New York City's best sandwiches are like jazz, improvised and surprising, an art form created by passionate people with unassailable technique. Bread and ingredients are versatile, from old-fashioned to modern, domestic to international. Sometimes you want to savor a sandwich alone and sometimes with a crowd. If it's killer enough, a sandwich can be the high point of your day. This workingman's staple has gained newfound prestige, becoming a serious subject that's hotly debated among the City's cognoscenti. Appetites for them are relentless, giving New Yorkers reason to deplete their MetroCard balances in pursuit of euphoric culinary revelation. It wasn't easy, but we've narrowed down our picks to 10 sandwich destinations that deserve hall-of-fame status. You'll eat up the restaurants highlighted in our slideshow (and then feast on their sandwiches)—we can guarantee satisfaction.
149 Ave. C, 212-674-2276, East Village
Is it worth it to hike to Avenue C for a sandwich? Absolutely. This beguiling purveyor of cheese, charcuterie and fine foods starts with the most excellent ingredients, pressing them between Grandaisy Bakery's signature flauta bread. The "Sexier Beast" is a beaut, composed of house-roasted beef, farmhouse cheddar, tomato, greens and a fruity touch of pear mostarda, an enthralling melding of flavors and textures to contemplate with each crunchy bite. The British Isles selection of Neal's Yard Dairy cheeses and boxes of Maldon sea salt make it feel more Covent Garden than Alphabet City, a sign of the neighborhood's continuing transformation. Owners Beatriz and Darrin Arremony, whose stellar Brix Wine Shop is around the corner, clearly have a passion and talent for assembling the best things in life.
Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop
174 Fifth Ave., 212-675-5096, Flatiron District
"You either get it or you don't" is emblazoned on a sandwich board outside Eisenberg's, apropos for this feisty, old-school lunch counter lined with red stools and TV-tray-size tables. Judging from the walls, which are crammed with pictures of famous folk, lots of celebrities get it (Jodie Foster, Liev Schreiber, Philip Seymour Hoffman)—all of them pictured with the owner, Josh Konecky. Regular joes come here, too, mainly for straightforward tuna salad and egg salad sandwiches, egg creams and lime rickeys, though the gold-standard Reuben is what really proves the place hasn't slipped. Buttery, crunchy toast squashes down thinly sliced, plentiful corned beef, dolled up with strings of sauerkraut and a sweet touch of Russian dressing. With each bite, the melted Swiss pulls like taffy. The wiseacre Konecky mans the cash register; tell him on your way out that you just had a good Reuben and he'll say, "Oh, yeah? Where?"
El Quinto Pino
401 W. 24th St., 212-206-6900, Chelsea
It's tough to resist the uni panini at pocket-size tapas superstar El Quinto Pino. One of the most exhilarating sandwiches ever invented—domestic sea urchin spread in a baguette with Korean hot mustard oil—is served tucked away in a cute little sack like a fancy gift, which indeed it is. And yet chef Alex Raij has other out-of-this-world bocatas up her sleeve, such as a fried squid sub with spicy aioli, typical of Madrid, and a Basque-influenced pork loin rubbed with smoked paprika, garlic and oregano and layered with Galician tetilla cheese and piquillo peppers. In Italy it's a no-no to eat fish and cheese together, but in Spain it's definitely a yes, particularly when it comes to the Bikini, a two-piece sandwich of Ortiz anchovies pressed with melting cheese and piquillo peppers on thin Pullman bread.
Faicco's Pork Store
260 Bleecker St., 212-243-1974, West Village
It's all about the "Italian Special" at this beloved butcher shop, which was founded in 1900 and has been located on Bleecker Street since the 1940s. Recipes have been passed down through the Faicco family for three generations, plenty of time to perfect a number of prepared Italian favorites: rice balls, ravioli and eggplant parmigiana among them. Then there's the sandwich that's never a loser. In a soft hero roll, superior cold cuts are stacked as tidily as the store's shelves. There's prosciutto, ham "cappy" (as in spicy capicola sausage), sopressata, mozzarella, roasted peppers (or sun-dried tomatoes), lettuce, tomato, salt and pepper, splashed with oil and vinegar. Mayo is taboo and unnecessary, since the sandwich is already so juicy. Each mouthful leaves behind a slight burn of pepper and a symphony of flavor. It's worth loosening your belt a notch for.
