A Cleveland Journey Through Our Favorite Things Between Two Slices of Bread

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sandwich as ...

Just kidding. Everybody knows what a sandwich is. Since we were old enough to grip a greasy grilled cheese, we've been shoving the blessed things in our mouths and smiling about it. Sandwiches are the ultimate convenience food, requiring zero silverware and sometimes not even both hands to devour.

For such a straightforward food item — it is just two pieces of bread separated by a filling — there is remarkable diversity on the sandwich landscape. We decided to dig a little deeper into the local sandwich environment to explore some of our favorites.

Philly Cheesesteak from Original Steaks & Hoagies (10735 Ravenna Rd., Twinsburg, steaksandhoagies.com)

In Philadelphia, "steak shops" are as common as Flyers fans, where on practically every corner shaved ribeye is cooked up on a coal-black griddle and piled into foot-long hoagie buns with — or wit-out ­— sauteed onions and Cheez Whiz. Provolone also is acceptable. The best versions, like those served at Original Steaks & Hoagies, are built upon soft but sturdy buns from Philly-based Amoroso Bakery, and the beef is chopped into bits on the griddle, leaving the meat surprisingly light and airy. Options are slim when it comes to real-deal cheesesteaks around here, but we also like Eddies Famous Cheesesteaks in Akron (eddiescheesesteaks.com).

Chicago-Style Italian Beef at Local West (7400 Detroit Ave., localwestcleveland.com)

If you order your Italian beef "hot and wet" in Chi-town, you'll be treated to a flavorful onslaught of buttery, thin-sliced roast beef, sweet peppers, spicy pickled vegetables and enough pan juices to ruin a good pair of loafers. For some, the attraction lies in the heap of tender beef, which languishes in a warm bath of pan drippings. For others, it's the spicy giardiniera, which provides the only texture in an otherwise squidgy sandwich. Here in Cleveland, the options are slim, but Local West's version comes pretty close. We also like the ones served at D'Italia (websiteditaliafoods.com).

French Dip at Rosewood Grill (Multiple locations, rosewoodgrill.com)

The kissing cousin to the Italian beef, the French Dip is ideal for diners who like to control the level of sogginess — and saltiness — of their shaved-beef sandwich. Instead of being dunked in au jus, or being on the receiving end of a ladleful, this sandwich gets a sidecar of sauce. Dip, dab or dunk, the results all are delicious. The addition of cheese, mustard, horseradish or grilled onions, while not typical, also are not not delicious. We still haven't found a better dip in town than the ones served up at Rosewood Grill, but give the ones at Parkview Nite Club (parkviewniteclub.com) and Flat Iron Cafe (flatironcafe.com) a spin and you won't be disappointed.

Italian Sub at Cleveland Pickle (850 Euclid Ave., clevelandpickle.com)

If you grab slices of damn near everything in the deli case of your local Italian market, pile them into a sub bun, and douse the whole affair with vinaigrette, you end up with one of America's best lunches. Since opening its doors downtown, Cleveland Pickle has been knocking this sando out of the park, a two-fisted pipe of prosciutto, capicola, sopressata, provolone and spicy pickle relish, which gives it a modern kick. We're fans, too, of the versions sold at Angelo's Pizza (angelosonline.com), Dave's Cosmic Subs (davescosmicsubs.com) and the Hot Italian at Melt Bar & Grilled (meltbarandgrilled.com).

Roast Pork at Bogtrotters Doorstep (1848 West 25th St.)

That "other" famous sandwich from Philly, the roast pork actually is preferred by many locals because of its multi-dimensionality. Whereas the cheesesteak is basically meat and cheese on a bun, the roast pork benefits from the addition of bitter broccoli rabe, sharp provolone, and plenty of juicy porky drippings in place of run-of-the-mill griddle grease. Cleveland's best version goes by the name of Porkopolis, and it's sold from a make-shift cafe carved out of the Old Angle Tavern. The newly opened Herb'n Twine (herbntwine.com) has a model built with juicy, savory porchetta.

