Food & Drink

The Best International Sandwiches in NYC

Coppelia
Coppelia | Courtesy of Ricardo Palafox
Coppelia | Courtesy of Ricardo Palafox

There’s something about putting things in between two slices of bread (or pita or patacón) that resonates with just about every culture. In New York, there’s no better proof of the city’s great diversity than its sandwiches, like the Colombian arepas in Jackson Heights, Puerto Rican tripletas in Midtown, and kangaroo burgers in Astoria. No matter where you go in this city, you’re bound to find some international flavor (in sandwich form). Below, we picked our favorites from 18 different countries and regions, so you can experience a world tour without leaving the five boroughs.

ARMENIA: Bastirma with labne

What is it? Bastirma is an Armenian salt-cured beef, somewhere between pastrami and beef jerky. Labne is a strained yogurt with a buttery soft texture similar to cream cheese and a taste that’s both savory and bitter. Together, they form an Armenian take on the classic American steak and cheese sub sandwich.

Where to get it: Kalustyan’s Deli
Murray Hill
Located above an authentic grocery/spice-market, Kalustyan’s seems almost out of place in Murray Hill. It’s not so much a restaurant as it is a few metal chairs and tables next to a deli counter, and hardly anything has changed since it first opened in 1944. Forgoing a traditional menu, the staff is happy to make a pita sandwich with any ingredient in the kitchen, from mujaderrah to moussaka to feta -- but nothing compares to the bastirma and labne. The air-dried cured beef perfectly melds with the creaminess of the yogurty labne.

Courtesy of Noah Fecks

AUSTRALIA: Kangaroo burger

What is it? A kangaroo burger is, in fact, made from the marsupials native to Australia. It's a departure from everything you know about a typical beef burger -- far leaner and gamier -- and best enjoyed medium-rare with a mixture of sweet and sour toppings.

Where to get it: The Thirsty Koala
Astoria
One of the few places to get real ground australus (the proper name for kangaroo meat), Astoria’s Thirsty Koala offers several kangaroo meat entrees. The signature is the “Kangaroo Burger with the Lot,” a ‘roo patty topped with bacon, cheese, pineapple, a fried egg, and the unorthodox beetroot, contrasting its gamey flavor with savory, sour, and sweet.

Bolivian Llama Party
Bolivian Llama Party

BOLIVIA: Sandwich de chola

What is it? Named after the culinary-minded women (the cholitas) who serve them, the chola features succulent roasted pork loin coated in panko, cumin, and an acidic, vegetable-loaded marinade (known as escabeche) stuffed between two pieces of bread.

Where to get it: Bolivian Llama Party
Hell’s Kitchen
To be fair, the chefs at the Bolivian Llama Party are not purists when it comes to recreating this Cochabamba specialty. There are several elements of American BBQ in this sandwich de chola, including brown sugar and smoked paprika, pickles, and a unique cheese-aioli mixture called quesillo. It still makes the cut, however, for keeping the soul of the chola (the pork loin saturated in escabeche) intact.

Courtesy of Noah Fecks

CAMBODIA: Cambodian sandwich

What is it? Essentially Vietnamese bánh mì loaded with a different team of proteins, Cambodian sandwiches are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States, with outposts beginning to pop up in New York and LA. The debatable origins of this sandwich have led some to believe it to be a relatively new Cambodian cuisine, or perhaps an American innovation.

Where to get it:Num Pang
Multiple locations
Num Pang’s affordable Khmer-esque sandwiches (like pulled Duroc pork and ginger barbecue brisket) have bred six locations in New York City since the first opened in 2009. The secret is the sandwiches’ all-encompassing flavor, from the savory-sweet taste of the meat to the bitter flavor of the pickled vegetables to the spicy Sriracha topped off with a hint of cilantro.

COLOMBIA: Arepa rellena

What is it? A hockey puck-sized ground maize pocket filled with different kinds of meats, cheeses, and vegetables. The crispy integrity of the actual arepa (the pocket) prevents the sandwich from becoming soggy, even when filled with the juiciest of meats.

Where to get it:The Original Mama’s Empanadas
Elmhurst
This is the legit OG empanada house, straight out of the Colombian epicenter of Jackson Heights. Since its inception, Mama’s has not strayed from its honest, home-style arepa recipe, always served alongside a surplus of green aji hot sauce (a blend of jalapeños, vinegar, lemon juice, green onions, and cilantro).

