominally Italian), inexpensive operation rocking a fast-casual setup. But the place is nicer than that description sounds. Panini Opa isn't new, but it was new to me last year when, after finally trying the place, it became my go-to outlet for Greek food. Pro Tip: The restaurant is even more affordable on Mondays and Tuesdays, when all wines are half-priced, and a bottle of Campo Alegre Rueda blanco — the perfect pour for this spicy fish missile — is just $13.
Rather than confoundingly ubiquitous tilapia, this begins with more respectable, clean-tasting and tender grouper — lots of it. The fish arrives in plump lumps bearing a light and crispy, non-greasy breadcrumb sheath that's simply but effectively seasoned with salt and pepper. Shorthand fish description: “meatier” calamari minus the tentacles.
The grouper graces a toasty and puffy pita loaf also loaded with what amounts to a Greek salad invigorated with banana peppers, plus Panini Opa's addictive spicy feta dip — which is like the Greek answer to pimento cheese. Considering this is basically a dip with pita bread appetizer, plus a salad, plus a fish entree, it's like getting a hearty, healthy and delicious three-course meal that you eat with your hands. And it will only set you back $7. Opa, indeed.
The Whole Schmear
Smoked Salmon Platter with an Everything Bagel, $14
Harvey & Ed's
A friend of mine who'd just returned from NYC was recently telling me that she'd noticed the menu at snazzy Harvey & Ed's — the fine new deli-influenced upscale modern eatery and tavern from Cameron Mitchell — resembled the menu of a fantastic “destination restaurant” we both love: Russ & Daughters Cafe in Manhattan. She's right, and if you google the two places, you'll see their menus are indeed similarly arranged.
Devising a menu that parrots one from a famous restaurant (Russ & Daughters' roots go back more than a century) is neither shockingly unusual nor much of an achievement. But preparing uncommonly salt-restrained salmon that's so skillfully house-smoked and melt-in-your-mouth tender that it comes close to the stuff from Russ & Daughters? Now that's an achievement. Sure, Harvey & Ed's fish is sliced much thicker, but its hard-won flavor and texture are on point. This is a DIY sandwich (and brunch-time champion) that arrives prettily presented with the seafood arrayed in hefty coils decorated with fresh dill. Surrounding the salmon is the whole caboodle of classic accompaniments: frilly red-onion loops, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, a high-quality Block's bagel (go “everything”) and cream cheese. You also get good olives and house pickles, but enjoy those briny buds in between sandwich bites.
Pastrami Rachel, $17
If you haven't been to super-trendy Service Bar yet — it's the dining arm of Middle West Spirits of OYO liquors fame, and it's easily among the best restaurants to open last year — I recommend you go with a fun-loving partner. That way you can, and should, order Service Bar's almost-famous Cheesy Brisket Crunch, which is a classed-up riff on Taco Bell's notorious cheesy gordita crunch,and you can get this Pastrami Rachel, which is a multinational, multiflavored, sensory-overloading riff on the Reuben sandwich. Since you get two large tacos per Cheesy Brisket request, and because the lusty pastrami sandwich is sliced in two, it's easy to go halfsies on this order — but I wouldn't fault you for trying to snatch the “bigger” sandwich half.
“Rachel” is a common term for any variation on the Reuben. This is no common Rachel. True to this restaurant's aesthetic, it comes on house-baked marbled pumpernickel rye made with yeast used by the distillery. Inside these thick and crisp bread slices you'll find succulent beef cured a la “‘Montreal smoked meat” — a cousin of pastrami long-popular in kosher Canadian delis. Potent kimchi swoops in to do cabbage duty and slabs of melted Swiss cheese, plus house-made “Twenty Island” dressing, help tie the whole crunchy, gooey, spicy, rich, tangy, sweet and garlicky package together.
That's a Wrap
Chicken Shawarma, $8
You can get innumerable good shawarmas from innumerable good Columbus restaurants nowadays, and I bet you can name several off the top of your head. But how many do you know of are fashioned with a fresh, house-made unleavened flatbread called shrak that's popular in countries such as Jordan and is cooked on a domed griddle that looks like an upside-down wok? I know of exactly one place in town where you'll find such a shawarma — Food Hamati, where it's undersold on the menu as simply a “wrap.”
Open for less than a year, Food Hamati is a Dublin strip-mall operation that's frequently busy filling pickup orders. Though a to-go-oriented eatery, Hamati's small and simple but tidy dining room isn't completely charmless: Arabic pop music sometimes plays and a mural mimicking ancient Egyptian art always entertains. The colorful wall painting shows pharaonic figures bordered by cartouches that enclose funny hieroglyphs depicting a shawarma spit and a shawarma sandwich.
When your in-the-flesh chicken shawarma arrives, that warm shrak flatbread will hit you as a real difference-maker. It has a distinct and delightful texture that somewhat recalls a thin sheet of lavash that manages to be both toasty and elastic. Inside is cinnamon-scented meat, garlic sauce, plus some Jerusalem salad if you want it, and you do. Your $8 also buys olives, pickles, more sauce on the side, plus an order of nice crisp fries.