A Bready Bucket List: The Best Sandwiches in Cleveland
Prevailingwisdom has it that lunch in 2010s America is in a state of decline. Not so in Northeast Ohio. In a city with Jewish and Eastern European immigrant descendants on one side and innovative Midwestern foodies on the other, you’d better believe the sandwich is alive and well in the 'Land.
The biggest challenge in compiling our list was narrowing our scope. You won’t see burgers on here (see this comprehensive rundown, or check out Burger Quest Cleveland). Nor will you find our beloved Polish Boy or other sausage sandwiches (those deserve their own treatment). We love Dave’s and Mr. Hero as much as the next Clevelander (which is to say, so, so much), but we chose to focus here on smaller operations (probably the last time we’ll be able to say that about Melt).
Let’s take a moment to pour one out for Gabe’s Deli, a too-beautiful-for-this-world shop on Clifton that closed up hardly three weeks before our pub date.
Poured out? Good. Now get out there and put some meat and bread into your face.
Chorizo meatball sub
A newcomer to Cleveland’s sandwich game, Herb’n Twine is doing things no other shop is doing. Owner-manager Brendan Messina worked as a chef in Cleveland for years, including a stint at The Flying Fig, and he puts his culinary experience directly into crafting creative sandwiches. If you are reading this in November, you’re probably too late to try the Porchetta, the magnificently crafted pork loin sandwich that gave the shop its punny name (say it out loud, you’ll get it) but didn’t sell like it should have. Console yourself with a chorizo meatball sub, a once-seasonal sandwich that’s become a menu fixture: tender, spicy chorizo submerged in a complex, rich mole rojo (red, dummies) sauce with lime crema and queso blanco for balance. Also try innovators like the Korean barbecue sandwich or solid takes on traditionals like the smoked turkey.
Mister Brisket comes to you with the Michael Symon seal of approval. Described by management as a “plain Jane” establishment, Mister Brisket has been purveying high-quality meat since 1974. It started serving sandwiches 10 years ago, and Cleveland’s lunches are so much the better for it. The star here is the pastrami; it’s sliced thin and served hot and juicy, with just the right amount of spice from its peppercorn coating. Stadium mustard and cheese (and bread, come to think of it) are totally optional, but make nice additions. And if you’re feeling bold, order a Dr. Brown’s celery-flavored soda to go with it -- you’ll be shocked at how well the flavors complement one another.
The Melt experience -- the beer enthusiast’s dream taps, the Grog Shop rock vibe, the Parma front lawn decor -- is so hyped (rightfully so) that it can be easy to forget how damn good the sandwiches are. The contents -- be they pork belly, fried mac & cheese, or pierogi -- are housed in thick slabs of sourdough grilled on a flat top to a perfect golden-brown. The Dudefather, aside from being a crossover film we’re dying to see, is an off-menu combination item that takes a mozzarella-meatball sandwich named for The Big Lebowski and tops it with a substantial square of lasagna from The Godfather sandwich. The result is a Franken-sandwich that’s tastier than it has any right to be. We’ll definitely take 10 more years of sandwiches like this.
Some establishments on this list use bread merely as a vessel for cured meats and cheese. At On the Rise, the bread is nearly the star of the show. It’s difficult to describe great bread without resorting to cliches -- "hearty," "crusty exterior," etc. -- so we’ll just tell you that Michael Symon has also given this little Cleveland Heights establishment a ringing endorsement. Outside of the bread, On the Rise is best known for its commitment to sourcing food from local farmers and for its banh mi. The pork is impossibly tender, the product of eight hours of nightly braising. An explosively flavorful veggie slaw helps cut the pork fat. It’s the best banh mi you can get outside AsiaTown. (Inside AsiaTown, try Superior Pho for a start -- but really, it’s hard to go wrong anywhere in the district.)