CUBA: Cuban sandwich

What is it? The Cuban sandwich is said to have been invented in Florida (by Cuban workers), as the earliest accounts of these mixtos appear in the descriptions of workers’ cafes in West Tampa and Ybor City in the early 1900s. For the sandwich, Cuban bread (which is comparable to a baguette) is spread with mustard and piled with roasted pork, ham, Swiss, and pickles.

Where to get it:Coppelia
Chelsea
Why the words “Cuban” and “24-hour diner” aren't featured together more often is something of a societal failure, but at least there’s Coppelia in Chelsea, offering an excellent classic Cuban, 24 hours a day. Coppelia’s Cuban checks every box: from the quality of the dual-pig meats covered in rich Swiss, to the tangy mustard mixed with the necessary crunch of pickles.

Courtesy of Jim Franco

FRANCE: Saucisson

What is it? The saucisson is king amongst French baguette sandwiches -- a cured pork sausage that's layered along a Fresh baguette, smeared in fresh butter, and sprinkled with a tiny gherkin pickle called a cornichon.

Where to get it: Maison Kayser
Multiple locations
Pre-wrapped sandwiches in a display case is normally a red flag, but Maison Kayser’s fresh-baked baguettes lined with imported saucisson are an exception to the rule. The Rosette stands out among the rest for how simple it is, featuring chunky slices of Rosette de Lyon saucisson and just a little bit of butter.

Courtesy of Alexandros Lambrovassilis

GREECE: Gyro

What is it? For a classic Greek gyro, strips of fat are added to the rotisserie to ensure the meat (be it pork, chicken, or lamb) doesn’t dry out before getting stuffed inside a fluffy pita with fresh cut onions, tomato, and a creamy tzatziki sauce.

Where to get it: BZ Grill
Astoria
The quality of the pork at Astoria’s BZ Grill is unrivaled, striking the ideal balance of crispy and moist. The portions are also notably huge -- you’re getting a pig’s worth of succulent pork shavings stuffed into a warm pita with just a dash of tzatziki, tomatoes, and onions.

INDIA: Chicken Tikka Wrap

What is it? Paratha bread is simultaneously soft and flaky, and flavorful and subtle -- think of it as a thick Indian tortilla that lends itself to a wide range of fillings. This particular wrap is filled with perfectly seasoned, moist chicken tikka.

Where to get it: The Kati Roll Company
Multiple locations
This grab-and-go Paratha wrap destination has four locations across the city (plus one in London) and is known to generate long lines at lunchtime. Fillings (beyond the tasty Chicken Tikka) include everything from lamb, egg, and lentils, to beets, Indian farmer’s cheese cubes, and spicy pickle. The rolls here are fairly small, but at just $4, it’s easy to rationalize ordering more. 

Courtesy of Eataly

ISRAEL: Challah sandwich

What is it? The definitive aspect of the challah sandwich is, of course, the challah bread, which features a crispy outer layer and a pillowy-soft interior. It can be filled with a range of ingredients, so long as they’re kosher.

Where to get it: Zizi Limona
Williamsburg
New York is home to countless breakfast sandwiches (from bodega BECs to over-the-top trends), which makes Zizi Limona’s simple execution all the more impressive. Omelette-style eggs and charred vegetables are topped with harissa and tahini then sandwiched between two thick slices of toasted challah bread. Fair warning: While the fillings are kept fairly simple, this is not an easy sandwich to consume. Prepare for a substantial mess.

ITALY: Italian prime rib

What is it? Much of Italian cooking is about keeping things simple and letting the flavors speak for themselves, and a proper prime rib sandwich is all about quality ingredients in the right proportions. Grass-fed prime rib is layered into fresh-baked Italian bread and topped simply with a little olive oil and a pinch of salt.

Where to get it:Eataly
Multiple locations
Fresh squid ink pasta, gelato made in-house daily, fat fillets of wild salmon, and a stocked wine shop are just some of the factors that make Eataly Manhattan’s definitive Italian market, but if you don’t have time to sit down for a full meal, the market’s steak-grade prime rib sandwich, drizzled in imported olive oil, is the perfect way to experience it all.

MEXICO: Cemita

What is it? Not to be confused with its brash younger brother, the torta, the cemita is a sesame-topped egg bread sandwich that hails from the Southern coastal city of Puebla, Mexico. It contains tons of ingredients, including jalapeño and chipotle peppers, red chile sauce, avocado, and buttery soft Oaxaca cheese, among others.

