(Il Polpettone with homemade mozzarella & fresh tomatoes at Basil Brick Oven)
As a kid, a sandwich was mostly just an answer to convenience. A few cold cuts tucked between white bread, a fruit roll-up, and a thermos of lemonade filled a plastic yellow Pac-Man lunchbox perfectly. At its fanciest, maybe mom would throw on some alfalfa sprouts or a slice of pepper jack. Luxury sandwiches at home might consist of stromboli wrapped in aluminum foil and baked in the oven (codes scribbled on the foil in Sharpie indicating which had been ruined with the bell peppers the adults seemed to like). Sometimes, a sandwich even carried on tradition--although by the time I substituted lettuce for sauerkraut, ham for corned beef, a Kraft single for swiss, and white bread for rye, I suppose my reuben on New Year's day wasn't really a reuben at all (oh, and hold the Russian dressing, please).
It wasn't until a school choir trip to New York City when I first saw a monstrous mile-high pastrami sandwich at Carnegie deli that I realized New York City takes its sandwiches seriously--maybe more seriously than anywhere else in the world. Here, endless varieties of bread serve as a platform to celebrate not only tradition and culture, but sometimes the quintessential bite of what a chef has to showcase. While numerous lists document the tastiest sandwiches in the city, few do justice to the delectable and list-worthy options in Astoria, Long Island City, and Sunnyside. I hope you enjoy my Top 40 of what I consider the best the neighborhood has to offer.
*I took each photograph moments before devouring each of these (this project has taken several months, and many good sandwiches didn't make the cut). Please e-mail for permission to use any images.
**A few restaurants appear more than once on the list, which I debated--but yes, the sandwiches are too good to eliminate for the sake of one per restaurant limit. This is a list of sandwiches, not restauarants.
***Yes, M. Wells is closing soon. But it appears as it should... part in homage, but mainly in hopes it will reopen in the near future. Plus, there's still a week left before they shut the doors, so go try them while you can.
****Most of these sandwiches are available daily, though a few are brunch-only, or recurring specials, so check with the restaurant before you go (especially Queens Comfort, which rotates its menu almost daily)
40. Grilled Cheese on Pullman Loaf ($7) Sweet Afton -- What list would be complete without a nod to one of Astoria's most famous gastropubs? Sure, the fried pickles are outrageous, but the grilled cheese is delicious and beautifully straightforward. Choose from Irish cheddar, gruyere, or meunster and add double smoked bacon for a buck. The sassy whole grain mustard seals the deal.
39. Foie Gras Sliders ($12) William Hallet -- With red onion marmalade on brioche the size of a silver dollar, these luxurious seared li'l bites make a killer snack at the new late-night watering hole. The goal is to soon offer the menu nightly until 4AM.
38. Vegemite Tartine ($6) M. Wells -- Waste not, want not... Vegemite, the Australian umami spread made from used beer brewers' yeast arrives on toasted baquette with a traditional pairing of cold slivers of butter and pickles, jazzed up with sliced cucumber and a dusting of citrus zest at Long Island City's famous 60's-diner-turned-foodie-mecca.
37. Crispy Chicken Torta ($10) MexiQ -- This uber-thin cutlet is juicy inside, and wonderfully crunchy outside, blanketed with cheddar, a slathering of black beans, avocado, and a drizzle of pasilla chile honey mustard.
36. Lobster Po' Boy ($18) Queens Comfort -- Call ahead and reserve one for yourself, because these weekend special guests disappear pretty quickly. Tender lobster claws, knuckles, and tails are corn-meal dusted with a crunch that gives way to buttery seafood heaven. The pickled shallots and smoked tomato mayo are a brilliant accent, with a slight drizzle of Texas Pete.
34. Sesame Bagel with Wasabi Lox Spread ($3.55) Brooklyn Bagel -- These jumbo bagels are hand-rolled and waterboiled, giving them an extra snap when you bite in. The wasabi lox cream cheese kicks the standard NYC schmear up several notches, making this a standout.
33. Shredded Brisket ($9) LIC Market -- Chef Alex whips up a killer, relished slow-cooked brisket with a particularly creamy red cabbage slaw that balances out the sweet and tangy, all served on a buttery brioche.
32. Smoked Bacon Panini ($11) Il Bambino -- Legend has it that commuters take cabs directly from LaGuardia to this panini palace before going home; and with pressed gems like this, it's easy to see why. Their signature chunchy (chewy/crunchy) bread is loaded with smoked bacon, truffle aioli, garlic roasted potatoes, and melted parmesan.
31. Pulled Pork Torta ($10) MexiQ -- This torta rings in as the sloppiest pulled pork sandwich in the 'hood, with BBQ-doused shreds that drip in splatters to the plate with each bite. Stacked with pickled red onions, chipotle aioli, and refried beans, it's a full meal all by itself.
