Market stalls, food trucks and startup eateries obsessed with getting a single item right are making a huge impact on the London sandwich scene, putting authentic global flavours, country breads and rustic raps in the hands of a populace once triangulated by dainty white sandwiches.
But lest you perceive any bias against the nation that invented the sandwich, the two highest ranking sandwiches on my top 10 list – toasted Cheddar and pork belly – are as English as was John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich. Two others, bánh mi and falafel, are accessorised with pickled cucumbers. That might not qualify them as posh English cucumber sandwiches, but it does reveal these imports to be worthy descendants.
1. Toasted Cheese, Kappacasein
Bill Ogglethorpe and his beloved raclette and toasted cheese sandwich (US=grilled cheese) stall are back at Borough Market but not at the expense of the Saturday annex he now runs at his dairy under railway arches near the Maltby Street Market (see map). For his toastie, oozy Montgomery Cheddar, the world’s most famous Cheddar, plugs the holes in slices of pain Poilâne , the world’s most famous sourdough, in the world’s best-sourced toasted cheese sandwich. Oglethorpe’s mix of minced red and white onions, leeks and garlic adds zing to the melted Cheddar without camouflaging the cheese’s characteristic nuttiness. The crispy brown bits are pure gold.
2. Pork Belly, O’Shea’s of Knightsbridge Due to helium rents O’Shea’s has closed its Knightsbridge butcher shop
You’d have to bring together David Crosby, Art Garfunkel, Brian Wilson and Stuart Murdoch to record harmonies as lush as those in this butcher shop’s takeaway pork belly sandwich. The condiments melt into the succulent pieces of meat within the warm embrace of the oven-fresh baguette. The percussive crunch of crackling keeps the melody line from getting too mushy.
O’Shea’s of Knightsbridge, 11 Montpelier St, Knightsbridge, Knightsbridge, SW7 – available most weekday lunches
Roti sandwiches come in different shapes and directions, from the dal poori (chickpea-stuffed) pouches of the West Indies to the layered paratha kati rolls of Eastern India to the Northern Indian-style wholemeal flatbread as fashioned at Mooli’s in Soho. This West End roti can be neatly rolled like any rap, yet its folds and pleats show it possesses the delicacy and vulnerability of the best pouches. The goat meat, shredded for easy chewing, is succulent, but its the potato chunks, laced with dry mango and cumin, as well as red onions and salsa that make this roti variety stand out.
Mooli’s, 50 Frith Street, W1D 4SQ
4. Spanish Chorizo Roll, Brindisa
Deprivation? Anticipation? Pavlovian conditioning? Difficult as it is to say what it is about standing in a long queue that makes a sandwich better, two things are certain about Brindisa’s Borough Market sandwich line:
1) The longer you wait for this bun overstuffed with grilled chorizo, piquillo peppers and olive oil-drizzled rocket (arugula) the more you’ll relish it.
2) The longer you smell but do not taste the glistening chorizo the quicker you’ll devour the sandwich.
Brindisa, Borough Market, SE1 – Tuesdays through Saturdays
5. Bologna, Electric Diner
The bologna sandwich is so good it should be signposted outside the Ladbroke Grove Underground station. The bologna is homemade and then fried, leaving a delectably crisp skin on the outer surface of sausage. The sandwich’s overloaded composition might be what you’d expect from a deli counter in Chicago, a BBQ joint in Kansas City or even a street cart in Florence, with succulent, tender folds of thinly sliced meat laced with the crispy bits, of which there can not be too many.
Electric Diner, 191 Portobello Road, London W11 2ED
The Argentinian lomito is the kind of steak sandwich that obsessions are made of. Its true character depends on an oval roll that’s soft and light yet sufficiently solid to bear the weight of a pounded steak, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, chimichurri sauce (predominantly but not exclusively vinegar, parley and garlic) and, for the obligatory completo, ham, cheese and fried egg. Jose Luis de Alzaa of the Moo Grill searched near and far for the right bread so lomito-loving Londoners, both existing and pending, wouldn’t have to.
7. Classic Pork Bánh Mi, City Càphê
The bánh mi craze has outpaced London’s capacity to satisfy it. The popular market stall Bánhmi11 is limited to one location and one day – make that one hour, given how fast it runs out of baguettes for its Vietnamese sandwiches. But happily City Càphê is filling some of the void, its flaky-shelled baguettes compressing into its pork roll, stewed pork, homemade pâté and pickled fillings.
City Càphê, 17 Ironmonger Lane, EC2V 8EY – weekday lunches
8. Falafel, Mr Falafel
The most obvious difference between the Palestinian-style falafel of Ahmad Yassine – aka Mr Falafel – and other pitta-pocketed falafel you find around London is that the chickpea balls, once deep-fried, are mashed to fit the rolled format. But even left intact you’d find his golden crisp falafel is the lightest and loveliest around. Pickled cucumber plays a big role in this tahina-slathered roll, with an essential assist from pickled turnip.
Mr Falafel, Units T4-TF, Shepherd’s Bush Market, Uxbridge Rd, W12 8LH – Monday through Saturday until 6pm
9. Salt Beef, Selfridges Brass Rail
If, (A), its meat supplier is the same as many other leading London salt beef bars, (B), its faux rye bread is nothing more than limp white bread with scattered caraway seeds and, (C), its price is too high, what makes Selfridges Brass Rail such an institution? The credit is shared by the more experienced carvers who know how to baby a brined brisket and the knowing regulars who jockey for position in the queue, sitting back as an untested cutter allocates the scrappier bits to others and pushing forward as an old hand cuts into pristine parts of a juicy new brisket. Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson wrote brilliantly about this moral minefield in this opinion piece for the Independent.
Selfridges, Oxford Street, W1
10. Katsu-Sando, Tsuru
The best that can be said about white sandwich bread slices is that they serve as a blank canvas for fillings of great substance. Indeed, its virtual nothingness makes it an unassertive handle for katsu – golden goujons of delectably crisp, panko-crusted chicken breast, shredded cabbage, tonkatsu sauce and mustard mayo that fill this sushi eatery’s katsu-sando. It’s the Japanese equivalent of a fried chicken sandwich with ketchup and coleslaw, only infinitely more delicate and less greasy. £3.95
Tsuru Bankside, 4 Canvey Street, SE1
Tsuru Bishopsgate, Broadgate Tower, 201 Bishopsgate, Ec2