Lobster Roll at Alley Cat Oyster Bar (1056 Old River Rd., alleycatoysterbar.com)

When your principal ingredient is lobster, the main job of the cook is simply not to screw things up. If you start — and practically stop — with succulent chunks of sweet Maine lobster meat, the sandwich will take care of itself. If you gently poach that lobster meat in butter, as Alley Cat does, all the better. Here, the customary mayo is swapped for light and creamy Green Goddess dressing, a nice twist, and slaw adds a pleasant crunch. All that jazz is spooned into a toasted split-top bun and served with fries. Nauti Mermaid (thenautimermaid.com) serves up a great one, as does Jammy Buggars (jammybuggars.com), which folds in some sweet shrimp.

Fried Perch at Lobster Brothers (26055 Detroit Rd., Westlake, lobsterbrothers.com)

Lobster might not be a local product, but lake perch and walleye most certainly are. In fact, some could argue that the fish fry is our official sandwich. Everybody from the corner pub to the local church professes to make and serve the best around, but we know better because we've suffered through countless versions made with the opposite of fresh fish. The best around is fried to order at Lobster Brothers, a fresh fish and seafood market that only does carry-out. The thin flanks of fish are flash fried and tucked into a burger bun with lettuce and mayo for a crunchy, creamy taste of summer. Out west, in Port Clinton, hit up Jolly Rogers Seafood. Out east, visit Hil-Mak Seafood in Ashtabula. Here in town, we love the fried walleye sando at Fish Shack & Grill in Clark-Fulton.

Fried Oyster Po' Boy at Bourbon Street Barrel Room (2393 Professor Ave., bourbonstreetbarrelroom.com)

You can scoop almost anything out of the sea, deep fry it, pile it into a baguette with crunchy veggies and creamy remoulade and it will be delicious. But we prefer oysters, shrimp or soft-shell crab. Both shrimp- and oyster-based versions are available at Bourbon Street Barrel Room, with the latter edging out the former in terms of flavor and texture. They're paired with shredded lettuce and chopped tomato and drizzled with a creamy mayo-based "bistro sauce." On the east side of town, Tavern Company (thetaverncompany.com) in Cleveland Heights concocts a near-perfect soft-shell crab version while the Ragin' Cajun at Nola's Po' Boy Shop (nolaspoboyshop.com) in Strongsville is a crispy bundle of Creole lovin'.

Bravocado Sandwich at Beet Jar (1432 West 29th St., beetjar.com)

You don't have to be a practicing vegan or vegetarian to opt for a meat-free lunch. Heck, you might even feel better afterwards. The good news is that Cleveland is chock-full of delicious sandwiches that shun the beef, options which are available both at conventional eateries and those well-known for catering to vegetarians. Since opening, the Beet Jar has been adored for its take on the popular avocado toast concept. Though it starts with avocado and toast, it expands to include toasty coconut, red onion, greens and creamy cashew spread, which all combine to form a meat-free fiesta. When it comes to other vegetarian-friendly sandwiches, we also love the Grilled Eggplant with bocconcini and pesto mayo at La Bodega (labodega-tremont.com) in Tremont, the On the Road at Root Cafe (theroot-cafe.com) in Lakewood, made with beets, goat cheese, caramelized onions and spinach, and Market at the Fig's (theflyingfig.com) Mediterranean-inspired Vegan, ciabatta bread loaded with grilled eggplant, roasted red pepper, hummus and pickled vedge.

Fried Chicken at Greenhouse Tavern (2038 East Fourth St., thegreenhousetavern.com)

That's right, we gave fried chicken sandwiches their own damn category. Not only are they the best way to eat fried chicken short of a picnic in a park, but they are the hottest thing going on the sando circuit. Greenhouse knocks them out of the park for a number of reasons, but mainly because they're made using boneless thighs; also because they are hot as Hades and crisp as a chip. No surprise that Southern-themed take-out shop Chow Chow Kitchen in Lakewood serves up its own killer version, this one a Nashville Hot-style with crispy breast meat, creamy coleslaw and refreshing pickle chips. Also on the must-sample list: the Epic Fried Chicken Sandwich at Southside (southsidecleveland.com) with chow chow relish and chili aioli, and Market Garden Brewery's (marketgardenbrewery.com) Fried Chicken Sandwich that's topped with buttermilk coleslaw, cucumber pickles and spicy mayo.