30. Outrageous Grilled Cheese ($10) Sage General Store -- Part of the "Bacon Brunch," this forkable melt is loaded with Vermont Cheddar, jack, gruyere, "Ham I Am" peppered bacon, a dash of Worcestershire, and is best enjoyed with a cup of tomato basil goat cheese soup for dunking.
29. Slow-Baked Chicken Sandwich ($7.25) Astor Bake Shop -- Chef McKirdy's gourmet baked treats may hog the spotlight here, but this poultry masterpiece boasts some of the juiciest, most delicious chicken around. On a soft Portuguese roll, tender cubes of Mediterranean-spiced white meat are jeweled with avocado, caramelized onions, and swiss cheese. Wash it back with a salted lemonade before browsing the dessert display case.
28. Astoria Cheese Steak ($10) The Lunch Box (25-17 Astoria Blvd) -- It's gargantuan, salty, and sloppy, and quite possibly one of the most delicious cheesesteaks outside of Philly, loaded with extremely tender strips of beef, caramelized onions, roasted red peppers, and plenty of melted cheddar.
27. Texas Blue Crab Popover ($10.95) Mojave -- One of my favorite brunch items is an excellent crab cakes benedict, so this sandwich at Mojave takes it to a whole new playing field. Buttery pastry sandwiches a poached egg on a bed of lump blue crab meat and spinach, topped with a citrus-kickin' green chile hollandaise.
26. L'Italiano ($9) Vesta Trattoria & Wine Bar -- Taking crostini to a whole new level, this rustic Italian loaf is toasted then smeared with ricotta, stacked with slices of hot sopressata, and a poached egg.
25. Cubano Sandwich ($7) M. Wells -- the pork and mortadella are exceptional, making this one of the most outstanding cubanos in the city. With pickles, a smear of spicy mustard, and gruyere cheese, this puppy is mammoth, but you just can't stop eating it.
24. Pun Sai Moo ($7) Leng Thai -- Delightfully juicy and tender grilled medallions of pork are dripping with sweet and spicy hoisin sauce on delicate steamed Asian buns, served with fresh slaw on this lick-your-finger sloppy delicious slider.
23. Chicken Cutlet Panini (with arugula, mozzarella, & spicy mayo) ($9) Il Bambino -- There really isn't a bad sandwich... or a bad anything on the menu at this tapas bar wuzzled with a paninoteca. But this juicy, fiery, cheesy pressed poultry is one of the most popular.
22. Falafel Wrap ($11) Sanfords -- Sure you can get everything from yellowfin tartare, panko crusted ebi, soba noodles, short rib ravioli, and pork osso bucco 24 hours. But don't overlook what might be the tastiest falafel sandwich in the entire city, wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla with fresh mozzarella, a veggie mirepoix, sliced avocado, and basil pesto aioli, served with killer fries. How many 24-hour joints even have the word "mirepoix" on the menu?
21. Great Hill Blue ($11) The Queens Kickshaw -- most of the menu here is worthy of this list, but let's start with this grown-up grilled cheese. Robust blue cheese with prune jam and paper thin slices of pear on cranberry walnut bread, served with green salad with pickled blueberries. Yum. Yum. And Yum.
20. Hot Chicken ($8) M. Wells -- An open-faced dreamwich, flaky buttermilk biscuits are loaded with boneless, juicy skin-on poultry, a teepee of handcut fries, polka dotted with plump English green peas, and then decadently glazed with hearty brown gravy.
19. Cevapi ($6 half-portion as pictured) Ukus -- Homemade Bosnian spiced sausages are tucked into a pocket of warm lapinja bread fresh from the oven. Served with classic condiments: ajvar (a blend of roasted red peppers, whipped eggplant, garlic, and chili peppers), diced onions, and kajmak (traditional cheese spread made from the milk of mountain cattle.)
18. Hampshire Pulled Pork Sliders ($9) Salt & Fat -- Sriracha gives these pork minis a nice little kick, with a sweet and sour crunch from the pickled cucumber, giving these the most unique flavor and texture of the pulled pork on the list.
17. Meatloaf Sandwich ($12) Queens Comfort -- They batter and fry the buttermilk onion rings to order to guarantee crunch, stacked on a slab of classic, tender meatloaf with a blanket of melted cheddar, and a slathering of house made smoked tomato ketchup on a soft Martin's bun.
16. Torta al Pastor ($6) El Athens Grill -- I stumbled upon his hole in the wall under the N train tracks when the Taco Truck took an unexpected hiatus last spring, only to discover that this spicy pork sandwich is exponentially superior, with juicy, spicy-sweet pork, a layer of beans, quacamole, and pickled nopales. And the bread? You can actually see its squishy perfection in the picture. Plus it's open 'til 4AM daily.
15. The Bomb ($7) Sal, Kris, & Charlie's -- A deli counter lover's dream, this is the ideal cold cut sandwich for picnics, tailgating, and Sunday football. Weekend lines extend out the door for this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sub, packed with shaved ham, turkey, salami, pepperoni, and mortadella, with muenster, american, & swiss cheeses, sweet red and green peppers, pickles, shredded lettuce, onion, tomatoes, mayonnaise, oil & vinegar, and salt & pepper.
