Attention all you same-old, same-old sandwich eaters. It’s time to stop settling for two-handed inferiority. There’s none of that in our breadbox victories.
These 41 large and in-charge picks follow the something-for-everyone mantra – saucy meatballs, chicken chef d’oeuvres, Vietnamese banh mi, meaty towers of Pisa, unorthodox deliveries and the drippiest, dreamiest Reubens (as offered in a particularly soulful quest for the best). Unsurprisingly, the carb czars get by with a little help from their friends, so we also reveal the sides that make a sandwich a meal. All of this should prove that a sandwich is never just a sandwich.
Edited and written by Ann Christenson.
With Claire Hanan and Howie Magner.
A Page From the Classics
Dig, if you will, a picture of a kitchen, steam curling above pots on the stove, a kindly soul manning the burners. Comforts like these.
Cheese + Tomato Soup
Toasted sourdough with provolone, mozz and American lay the groundwork for Comet Café’s grilled cheese + tomato soup, a balanced puree that asks for some sandwich dipping. 1947 N. Farwell Ave., 414-273-7677
Tutto’s steak sandwich is simple beef tenderloin breaded, seasoned with Italian herbs and sautéed in olive oil. Once it enters the bun, contemplation ends. Eating begins. 1033 N. Old World Third St., 414-291-5600
The croque monsieur (French for “eat mister”) at Le Rêve Patisserie & Café is cheesy, toasty, patently palatable, a marriage of béchamel sauce, European ham, mustard and Gruyère. 7610 Harwood Ave., Wauwatosa, 414-778-3333
Bar Harbor, this is not, but the lobster roll at Buckley’s is a touch of New England. Meaty chunks of lobster in a light tarragon aioli that drips down your sleeve. Messy and marvelous. 801 N. Cass St., 414-277-1111
Banhs of Steel
The Vietnamese banh mi has hit its stride here. Built either on a crusty baguette (the influence of French colonialism in Southeast Asia) or a softer foundation, this flavor leviathan is packed with crunchy, colorful vegetables, jalapenos, cilantro, and a meat (often pork) condimented up with mayo and chile sauce. Our five favorite MKE incarnations.
1. Tofu Trippin’
➽ Meat is not an essential banh topper, especially when there’s lemongrass-marinated tofu in the house. And it’s in Riverwest Co-op Café’s tasty house. 733 E. Clarke St., 414-264-7933
➽ Sheaths of pickled carrot, pork meatballs and miso-Sriracha aioli cement this saucy, satisfying handheld at Bavette. 330 E. Menomonee St., 414-273-3375
➽ After vacating its Asian grocery store digs last year, Xankia set up a banh mi-making shop Downtown. Oh, the choices here. Dibs on banh mi No. 2, the baguette stuffed with grilled pork, pickled daikon radish, yellow mayo sauce and (although it’s optional, it should be obligatory) jalapenos. 222 W. Wells St., 414-817-0241
4. Beef Eater
➽ LuLu cafe & bar “faux” banh mi incorporates grilled flank steak with cucumber, hot garlic chile sauce and a carrot-cilantro-cabbage slaw soused in sesame-rice wine vinaigrette. Wasabi mayo is the bonus condiment. 2261 & 2265 S. Howell Ave., 414-294-5858
5. Belly Up
➽ Roasted barbecued pork belly? Huzzah. The soft hoagie bun is packed with well-marbled belly, but it doesn’t steal the thunder from the pickled radish, jalapenos, cilantro and other accoutrements, courtesy of Honeypie. 2643 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-489-7437
Birds of Prey
No fowl-weather friends here. We offer you this poultry party of five, each of them bliss on bread.