It might be surprising that The Old Angle, an Ohio City pub known for serving some of the best burgers in Cleveland, would open up a spin-off establishment next door, but we are certainly glad it did. Old Angle’s kitchen closes at 11, but Bogtrotters serves its Chicago-style sandwiches 'til 3am. While it could probably get away with serving fast-food-style hot garbage to buzzing Ohio City revelers, Bogtrotters chooses to craft farm-to-table sandwiches for the late-night crowd. The eponymous Bogtrotter is a fork-and-knifer: three kinds of meat, cheese sauce, and the porcini mushroom au jus sauce that makes the shop’s sandwiches so distinct. Order it "wet" -- "soaked," if you’d like your sandwiches to be more like soup -- and add "crunch," supplied by a layer of crushed Lays on top. We can promise you it is just as good sober as it is at closing time.
The Sammy Kay
If you step into Corky & Lenny’s for lunch, you are liable to bring the median customer age down by 30 years or more. Consider it an endorsement: Senior citizens know how to spot a great Jewish deli, and Corky & Lenny’s is the great Jewish deli of Cleveland. Turn to the "Overstuffed" section of the menu and order yourself a Sammy Kay, a behemoth that takes corned beef and tops it off with an inch or so of hot pastrami, a knife's spread of Thousand Island, and a couple slices of Muenster between rye. Take out the lettuce (let’s not kid ourselves here) and you have a nearly perfect sandwich.
La Bodega has been the little corner sandwich shop in Tremont for the past 15 years -- truly in the neighborhood before it was cool. Funny thing is, there’s nothing particularly trendy or hip about the place. It’s a pretty old-school sandwich establishment: You order sandwiches by number, and they’re brought to you on French bread bearing the light grill marks of a quick spell in the panini press. The Southwest turkey sub, with its bell peppers, Cajun mayo, and perfectly crispy bacon, has been a longtime favorite. But don’t ignore the number of specials -- including a couple of creative vegetarian options like the eggplant -- that have joined the menu as permanent fixtures in the last decade and a half.
Maple bacon chicken
You can expect from The Market what you’ve come to expect from its parent establishment next door: quality food that’s seasonal and local without being flashy or too trendy. The standard menu is small but strong, featuring some inventive options for vegetarians and vegans. We particularly enjoyed the maple bacon chicken, served on buttery focaccia with candied bacon and local (duh) greens -- basically, a chicken salad sandwich that’s not boring. The standards are assembled in front of you in the market, but the rotating specials come from the Fig’s kitchen. This past summer, it served an ingenious PLT -- yes, peach-lettuce-tomato --with blue cheese crumbles that drew rave reviews. Keep an eye out for whatever innovations the season brings.
Merchant Street is exactly what you’d imagine of a "Tremont sandwich shop." It's a bare-bones but worldly market with a small but high-quality menu. We don’t want to harp on the East Side beef, West Side turkey thing, but you really have to try the turkey here. It’s served with cranberry mostarda (don’t worry, we had to look it up too), a sweet-and-savory topping that nicely balances the smokiness of the bacon. Vegetarians and beet lovers should check out the roasted eggplant sandwich. For dessert, order one of the apricot hand pies, house-made with dough that’s indecently flaky and sweet. Be sure to stop back by for dinner in November when the restaurant portion opens up next door.
The Green Goddess
If you don’t have the pleasure of working in Tyler Village (the building whose exterior provides the hosting ground for the Cleveland Flea), you probably haven’t eaten at Byte Cafe. We at Thrillist would like to change that. The Green Goddess won us over for taking some of the best parts of meatless eating -- avocados, walnuts, balsamic reduction, and goat cheese -- and putting them into one sandwich. Byte doesn’t offer much in the way of dine-in seating at present, but with the former executive offices of the Tyler Elevator Company available for use, we expect to see some cool seating options open up in the next year or so. And should you find your energy flagging after housing your sandwich, order the espresso, a roast so creamy and rich that we regret not putting Byte on our best coffee list.
You might not expect to find a cool sandwich shop like Gourmand’s tucked away in a Valley View industrial park. But then again, maybe an industrial park is exactly the place for a great Cleveland sandwich shop: gourmet food, no pretension, Indians paraphernalia or Ghoulardi memorabilia on just about every wall. With Rising Star Coffee, craft soda guns, and five boards filled with sandwiches, Gourmand’s has all your breakfast and lunch needs covered -- and with its wine, beer, and cigar selection, it's got a whole manner of after-dinner vices covered too. Our favorite was the Apple Porkling, a wonderfully sweet-and-savory mix that lays thinly sliced Granny Smith apples on top of house-smoked pork with smokey, dijon-flavored barbecue sauce.