Breakfast Banh Mi at Jack Flaps (3900 Lorain Ave., jack-flaps.com)

Every joint in town that serves breakfast and/or brunch has some edition of the breakfast sandwich, and pretty much all of them feature some combination of pork, egg and cheese. Sure, the bread or bun changes, and maybe the garnishes and sauce, but when your three main ingredients stay put, there's only so much possible deviation. That's why we can't stay away from the Breakfast Banh Mi at Jack Flaps, tricked out with Vietnamese-spiced sausage, lightly fermented kimchi, everything bagel cream cheese and a fried egg. Fire Food & Drink (firefoodanddrink.com) shakes things up by tucking local fried eggs, bacon, lettuce and tomato into smoky Indian flatbread. Breakfast sandwiches served on a fluffy croissant, as is the case with XYZ Tavern's (xyzthetavern.com) BLT & A, are always appreciated. This is a bacon, lettuce and tomato sando with a fried egg and avocado. Bonbon Bakery (bonboncleveland.com) has been winning the breakfast sandwich category thanks to the housemade English muffin that supports maple syrup-scented sausage, over-easy egg and cheddar cheese.

Corned Beef at Slyman's Restaurant (3106 St. Clair Ave., slymans.com)

What's left to say about this sandwich that hasn't already been said? When it comes to sliced-meat deli sandwiches in Cleveland, corned beef immediately comes to mind. And when it comes to suppliers of said beef, Slyman's owns the field. The model of the category, these jaw-busting towers of plush, rosy-red beef are ridiculously savory and satisfying, destroying our cravings for the beasts for a solid month. Culinary tourists travel far and wide to visit this bustling midtown deli for a taste of one of the best CB on ryes in the country. We also wouldn't turn our noses up at the versions sold at Danny's Deli (dannysdeli.net), Superior Restaurant (9108 Superior Ave.) and Tal's Bakery & Deli in Parma (talsbeverageanddeli.com).

Hot Pastrami at Mr. Brisket (2156 South Taylor Rd., Cleveland Heights, misterbrisket.com)

For eons, Mister Brisket was known best as the butcher shop to the stars — or at least to chefs and home cooks who demanded the best quality meats and chops. It was only in recent memory that the small Cleveland Heights shop began making and selling sandwiches starring house-roasted meats, and the response has been almost unanimously positive. While the corned beef is spot-on delicious, the luscious, peppery hot Romanian pastrami on soft rye is the deli's true treasure. Notable runners up can be enjoyed at Corky & Lenny's (corkyandlennys.com) and Ontario Street Cafe (2053 Ontario St.).

Reuben at Jack's Deli (14490 Cedar Rd., University Heights, jacksdeliandrestaurant.com)

Technically, the Reuben ain't kosher given the verboten mix of meat and dairy, but it is one of the best things to come out of a delicatessen since the dill pickle. What sets the sandwich apart from your typical corned beef on rye is the unholy marriage of corned beef, swiss cheese, crunchy, tangy kraut and creamy Russian dressing, all of which get griddled up to a crunchy, melty, amazing mess. You won't find many better than the one served at Jack's Deli, but Lucky's Cafe (luckyscafe.com) in Tremont does a truly fine job, as does Joe's Deli (myjoesdeli.com) in Lakewood and Jaworski Meats (jaworskimeats.com) in Middleburg Heights.

Banh Mi at Superior Pho (3030 Superior Ave., superiorpho.com)

Vietnamese cooks manage to pack more flavor, texture and satisfaction into a crusty French-style baguette than any other culture on earth. The love child of French and Vietnamese cuisines, this addictive sandwich's charm lies in the contrast of ingredients, like creamy chicken liver pate and mayonnaise set against the crunch of pickled veggies, the satisfying meatiness of thin-sliced roast pork against the summery shine of fresh cilantro and the kick in the teeth from jalapeños. Excellent versions are also served at Bac in Tremont (bactremont.com), Pho Thang downtown (phothangcafe.com) and On the Rise Bakery (ontheriseartisanbreads.com).

Cubano at Caribe Bake Shop (2906 Fulton Rd.)

The Cubano — or Cuban — is the Latin version of the Italian panini, a crusty, lusty pressed sandwich that oozes melted cheese around its waist. Sure, it's meaty and savory thanks to sliced roast pork, ham and, if you're lucky, crispy pork skin. But it's also bright and tangy thanks to the schmear of yellow mustard and sliced dill pickles. At Caribe, deep in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood, you'll find one of the best versions around, thin as a cheap seat cushion in the fourth quarter and dense as a celestial black hole. In Valley View, hit up the Oak Barrel (theoakbarrel.com) for a ridiculously good version, while in Berea, head to the Latin-run Campus Grille (thecampusgrille.com).