Jerk Chicken Pita
The Cosmos Café folks have a clucking winner in their jerk chicken pita, whose bird meat is cooked in a punchy sauce with jerk spices (allspice, Scotch bonnet peppers), then finished off with a kick of chipotle mayo. 7203 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa, 414-257-2005
Fuel Cafe’s Happy Cow will make you happy too. This cold creation gets a dairy lift from Swiss and cream cheeses, as well as cucumbers, sprouts, lettuce, Dijon mustard and sliced turkey on a French roll. 818 E. Center St., 414-374-3835
Melthouse Bistro makes cheese its priority (grilled cheese is its raison d’etre), but there’s always room for meat. In the case of the Pilgrim, it’s smoked turkey spooning with Gouda cheese, spinach, cranberry mustard and (the icing) sage butter on toasted honey-wheat. 1857 E. Kenilworth Pl., 414-271-6358
Turkey, Bacon and Brie Panino
With the turkey, bacon and Brie panino, The National has the makings of a pressed classic. The unexpected tart-sweet element is the cranberry-orange relish. 839 W. National Ave., 414-431-6551
Arugula Pesto Chicken Panino
The arugula-pesto chicken panino is an herb patch, surrounded by fresh mozz, tomatoes and thick hunks of chicken. The Green Kitchen at MKE Public Market is the source of this toothpick-necessary-afterward edible. 400 N. Water St., 414-273-8830
What goes with your two-fisted specimens is as important as what goes in them. The side dishes we’d give up a sandwich for.
➽ Chef Adam Lucks took time honing his tots (the tater variety) at Palomino. Nothing like the grated, thimble-shaped commercial variety, these are creamy, fried pillows, served with ranch dressing. 2491 S. Superior St., 414-747-1007
➽ Tomato soup is not just the preferred mate for a grilled cheese. The thick, subtly chunky, hintingly sweet soup can come with any other bread creation served at Comet Cafe. 1947 N. Farwell Ave., 414-273-7677
➽ The homemade potato chips and Asian slaw at LuLu Cafe & Bar don’t need to ride shotgun. They could easily be the main attraction. Be sure to ask for blue cheese dressing for chip dipping. 2261 & 2265 S. Howell Ave., 414-294-5858
➽ No, we’re not suggesting overkill by pitching the creamy white cheddar mac and cheese with a highfalutin grilled cheese at Melthouse Bistro. This is the dairy state, after all. 1857 E. Kenilworth Pl., 414-271-6358
➽ No more boring tousled greens. The vibrant toss of mesclun with radish, tomato and tangy lime-cumin vinaigrette is garden good at Café Corazon. 3129 N. Bremen St., 414-810-3941
Lady Gaga, Marilyn Manson – they’re both a little, well, unusual. Translate that to sandwiches and you’ve got these hunks.
In culinary terms (that I made up), the rule of three means something is inherently more delicious when it comes in a trio. Couldn’t agree with it more in regard to Palomino’s biscuit sliders. You get one of each: pimento cheese and bacon; sausage and fruit jam; and smoked pork and mustard. Humina humina. 2491 S. Superior St., 414-747-1007
Veering a bit in the Elvis Presley vein: Fuel Café’s PBAB – peanut butter, apple and bacon on toasted French bread – had me at bacon and warm, melty peanut butter. 818 E. Center St., 414-374-3835
Roasted Pork with Braised Red Cabbage
The Third Ward’s Bavette doesn’t stick to a static menu. Which means the roasted pork with braised red cabbage, Brussels sprouts, pumpkin butter and bacon isn’t always around. But you’ll always find some fetching pork variation thereof. 330 E. Menomonee St., 414-273-3375
Gooey and toasty, Fuel Café’s Buttafucco is a glob of warm mozzarella and provolone, mayo, tomato, onion, giardiniera and Italian herbs on a toasted French roll. So good, you can easily forget the 1990s crime story that inspired the name.
They call it the widowmaker, this juicy heap of Italian beef, Cheez Whiz, bacon, charred green peppers and giardiniera that decimates the French roll it comes in. We won’t tell your cardiologist. Fratelli’s, 6202 W. Lincoln Ave., 414-541-0500
Call it a meatball sub, hoagie, hero or even grinder. The dominant player on this sandwich of ground meat eloquence is the ball itself.
