Riding the wake of wildly successful panini, a new wave of ethnic-influenced sandwiches offers all the ingredients for menu success.
This article first appeared in the 1 June 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website www.foodservice411.com.
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
For guests whose taste preferences are avidly ethnic, sandwiches stack up nicely. No longer confined to the American standards of ham and cheese, turkey or roast beef, sandwiches now are built on different breads and layered with the boldest of global influences.
Ethnic flavors sandwiched between rustic Cuban loaves, crusty Mexican bolillos or crisp, chewy baguettes are sparking sales not just in the sandwich segment but across casual-dining and noncommercial sectors, where they're devoured as self-contained sit-down meals or portable snacks on the go.
In user-friendly packages simply assembled and easily customized, five bread-based imports-Mexican tortas, Cuban sandwiches, Middle Eastern pitas, Indian-style sandwiches and Vietnamese banh mi-are landing in the culinary mainstream, offering complex blends of taste and texture.
"The sandwich category continues to evolve as people feel more time pressed, look for quick meals and realize sandwiches can be really interesting," says Philip Smith, corporate executive chef for Burlington, Vt.-based bagel chain Bruegger's. "At the same time, diners want more going on in each bite with higher registers of flavor that are spicier and have more heat and depth."
Heeding the call and aiming to make the brand's food offerings more relevant, Smith introduced a take on the Cuban sandwich 18 months ago. Adjusted to fit the quick-service chain's ingredient and equipment restrictions, the recipe calls for precooked, precut chicken strips instead of traditional roasted pork and does not require sandwiches to be pressed in panini grills. A solid seller, the sandwich also includes smoked honey ham, Swiss cheese, lettuce, pickles, chipotle mayonnaise and Dijon mustard mounded atop a pliable, square bagel dubbed a Softwich.
At recently opened Kantina in Newport Beach, Calif., the ability to offer diners portable, flavor-fueled choices spurred Executive Chef Robert Herrera to menu three tortas, including a breakfast variety with eggs, hash browns, tomato, avocado and white Cheddar. Wrapped in butcher paper to keep all components tucked neatly inside, the sandwiches also are available to go at the contemporary Mexican eatery.
"Sandwiches give you so much freedom-what spreads to choose, what meats and vegetables you use to fill them," Herrera says, noting the products' popularity among chefs as well as customers.
In Mexico, tortas are an everyday standard at street stands. Many are built on telera, a light, white bread with a round, flattish shape and two indentations on top, while others are served on oblong bolillo rolls. Ciabatta is a common substitute in the United States, where the specialty breads sometimes can be difficult to source.
A wide range of protein choices such as savory pork carnitas, beef barbacoa and fried chicken breast-combined with multiple layers of beans, vegetables, spreads and salsas-mean no two tortas need be alike.
Herrera's recipes at Kantina include a Marinated Carne Asada "French Dip" Sandwich on telera served with Mexican au jus, and a version with carnitas smothered in onions, peppers and leeks with tomato marmalade on grilled telera.
Roberto SantibaÁ±ez, culinary director for Rosa Mexicano, an upscale, multi-unit concept based in New York City, loves tortas for their inherent complexity, even though the sandwiches aren't the easiest to prepare in high-volume environments.
"The most common torta to me is having one side spread with sour cream and the other with mayo, then one side spread again with refried black beans. The other components like ham and cheese are grilled together, and then there is a fresh layer-onions, pickled jalapeÁ±os, fresh avocado," he says. "It's not like a panini where you can have them assembled and just press them to order."
Cuban sandwiches are made with a standard lineup of all-American ingredients: roast pork and smoked ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, yellow mustard and mayonnaise. Yet, when they're all heaped together on Cuban bread and hot-pressed into thin, crisp packages, they become deliciously endowed with their trademark taste.
Until recently, Cubanos rarely were seen outside the Miami area, where native Cubans were loyalists to the warm wonders. Their reputation is spreading, though. At fast-casual restaurant Havana Central in New York City, about 300 Cuban-style sandwiches are prepped daily at each of three locations. Executive Chef Stanley Licairic marinates pork shoulder for two days in cider vinegar, corn oil and garlic before roasting it for 12 hours. Additional flavor comes from pimientos, olives and whole garlic cloves, inserted into slits Licairic cuts into the meat.
He also menus a traditional media noche (midnight), a scaled-down version of the Cubano served on sweet bread, as well as options such as smoked turkey with Swiss cheese and avocado or cod with pimientos, red onions and garlic mayonnaise.
At New York City's BarÁ§a 18, Executive Chef Brian O'Donohoe spiffs up a typical Cuban sandwich recipe to reflect the restaurant's Spanish theme. Two slices of manchego cheese join super-thin, 12-month-aged Serrano ham and roasted pork loin marinated with hot and smoked paprika and loads of garlic.