14. Beef Kafta ($3.50) La Shish (28-28 Steinway) -- Entering this Lebanese deli, you are met by chilled display cases of skewers of beef, lamb, & chicken in various preparations, each of which are grilled to order. The kafta is the standout, ground beef tenderloin wrapped in pita with lettuce, parsley, onions, tomatoes, crunchy pickles, and creamy-garlicky hummus.
13. Steak Sofrito ($18) Ovelia -- Served only at brunch, it's breakfast, lunch, and dinner all in one. Your choice of toast is generously piled with shredded skirt steak, any style egg (over easy or poached recommended), and then a zesty draping of garlic and herb sofrito. An afternoon siesta immediately following is almost involuntary.
12. Lobster Loll ($18) M. Wells Diner -- Sure, they offer a dynamite lobster roll with browned butter and Old Bay, but go for the Lobster Loll, a Japanese riff in both name and preparation... a giant homemade soda cracker loaded with sesame rice, lobster, mayo, tarragon, and a maple-sweetened-sriracha.
11. Pulled Pork Sandwich ($12) Queens Comfort -- What I love most about Chef Casey Sullivan's master smokemanship is that he typically leaves his smoked goodies unmasked, with just a sauce on top (Rock Bottom BBQ, in this case) allowing you to really taste the excellent meat rather than dilluting it.
10. Cheddar & Mozzarella ($8) The Queens Kickshaw -- This picture has been called food porn on numerous occasions, and NPR even featured it as the photo of the day. I have never tasted a better classic grilled cheese anywhere, served with a robust tomato soup for dipping.
9. Chicken & Eggo ($10) Queens Comfort -- Lee Ann Wong of Unique Eats referred to it as "chicken and waffles on crack." This boneless breast is brined, trapping in every drop of juiciness, sealed with an incomparably crispy batter, fried, and drenched in maple butter with tabasco, sandwiched between two Eggos, and crowned with a dollop of melting butter.
8. Muffuletta ($7.50 Nice Half) Sugar Freak -- I recommend the generously portioned half sandwich (the full is $12) so you can save room for the killer desserts. The muffuletta is bursting with flavor, with mortadella, ham, genoa salami, mozzarella, provolone, a beautiful olive salad, and a crispy golden sicilian sesame loaf.
7. Truffled Egg Salad & Shaved Speck Crostini ($6.50) Il Bambino -- The crostini toast itself is beyond description, but this simple, light-as-a-cloud egg salad is the best I've ever enjoyed, topped with smoked prosciutto. Il Bambino's restraint with high-quality ingredients really shines through on this one.
6. Grit Crusted Fried Chicken ($9) Queens Comfort -- I have dreams about this one, a flavor and texture playground. The golden grits crust literally explode at the bite like popped rice, giving way to drool-inducing juicy chicken, topped with smoked ham and peppery sawmill gravy on brioche.
5. Egg-Sausage Sandwich ($9) M. Wells -- Inspired by the McDonald's breakfast sandwich, it's built on a"Fat" English muffin made fresh on the premises, with a thick Berkshire sausage patty that sings of nutmeg and sage, a substantial egg pillow first microwaved for fluffiness and then finished on the griddle, tangy pickled jalapenos, dripping ribbons of melted cheddar, sweet and juicy heirloom tomato, and a generous slathering of homemade mayonnaise.
4. Il Polpettone Panini ($9.25) Basil Brick Oven Pizza -- Imagine a pillow of pizza dough expanding in the oven, with golden-brown bubbles along the edges, then popped and torn open, steaming, filled with sliced meatballs, thick and chunky tomato sauce, fresh homemade mozzarella, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, all melding together in the warm bread.
3. Porchetta Panini ($11) Il Bambino -- Il Bambino brilliantly illuminates the best of their ingredients, and this sandwich takes the prize for my favorite. The porchetta is rendered unbelievably juicy and tender, with a playful crunch added by the spicy pickle slaw, married harmoniously by the rosemary aioli--and all on that paradox of a bread, simultaneously crunchy and soft.
2. Spaghetti Sandwich ($10) M. Wells -- Whimsy and creativity yielding deliciousness like only M. Wells knows how. Pasta & side salad come together on this "patty" of spaghetti bolognese, which is topped with mozzarella, tomato sauce, and a caesar salad on a crunchy grilled, chewy inside roll. You bite into it and can actually see layers of spaghetti studded with meat sauce.
1. Smoked Gouda ($10 ) The Queens Kickshaw -- Smokey gouda is melted on brioche, with a slathering of guava jam, black bean hummus, and pickled jalapenos. It's crunchy, soft, warm, gooey, cool, pickled, sweet, savory, and salty. It's grilled cheese on steroids, and there's nothing around even remotely like it.