329 Henry St., 718-852-8630, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn
A bell clangs in the kitchen and anticipation builds: the turkey-leg sandwich is on its way! Herb-inflected, pulled dark meat doused with peppery gravy and crowned with frizzled onions soaks through thick slices of toast, becoming squishier and squishier, until it's almost like holding turkey and stuffing in your hands. Also on the porcelain-glazed metal plate is a pile of impeccably salted skinny fries—like those at McDonald's, only crisper. The sandwich warms the heart, as do the other bygone touches at Henry Public—snug, romantic booths; an old cash register; a rotary phone that, when it rings, makes you think you've stepped into a movie from the '30s. (And just so you know, the baseball-shaped hamburger here is another stunner.)
97A Hoyt St., 718-852-7510, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn
This new-school deli makes pastrami the old-fashioned way, but here it's called "smoked meat"—a deli meat variant endemic to co-owner Noah Bernamoff's native Montreal (his partner, Rae Cohen, is from New York City). The secret to the real-deal deliciousness of their smoked-meat sandwich? Bernamoff and Cohen don't cut any corners, making it the way their grandparents did. The couple starts with all-natural Creekstone Farms beef, adds a healthy dose of garlic, cures it in 18 freshly ground spices for 11 days, smokes it for eight hours, steams it for another four and then hand-slices it. Mile End was such a phenomenon when it first opened earlier this year that the meat was usually gone by mid-afternoon. They've since acquired a separate kitchen space to supplement the 425-square-foot eatery, enabling them to double their brisket preparation and stay open through dinnertime. At breakfast, look for a Montreal bagel sandwich of house-cured lox (currently made from wild Pacific salmon), heirloom tomato, onions, capers and cream cheese.
No. 7 Sub
1188 Broadway, 212-532-1680, Flatiron District
Sandwiches like tofu with pickled rhubarb, peas and roasted garlic (the General Tso's Tofu sub) sound so outlandish, you half wonder if the chefs at No. 7 Sub threw the ingredients into a hat and plucked out combinations at random. But the tatted, kerchief-sporting crew there actually does possess an unerring sense of the surprises that go together. The bothersome line at lunch at the Manhattan location (the original is in Brooklyn) doesn't let up from 11:30am to 2:30pm, confirming that the masses have drunk the Kool-Aid—or, in this little marvel's case, the citrusy berry-lime rickey. Change is another constant at No. 7: the menu now includes breakfast sandwiches (from 8 to 10:30am, there's no wait at all!). Pillowy soft-roasted pork loin with scrambled eggs, fontina and a kiss of hot-sweet blueberry sriracha is especially genius.
Banh Mi Saigon Bakery
198 Grand St., 212-941-1541, Little Italy
Newly relocated to larger digs, this Vietnamese bánh mì specialist continues to share space with the jeweler Jing Jing Gemstone, though the food-service area eats up more of the premises than before. The classic #1 with fragrant, sweetly caramelized, slow-cooked pork is stuffed into a hot, crusty baguette along with fiery chilies, cool cucumber, shredded daikon and a fistful of cilantro. A bánh mì craze began to overtake the City a couple of years back, but the enormous, low-cost specimens at this forerunner cannot be improved upon. The sensible will devour half, saving the other half for later. Don't neglect to slake your thirst from the wonderfully weird beverage selection, such as hot Ovaltine and salted lemon soda.
76-05 Roosevelt Ave., 718-424-1977, Jackson Heights, Queens
The Mexican cemita is the more robust and complex cousin of the torta. What better place to wrap your mouth around one than at the authentic Coatzingo (named for a town in the state of Puebla, where the sandwich originated)? The round, seeded buns come from Coatzingo's bakery down the block, ensuring freshness. They're stuffed with meat, mozzarella-like Mexican cheese, avocado, lettuce and tomato, plus a smear of refried beans and smoky chipotle. Breaded chicken or breaded beef are the most classic—the meat pliant, the heat lip-tingling, the crunch of lettuce juxtaposed with the creaminess of the avocado. The 7 train rumbles overhead (the Flushing and Jamaica lines converge here), making this humble, friendly, delicious taquería an accessible destination.
Torrisi Italian Specialties
250 Mulberry St., 212-965-0955, Little Italy
The chicken parm on a roll here is such a wonder of vibrant flavor and old-fashioned goodness, you may feel your eyes tear up. The young, visionary chefs, Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, have brought new authenticity to the Mulberry Street/Italian-American tradition, which had been strongly in need of an energy injection. Between the sesame-seeded bun is a thick slab of top-quality chicken rolled in Progresso breadcrumbs, pan-fried in butter, draped with handmade mozzarella and fresh basil leaves and ladled with lively tomato sauce. The sandwich is only served at lunch, and since there are just 18 coveted seats, go early or late if you want to enjoy it in peace.