“Sandwiches are a great ‘any time’ snack in Japan. They first started becoming popular in the very late 1800s and early 1900s. You'll see them at convenience stores -- conbini -- for sure,” explained Montgomery. The idea to open up Konbi came when Montgomery’s business partner, Akira Akuto, tapped into his nostalgia for the convenient snack item after a childhood spent in Japan. After testing out recipes and experimenting with pop-ups, Konbi opened in the fall of 2018 to much fanfare.
“What really sets it apart is the quality of the ingredients,” Montgomery said. For Konbi, that means pork loin brined overnight, shredded cabbage dressed in Meyer lemon juice, and eggs sourced from a local farm. For Hi-Collar, that means the softest milk bread possible baked from sister restaurant and tea house, Cha-an.
“Since Japanese food revolves around rice, bread was something new. There were less rules about what sandwiches could be since Japanese people weren't familiar with them so a variety of inside flavors were invented,” Yagi hypothesized about the growing sandwich culture in Japan.
Some more experimental fillings include the starchy French-inspired croquette sandwiches, or korrokes. Simple sandwiches -- like ham, cheese, and cucumber neatly and proportionately arranged -- are also popular and can be found in convenience store fridges.
The popularity of the well-constructed, wholly Japanese sandwiches has seeped into the rest of the world; Japanese sandwiches are now carried at Japanese specialty grocery stores across the states in the classic variations -- like katsu, croquette, and egg salad -- and are constructed just as neatly as you would find at any conbini. They’re delicious in their simplicity and great grab-and-go options for sandwich aficionados who happen to be in a rush but still desire a well developed snack. In addition, fancy, chef-helmed sandwich shops across the country have begun adding their takes on sandos to menu boards.
Like ramen and izakaya fare before it, the Japanese sando seems to have found a place in the heart of eaters around the US; the mass appeal may have something to do with the comfort the sandwiches can provide, as well as the appealing presentation.
“Because bento culture is big in Japan, moms/wives [also] took sandwiches as a vessel to spice up their beautiful bento rotation. Eating with your eyes first is very important in Japan, so it's no surprise conbini have beautiful, tasty sandwiches,” Yagi explained.
If you’ve yet to ever try a Japanese sando, expect perfect ratios of bread, cheese, veggies, and sauce; clean and easy-to-eat sandwiches (no sloppy joes over here!); and touchably soft bread. And if you haven’t had a Japanese sando yet, there's no excuse -- they're popping up everywhere, if you know where to look.