Instead of Cuban bread, BarÁ§a 18 builds the sandwiches on ciabatta baked fresh at the commissary of parent company B.R. Guest Restaurants. A bit of extra-virgin olive oil in the recipe helps the bread gain a golden-brown, super-crisp finish in the panini press.
For its adaptation, casual-dining chain Beef 'O' Brady's swaps salami slices for roasted pork in keeping with local tradition of its Tampa, Fla., homebase.
"Pork has a great profile, but with mustard, pickles and ham it gets lost," says Scott Taylor, senior vice president of development. "Salami's stronger flavor gives the sandwich a different taste."
At first glance, it's not readily apparent that banh mi sandwiches are 100% Vietnamese. Served on perfectly formed baguettes-a legacy of French colonialism-they keep their ethnic roots undercover. But beneath the bread, Asian flavors move boldly to the fore.
Composed most often with barbecued pork, chicken-liver pÁ¢té, sliced fresh chiles, tufts of cilantro and pickled carrots and daikon radish, authentic "Saigon baguettes" also might include sliced cucumber, mayonnaise and a splash of hot-pepper sauce.
Mary Nguyen, chef and co-owner of the upscale-casual Parallel Seventeen in Denver, serves the sandwiches on a Vietnamese baguette, which she describes as having lighter dough than its French cousin from the addition of rice flour and extra kneading.
The pride of her sandwich is Chinese char siu pork made in house with a marinade including honey, mirin, ginger, hoisin, brown sugar, soy sauce and five-spice powder.
To update the presentation, Nguyen sells banh mi as a deconstructed charcuterie-style platter at dinner in addition to the standard format on lunch and late-night menus. Customers construct their own sandwiches from char siu pork; sliced pork pÁ¢té; soft, chicken-liver pÁ¢té; thin-sliced cucumbers; pickled, shredded carrot and daikon; and cilantro.
At Grand Central Baking Co., a seven-unit bakery-cafe concept based in Seattle, Commissary Production Manager Laura Heinlein developed a Vietnamese-style offering called the Banh Mi Bolo to meet demand for a fresh take on a cold, vegetarian sandwich. Instead of the typical pork and pÁ¢té, she substitutes portobello mushrooms, rounding out the multilayered build with sweet onion and spicy chile mayonnaise in addition to cilantro and pickled vegetables.
"Bread choice is critical to the overall taste, whether it's a hearty campagnolo or a tangy sourdough," says Heinlein, who selected Grand Central's ciabatta-style Grande Bolo rolls over traditional baguettes. "The bolo is a softer roll, so the exterior is slightly crusty and the center open with lots of air pockets."
Pita bread's well-recognized profile and healthy perception are among the reasons executives at Extreme Pita, a Toronto-based chain with 12 U.S. locations, chose the versatile vehicle as the foundation for their concept.
"We liked that it is thin and tastes like bread, but it doesn't have some of the filling qualities buns might have," says Alex Rechichi, president and co-founder. "We also wanted it somewhat ethnic but the ability to make it mainstream."
Extreme Pita menus pitas stuffed with chickpea-based falafel, purchased frozen and cooked on the flat-top rather than fried, and grilled, gyro-style meat made from a mixture of beef and lamb. Customers choose fillings such as lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers as well as garlicky hummus and baba ghanoush, a traditional salad of eggplant, tahini, olive oil and lemon juice.
Executive Chef James Corwell says a dressed-up, open-faced falafel sandwich helps keep the menu modern at The Culinary Institute of America's Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant in St. Helena, Calif.
"We need to redefine the idea of California cuisine from the old paradigm of just local, fresh and seasonal," he says. "We need to start considering the cultural influences that shape the American palate."
Corwell recruits chickpeas rather than fava beans to make the falafel, blending the soaked, ground legumes with garlic, lemon juice and onion before deep-frying. To plate the dish, he scores the pita and peels back the top layer "like a blossom," filling the open space with crunchy falafel and a salad of tomato, watercress, onion and cucumber. Corwell's tahini sauce incorporates yogurt for extra richness offset by a touch of harissa.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Director of MIT Campus Dining Richard Berlin added a Middle Eastern concept called Sepal to an international food court last fall; it came in response to a survey revealing students' interest in the region's cuisine.
Sepal's rolled pita sandwiches, wrapped in foil and warmed in conveyor ovens, fit seamlessly into the eat-and-run lifestyles of college diners. Choices include baked or fried falafel, chicken tawook (marinated chicken) and beef kafta (ground beef mixed with herbs and spices).
Even though a magnificent array of breads such as naan, paratha and roti are integral to the Indian table, sandwiches don't have a stronghold in the country's dining culture. Nevertheless, operators are capitalizing on Indian cuisine's rising status among American diners with eateries centered on their own Indian-inspired creations.