The bun acts as the fundamental pillow, crusty or soft, as illustrated by this trio.
No mere pizza emporium, Classic Slice made the meatball (ground pork and beef) its other area of expertise. CS also makes its own crusty ciabatta, which enfolds the balls, shredded mozz, giardiniera, spinach and red sauce. 2797 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., 414-238-2406
Glorioso’s keeps it classic – a seeded Sciortino’s roll cupping seasoned beef orbs coated in marinara, before receiving that key slice of provolone. 1011 E. Brady St., 414-272-0540
Blink and the meatballs at Bavette will be wearing new clothes – fancy-delicious duds. The tomato-braised beef balls might come with roasted broccoli, pesto aioli and Parmesan, or with preserved lemon-pine nut relish and ricotta. 330 E. Menomonee St., 414-273-3375
A corned beef connoisseur’s downright spiritual quest to find gooey sandwich perfection.
By Claire Hanan.
My favorite sandwich has always been the Reuben. I mean, what’s not to love about this two-handed wonder, this sandwich of disputed origin? It has it all: toasted bread, succulent meat, and an exquisite chewiness enhanced by its resident vegetable and the goo sisters, Thousand Island dressing and Swiss cheese.
But can corned meat ever be a metaphysical experience? Can its flavor profile transcend taste buds? I sure thought so when I volunteered for this assignment. Although I remained a devotee after my first and second tries, by my 13th, I could almost hear my intestines crying for help as I routinely dunked them in meat juices. Yet I rallied long enough to complete my journey – almost spiritual at times – to find Milwaukee’s quintessential Reuben.
The memorable first stop on this tour de boeuf was the unassuming Hairy Lemon Irish pub (2102 State Road 164, Richfield). The thick, house-made cuts of corned beef mingled with the other ingredients to delicious effect. Euphoria washed over me with every bite and, to borrow a phrase from the yogis, I was smiling from my stomach.
My third test – the massive meat-stuffed version from Jake’s (jakes-deli.com) – didn’t disappoint, either. But it was at this point that I had a hard think about my GI tract. Was the salty delirium worth the havoc raging in my stomach? I prayed to the gods of digestion, swearing I’d cleanse for a month if they’d let me finish at least half of this blessed meat pile.
My prayers were answered with Benji’s (benjisdeliandrestaurant.com) classic deli-diner sandwich, with its buttered, grilled marbled rye bread; prudent serving of juicy corned beef; Swiss cheese; no-frills kraut; and Thousand Island on the side. Ingesting it made me feel like an extra in Pleasantville, happily chomping away and not for a second worried about my escalating case of meat sweats.
It was only after Benji’s that I learned some restaurateurs see a Reuben as a vehicle for sauerkraut, not to mention ingredient variations that would offend purists. As my meat meditations became angrier, I began questioning my faith. What does salad dressing have to do with islands? And just how big is the average human stomach?
Yet I Reubened on.
I was eventually rewarded with No. 12 at Waukesha’s Rochester Deli (143 W. Broadway). A larger mouth is the only thing that could have helped me devour this perfectly proportioned, pressed sammie topped with uber-satisfying, super-creamy Swiss.
Like reaching the top of my gastric climb, No. 13 at McBob’s (4919 W. North Ave.), was the pinnacle of brined meat. Entering the darkened bar, I watched a cook gently slice a slab of corned beef. After a dozen of these salty beasts, could I really stomach another? No question! The generous portion was juicy, not greasy, almost silky in texture – so good that I could not, despite WebMD’s urging, put it down.
With breadcrumbs still adhering to my fingertips, I had found my kraut-filled nirvana. Even with the intestinal challenges and occasional self-loathing, I felt confident in the results of my journey.
Although I won’t worship at the temple of Reuben for a while, eating Milwaukee’s best ultimately reminded me of why I loved them so much to begin with. And I felt inner peace knowing we live in a city soaked in sandwich glory.