There is almost nothing left to say about Slyman’s nationally renowned corned beef sandwich at this point. Esquire wrote about it. Dubya came to Cleveland to eat it. So did Rachael Ray. It’s a sandwich beautiful in its simplicity: two slices of rye, substantial enough only to be vessels for meat. A mountain of salt-kissed beef. Your appetite doesn’t stand a chance. There must be people in the world who can house an entire sandwich in one go, but be reasonable and allow yourself the joy of two meals from your order. You’ll want to sing its praises -- perhaps literally. The Barenaked Ladies did.
Here’s a sandwich that’s inspired more T-shirts and posters than a local rock band. It is the only sandwich -- indeed, the only solid food item -- at vegan stronghold Beet Jar, and it doesn’t really need any others. Something like a vegan take on the avocado BLT, the Bravocado features mayo made from cashews (the finest nut) and a heaping portion of coconut flakes at its center. They are smoked, which gives them a slightly more savory flavor and a pleasing crisp texture that will have you scooping up the hundreds that fall from your sandwich. Thick Sicilian bread provides additional crunch, ripe avocados deliver creamy texture, red onions supply welcome bite. Order it with a freshly juiced concoction and you, like Liz Lemon, will be BM-ing like a rock star.
Grum’s opened its doors in ‘77 and not much has changed since then. The original menu items are still sold daily, and the wood-panel decor -- it looks something like from your dad’s dorm room -- is largely untouched by time. With no seating options and a vending machine as its only drink dispenser, Grum’s is the definition of a dine-out sandwich shop. But once you get to where you’re going and unwrap your sub or hoagie, you’ll see why this place has been around for nearly 40 years, despite competition from two fast-sub giants on the same block. The Hot Grumster is nothing fancy -- just roast beef, mushrooms, LTO. Provolone provides light smokiness and horseradish delivers just the right amount of kick.
The Fix Bistro is a kind of scaled-up version of Black Box Fix, a popular Cedar Lee sandwich shop that closed its doors in July. The most popular items found their way onto the Fix’s menu, chief among them the LBJ. A sandwich named for Lebron James (not, as your correspondent mistakenly thought, for Lyndon Baines Johnson) has to be worthy of a champion. This one delivers. The LBJ gives you the surf & turf plate in a sandwich: Creole-seared jumbo shrimp sit atop moist, tender filet and chopped peppers. Light crab mayo adds richness to a sandwich already near-bursting with flavor. If you balk at the fancy price on this one, you’ll won’t leave hungry -- the OMG Philly, chef Eric Rogers’ take on the cheesesteak with chicken and creole shrimp as the proteins on brioche, is a crowd-pleaser as well. Go on a weekend for live music, and save some room for the Parmesan garlic fries.
An underrated restaurant in an underrated neighborhood, Moncho’s is a Colombian restaurant that’s received some righteous buzz for its tacos, arepas, and absurdly generous margarita sizes. What’s receiving some of that love this time is the Cubano, star of its bocadillo (sandwich, which we definitely did not have to look up) menu. Like most establishments on our list, Moncho's didn’t mess with near-perfection on this one: take lettuce, tomato, ham, and pork shoulder that’s at pitmaster levels of tenderness, then flat-press them into an object of compressed beauty. Instead of mustard, Moncho’s uses a tangy garlic-wine mayo, and oh my. Stop into Caribe Bakery in nearby Clark-Fulton for another winning version of the sandwich.
Fancy Pants BLT
A not-fast-food sandwich for $5, you say? Absurd! Not at the Plum Cafe it’s not. Served on pleasingly soft buttertop bread, the Plum gives the BLT a slight facelift with melted Swiss cheese and a lardon aioli rendered from bacon fat. It’s available only at happy hour, so pair it with a stupidly cheap domestic beer (a buck fifty) or one of its eminently sippable cocktails for another $5. If you’re there before 3pm, try one of the adventurous-but-approachable sandwiches -- the apple-cured turkey is the most popular item.
Sign up here for our daily Cleveland email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.