Fat Italian at Fat Heads (24581 Lorain Rd., North Olmsted, fatheadscleveland.com)

There are sandwiches, minimalist and beautiful with spare ingredients, because those few choices should be the focus of your gastronomy. And then there are sandwiches, whole meals and layers stuffed between two slices of bread or buns, the carbs simply the easiest and most effective way to hold all of the goodness together. Behold, if you're talking about the second philosophy, the sandwiches at Fat Heads. And, specifically, behold the Fat Italian. Yes, they're called headwiches — as big as your head, natch — for a reason. The Fat Italian holds ham, salami, capicola, pepperoni, crumbled hot sausage, provolone cheese, banana peppers, hard-boiled egg, lettuce, tomato, red onion and mayo. It's a mouthful in every sense of the word.

All Ohio at The Grocery in Ohio City (3815 Lorain Ave., thegroceryohc.com)

Local, local, local. The tastiest ingredients are the freshest and come from just down the street. In the case of The Grocery in Ohio City (SoLo, whatever), the whole store does. And while you're picking up some local bagels or salsa, take advantage of The Grocery's menu, which unsurprisingly is filled top to bottom with Cleveland-made goodies. One of our favorites? The All Ohio, which layers on roast beef from the lady butchers of Saucission with Cleveland Kraut, Middlefield Amish Swiss, Stone Oven bread and Montana Girl mustard (which is made locally, don't be confused by the name).

Pig Mac at Crop Bistro (2537 Lorain Ave., cropbistro.com)

Think about the Big Mac for a second, and then remember that you probably shouldn't eat a Big Mac. Well, in the case of Crop, you take the simple structural elements and instead of burgers you throw in three kinds of pig. You improve it. You de-Micky D it. Thus was born the Pig Mac, which layers braised pork, bacon and pork loin between three buns with the usual Big Mac accouterments — pickles, onions, special sauce, etc. It's decadent, it's piggy, and it's just about the best thing you can get on three pieces of bread (challah bun, in this case.) It's on the lunch menu, but don't bank on going back to work after you finish it.

Falafel at Cafe Falafel (3843 Riveredge Rd., mycafefalafel.com)

Cafe Falafel's falafel will ruin you for other versions. Generous amounts of minced parsley and cilantro in the batter keep the patties light, moist and airy while last-minute deep frying in peanut oil provides the perfect crunch. The falafel is rolled in a thin lavash-style pita with tahini sauce, pickled turnips, pickles and fresh herbs, creating one of the most satisfying vegetarian sandwiches in town. Praiseworthy versions of this Middle Eastern classic also can be found at Maha's Falafil (mahasfalafil.com) at West Side Market, Frank's Falafel House in Detroit Shoreway, and numerous Aladdin's Eatery (aladdinseatery.com) locations around town.

Shawarma at Ferris Deli (13507 Lakewood Heights Blvd.)

Walk into Ferris and you'll spot a trio of spinning-meat towers, each stacked with marinated pieces of chicken or beef as opposed to gyro's seasoned chip-chopped meat mixture. Order the beef shawarma wrap and the owner shaves off thin slices, bundles them up tightly in a thin lavash-like wrap with Arabic pickles and creamy garlic sauce, slaps it on the griddle until golden brown, before slicing it up into easy-to-eat rounds. We are pretty certain that it's the best shawarma wrap in town, though we also make frequent visits to Sahara Restaurant (saharacle.weebly.com) and Nate's Deli (natesohiocity.com).

Arepa at Barroco Grill (12906 Madison Ave., Lakewood, barrocogrill.com)

The good folks at this Colombian-themed eatery didn't invent the arepa sandwich, but they did introduce many a grateful Clevelander to the genre. The thick corn flour tortillas smell amazing, and when griddled and split, make an ideal chassis for any combination of Latin-inspired ingredients. We're partial to the chorizo and cheese with onions. El Arepazo y Pupuseria in Fairview Park makes a similar dish, with fragrant arepas sliced and stuffed with chorizo, onions, green peppers and little bits of cheese.

More on the sandwich:

The Polish Boy: A Brief History

Behold the BLT, the World's Greatest Sandwich

Field Guide to Bread

About The Author

Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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