Nandini Mukherjee banked on the universal acceptance of the sandwich format to launch Indian Bread Co., a fast-casual concept in New York City, in 2003. The spot seeks to give the country's classic breads a broader stage with creations such as the Naanini, a grilled sandwich of fresh-baked naan and fillings such as vegetable tandoori and lamb vindaloo, and stuffed paratha, a more-delicate, layered flatbread cooked on the griddle and packed with minced meat and vegetables.
"When we started, I thought I would have more Indian customers, but surprisingly our clientele is 70% American," says Mukherjee.
For Compass Group, The Americas Division, introducing an Indian-themed retail brand seemed a logical next step in the Charlotte, N.C.-based contractor's culinary evolution. Five units of the new concept are in development, with the first slated for an October opening.
"We believe Indian will be the next big global cuisine," says Dave Hoemann, vice president of creative services and marketing for retail brands, concepts and campaigns. "Indian foods have the big, bold flavors our customers want, as well as the high spice levels and heavy vegetarian emphasis we're looking for at campus accounts."
Compass centered the brand on dosas, the thin, Indian crÁªpes made from ground lentils and rice flour that customarily feature vegetarian fillings such as potatoes masala. More hearty and sandwich-like than their authentic counterparts, offerings at the eatery-dubbed Dosa Delhi-include spicy vindaloo vegetables, tandoori chicken, and curry beef, red onions and yogurt. Accompaniments of cilantro, tomato or mango chutney lend additional layers of flavor.
American Born and Bread
America is not exclusively the land of ham and cheese on rye. Delicious regional sandwiches-some of which may strike outsiders as a little odd-still can be found.
Muffaletta: This hefty, New Orleans classic on big round Italian rolls stands out for the salad of green olives, pimientos, celery, garlic, onions and capers that tops sliced provolone, salami and ham.
Philly cheesesteak: Thin-sliced beef with melted American cheese (or processed cheese sauce, depending on preference) characterizes this favorite that arrives on a hoagie roll. Additions include grilled onions, green peppers and mushrooms.
Carolina pulled pork: Vinegary barbecue sauce cuts the richness of smoked, spice-rubbed pulled pork served on soft, hamburger-style buns on this regional favorite, known for its signature topping of cool, creamy coleslaw.
Italian beef: Napkins are a necessity for this Chicago tradition, a concoction of shaved beef with au jus, hot giardiniera and/or sweet peppers on a crusty roll.
Reuben sandwich: Where this sandwich originated is under dispute, but the recipe is not: corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut on rye bread with creamy Russian or Thousand Island dressing.
Lobster roll: Native to Maine, a glorious profusion of fresh lobster-either bound with mayo or served with melted butter-stuffed into a buttered and toasted lobster roll bun, which resembles a hot dog bun.
Loose-meat sandwich: Basically a burger in which the ground beef hasn't been shaped into a patty but instead is browned and served loose on a bun. Find it mostly in Iowa, where the majority of Des Moines-based Maid-Rite's 70 locations are located.
Pork tenderloin sandwich: A Midwestern classic of fried pork tenderloin on a burger bun. The crisp meat overextends the sides of the bread, usually by an inch or more.
Beef on weck: Not seen much beyond the Buffalo, N.Y. area, this finds thinly sliced beef and horseradish on a caraway-seeded kimmelweck roll.
Chow mein sandwich: If you haven't been to Fall River, Mass., you probably haven't had pork or beef chow mein-including all the sauce and its crispy noodles-served on a hamburger bun. But if you have been there, there's a good chance you've had one-or at least been to a restaurant that serves them.
Hot Brown: This open-face turkey sandwich covered with Mornay sauce first came out of the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Ky., in 1926.
In limited-time offers or as core business models, ethnic-influenced sandwiches' bold flavors and variety enchant customers.
Chef-restaurateur Eric Banh opened Baguette Box in Seattle to provide quick, quality food with low food and labor costs. To keep prices reasonable, he sources economical-but-flavorful proteins such as pork and beef cheeks, pork butt and shoulder, and lamb legs to create a world tour of sandwich choices.
DeSoto, Kan.-based chain Mr. Goodcents Subs & Pastas recently launched a quarterly promotion focusing on ethnic flavors. With help from vendor partners, the company developed recipes around one flavor for each represented cuisine: teriyaki for Asian, chipotle for Mexican and garlic and Romano cheese for Italian. "Sandwiches are easier to customize with seasonings and toppings than entrées," says Bob Moreno, vice president of operations and marketing.
Also meeting marketplace demands for more-worldly tastes is Toronto-based Extreme Pita. The 160-unit chain's International Passport to Flavor promotion includes a teriyaki chicken pita with rice instead of lettuce and a Mexican steak pita with creamy chipotle-ranch sauce. For upcoming introductions, the company is exploring flavors including Indian chicken masala.