Where to get it:Don Panchito
Williamsburg
This Williamsburg food truck -- featuring a lovable, mustachioed mariachi-hat mascot -- serves a wide array of authentic Mexican fare at the intersection of Bedford and Metropolitan. There are several cemita options on the menu, but the move is to order the off-menu cemita lengua, made with surprisingly good cow tongue. The tender meat manages to absorb the flavors of the rest of the fillings, and the sandwich is so hefty, you’ll have trouble finishing the whole thing yourself. The truck is also open late, making it ideal for lunch, dinner, or a 4am post-drinking snack.

MIDDLE EAST: Falafel sandwich

What is it? The vegan-friendly falafel sandwich is formed by frying smashed chickpea balls and lining them in a fresh pita. The sandwiches are usually topped with creamy tahini and a slew of spicy and sour additions.

Where to get it: Oasis
Williamsburg
This cash-only counter service joint is conveniently located right off the Bedford Ave L stop and stays open until 3am every night to fulfill any late-night falafel cravings. There are plenty of great places to get falafel across the city, but Oasis’ $4 sandwich consistently nails the portions of fried chickpeas, homemade tahini, pickles, red cabbage, and a spicy red sauce that seems to accentuate every flavor.

PUERTO RICO: Tripleta

What is it? In Spanish, tripleta means “triple,” referring to the number of meat variations included in this carnivorous Puerto Rican street food. Roasted pork, ham, and steak are the usual suspects, although chicken is occasionally subbed out for one of the original three. Tripletas are typically covered in melted Swiss and topped with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and mayonnaise.

Where to get it:Latin Kitchen NYC
Midtown East
To be fair, you can’t really go wrong when combining three different meats into a sandwich, but Latin Kitchen gets the nod for its sheer portability (it comes from a food truck), quality of meat, and homemade, tangy mayo that keeps the whole thing together.

SCANDINAVIA: Nordic sandwich

What is it? As many a Nordic tradition involves smoking fish into oblivion, it should come as no surprise that a Nordic sandwich is composed of smoked salmon, loaded into a baguette, often served open-faced and, like everything else in Scandinavia, cold.

Where to get it:Nordic Preserves
Lower East Side
Located inside the Fish & Wildlife Company on Essex St, Nordic Preserves boasts a substantial lineup of Scandinavian sandwiches, including the famed Nordic, made with traditionally cured Nova lox covered in black lumpfish caviar and smetana (a European sour cream) and topped with pico de gallo, vegetables, and cilantro inside a crunchy baguette.

SPAIN: Bocadillo

What is it? The only commonality to this traditional Spanish sandwich is the open-faced barra de pan (baguette) -- after that, the ingredients vary depending on region, ranging from calamares (squid) to potato tortilla, to lomo (cured pork loin).

Where to get it: Despaña
Multiple locations
This humble Jackson Heights restaurant/butcher shop/winery (with a second location in SoHo) does a “Picante” that's a great introduction to the bocadillo culture: crunchy aioli-spread bread is filled with hot chorizo picante, soft and creamy Mahón (cow’s milk) cheese, and spicy piparras peppers and tomatoes.

Courtesy of Jonathan Hernandez

VENEZUELA: Patacon sandwich

What is it? This traditional Venezuelan recipe subs out bread for fried, pressed plantains, called “patacones.” The gluten-free and paleo-approved sandwiches are loaded with avocado and topped with a thick and spicy Peruvian Aji sauce.

Where to get it: Patacon Pisao
Multiple locations
Though Patacon Pisao started as a no-frills food truck peddling patacones in Queens, you can now experience its Venezuelan sandwiches at three brick-and-mortar locations across the city. The signature “Paisa Patacon” features perfectly crispy patacones filled with chunks of grilled carne asada and chorizo sausage, dripping in a house-made, spicy-creamy Aji sauce.

Courtesy of Scott Wong

VIETNAM: Bánh mì

What is it? The French introduced the Vietnamese to the fundamental sandwich components of baguette and mayonnaise, which resulted in the bánh mì, a native Vietnamese fusion sandwich typically made with pork belly, pickled vegetables, cucumber, and cilantro on a French baguette with mayo.

Where to get it:JoJu
Elmhurst
New York is home to many a bánh mì sandwich, but to get the very best, you’ll have to trek out to this tiny shop in Elmhurst. It doesn’t make any radical changes to the bánh mì equation, it simply does all the little things right, creating an incredibly harmonious sandwich. Purists might balk at the choice of chipotle mayo and a runny fried egg served atop the already saturated baguette, but for most, the swirl of savory meat, bitter pickled vegetables, and spicy jalapeños more than makes up for the breaking of tradition.

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Dan Foley runs a writing agency called Tailored Ink and loves sandwiches more than life itself. Find him at newyorksandwichproject.com and @nysandwichpro.