Bird is the Word
A Chick-fil-A afoodionado surfs fried chicken sammies of local acclaim to face off against the nationwide chain. ➽ By Howie Magner
Some buns benefit from protein, in quantities that far surpass the average nutritionist’s recommendations.
Hot Mess Pastrami Melt
The aptly named Hot Mess Pastrami Melt features a French roll working mightily to hold up the rear under crushing pastrami, provolone and pepper jack cheeses, peppers and onions. Meat juice alert! North Avenue Grill, 7225 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa, 414-453-7225
It may not look like a sandwich. But trust us, the open-faced, bacon-wrapped meatloaf with bacon-chive mashed potatoes on salted rye with beer gravy is one helluva sandwich. Knife and fork? You’ll need them. Comet Café, 1947 N. Farwell Ave., 414-273-7677
The Oakland Gyros’ specialty – spit-roasted, compressed meat layered inside a pita with olives, feta and a tangled nest of onions – is not just manna for the inebriated college student. Leave out the cucumber-yogurt sauce (aka, tzatziki) and you might as well leave out the meat. 530 W. Layton Ave., 414-744-2555; 2867 N. Oakland Ave., 414-963-1393
Nothing – no taco or burrito – should separate you from the gleefully jaw-straining torta (Mexican sandwich) at Cafe Corazon. We like it with carnitas (or braised pork) in the heady mix of black beans, avocado, cheddar jack, lettuce, tomato and crema on a toasted bolillo roll. 3129 N. Bremen St., 414-810-3941
The Glorioso’s New Orleans-inspired muffaletta is an oldie but goodie in our book. Mortadella, Genoa ham, capicola and provolone buried under the piquant olive salad. 1011 E. Brady St., 414-272-0540
Scarfing down the aPorkalypse won’t signal the end of the world. But the uber-flavorful combo of barbecued pork, applewood bacon, ham, cheddar cheese and jalapeno-cilantro coleslaw will leave you reaching for a breath mint. For a good cause! The Picnic Basket, W329 N4492 Lakeland Dr., Nashotah, 262-367-6288; 10600 W. Bluemound Rd., Wauwatosa, 414-763-4378
Salt? Yes, please. North Avenue Grill does an assertive Cuban, dressed with pulled pork, ham and salami, along with pickles, baby Swiss and mustard on grilled ciabatta. 7225 W. North Ave., Wauwatosa, 414-453-7225
There are ingenuous sandwiches like PB&J – all good – and then there are ones that get a flamboyant kick in the pants. That describes these beauties.
➽ Panino (from the Italian “small bread”) is a grilled specimen. It could be any-thing between those two ends of smashed toastiness. The formaggio panino at Nessun Dorma sounds fancy – fresh mozz, fontinella, and provolone with roasted red peppers and basil pesto mayo on asiago ciabatta. It’s really a triumph of cheese. 2778 N. Weil St., 414-264-8466
➽ Elsa’s All-American grilled cheese doles out the dairy in dramatic fashion. Four cheeses (cheddar, Colby, American, Swiss), plus Nueske’s bacon and tomato on your choice of bread. Gluttonous. 833 N. Jefferson St., 414-765-0615
➽ The standard BLT loses its predictability when it gains a roommate. Hooligan’s serves up a thick, meaty blackened salmon BLT with Cajun rémoulade (and avocado for an extra buck). A grilled ciabatta never looked so good. 2017 E. North Ave., 414-273-5230
➽ It’s not rocket science to put Cobb salad fixings (turkey, hardboiled egg, blue cheese, bacon, guac) on a pretzel bun. But City Market’s Cobb stack makes smart eater sense. 2205 E. Capitol Dr., 414-962-0100; 8700 W. Watertown Plank Rd., 414-479-0479; 527 E. Silver Spring Dr., 414-332-0300
‘Bread Winners’ appears in the May, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Purchase a copy on newsstands at one of 400+ locations throughout Wisconsin.