Food & Drink

The Sandwich Goes Gourmet

Seattle is experiencing a sandwich renaissance

By Tiffany Ran June 14, 2024

This roasted pork belly
sandwich can be found at Layers Green Lake.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

In 1987, Washington legislators gathered in Olympia to declare the smoked salmon sandwich the sandwich of the Evergreen State, but the decree never stuck. This smoked salmon sandwich has yet to make a lasting impression compared to Chicago’s Italian Beef, featured prominently on the TV show The Bear, or gain the widespread reach of New York’s chopped cheese.

Nor does it boast its origins in its namesake like the Philly Cheesesteak. Seattle doesn’t have one reigning sandwich, but that hasn’t ruled out sandwich shops from taking root and, partially because of the pandemic, becoming key players in our food scene.

Well before opening Layers Green Lake sandwich shop, Avery and Ashley Hardin decided to test a sandwich concept through a small pop-up they ran from their apartment. They printed a couple of fliers for their coworkers and friends, and through word of mouth, drew an unexpectedly large crowd to their apartment building. Customers entered through the couple’s front door, propped open with a giant stockpot, and ordered off a small menu written on a large piece of butcher paper.

Try the rosemary ham sandwich at the Layers Green Lake.

Photo by Ashley Hardin

One could only imagine what the building manager thought seeing groups of people leaving the building with brown paper sandwich bags in tow, Avery recalls, thinking back on that fateful day. That was the only time the Hardins were able to do that kind of a pop-up, but it told them what they needed to know: people will show up for a good sandwich.

Kayla Waldorf graduated from Seattle Central Culinary Academy’s Desserts and Bread Program the week of the Covid shutdown back in March 2020. Once restaurants started reopening, Waldorf landed a job as a baker, making shokupan (Japanese milk bread) for Ayako & Family. Waldorf is also a musician and DJ, who did events around Seattle and sought to create an experience that merged a love of food and music.

The Ayako & Family egg salad sandwich is served on shokupan with kewpie mayonnaise and a shoyu marinated egg.

Sako Gordon (from a Club Sandwich event in collaboration with Ayako & Family)

Waldorf named their pop-up “Club Sandwich,” both a pun and an apt description for daytime events that feature a small menu of seasonal sandwiches paired with music by local DJs. Club Sandwich runs throughout summer into early fall.

“I’m a baker and I also love to cook. I can do both things when I make sandwiches and fulfill all aspects of what I’m interested in,” Waldorf says. “I’ve always felt that with sandwiches, you can do so much with that as a concept. You can change the bread, be super seasonal, and use good local ingredients. So many cuisines can fit into the sandwich world, too.”

Chef Jhef Romero hadn’t thought much about sandwiches. For three years, he helped his family run their Filipino restaurant, Family Time, in Shoreline before it closed in 2012. When he encountered the long line outside Toronto’s Katz’s Deli during a family trip, he was surprised by the excitement around its sandwiches.

The experience led him to open LASA Sandwiches & Pearls on June 30, 2021, the day most government-imposed Covid restrictions were lifted. Around this time, folks were eager to visit new restaurants but were also seeking comforting grab-and-go options like his Filipino-style sandwiches.

With restaurants reopening and diners seeking out new, interesting flavors, Romero saw sandwiches as a vehicle to showcase his family recipes.

“A sandwich shop is a general platform,” Romero says. “Some people are not as familiar with Filipino food and ingredients. Sandwiches are a nice teaching point.”

For Local Tide chef/owner Victor Steinbrueck, a sandwich is a simple, relatable food most everyone enjoyed as a child.

“It goes back to box lunches in schools. It’s very relatable, approachable, nostalgic in some ways,” he says. “It’s low understanding to entry. You see a sandwich and you know what to do with it. You can look between the bread and see what’s in it.” Steinbrueck operated pop-ups for three years before opening Local Tide. Through his popups, he debuted the crab roll, the sandwich that would earn Local Tide widespread acclaim.

Dan Crookston purchased Mean Sandwich — located underneath the north end of the Ballard Bridge — from previous owners Kevin and Alex Pemoulie in 2019. When Covid hit the following year, Mean Sandwich did a quick pivot with outdoor seating and contactless pick-up, with Crookston calling out orders from behind a glass plane door with the help of a bullhorn.

He pushed brown bags of sandwiches from a slot in the door, framed by the toothy grinned mouth on the shop’s logo. Mean Sandwiches had been operating for about three years when Covid hit, but despite its hardships, the pandemic offered an opportunity to reach new customers. Today, many of those new customers are regulars.

“Things that are casual allow you to be more comfortable with your customers,” Crookston says. “Sandwiches allow for regulars. It’s something affordable, accessible. You can eat it regularly and yet always have something new.”

A gourmet sandwich with roast beef, lettuce, pickled red onions, and coffee-infused yellow sauce on a shiny brioche bun, set against a cartoonish restaurant mural backdrop.

The corned beef brisket has become one of the most popular menu items at Mean Sandwich.

Photo by Dan Crookston

Casual, though, doesn’t compromise thoughtfulness and process. For these serious sandwich makers, a sandwich with its few simple ingredients makes each ingredient integral.

In 2016, Avery Hardin made staff meal sandwiches for his coworkers at Bar Melusine from the kitchen’s mise-en-place: bread from Sea Wolf Bakery, fried smelt, fried oysters, steak tartare, smoked lamb leg, or assorted patés and terrines.

“I could do smoked lamb leg, some anchoïade with gribiche, and a parsley salad on a baguette,” Hardin says. “I just took a dish and I put it between two pieces of bread, and now, you can casually enjoy the same dish that is being served in this restaurant. What an idea.”

And when a sandwich is approached with the same techniques, creativity, and regard for ingredients applied to a composed dish, the possibilities are endless. The Hardins tapped accomplished pastry chef Ellary Collins of Boot Scootin Bread to make their breads: a thick Texas toast for their tuna melts, a crackly Dutch Crunch for their mortadella sandwich, a pillowy brioche around crispy blue crab cake patties and Old Bay aioli, to name a few.

For these serious sandwich makers, a sandwich with its few simple ingredients makes each ingredient integral.

“What is the main product or protein that we’re working with? (We) go from there,” Steinbrueck says. “What highlights this product the best, and what’s unique and fun. What’s our own twist on it?”

That means a play on a classic BLT at Local Tide becomes a Salmon LT with locally sourced salmon filleted and smoked in-house stacked between sourdough bread, butter lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, and salmon skin crisped up to replicate the salted crunch of bacon.

Crookston breaks down a Mean Sandwich version of a classic corned beef into many touches: slow braising, cooling, portioning, and griddling the corned beef; washing and preparing herbs; pickling red cabbage; making the mustard in-house; and sourcing quality Vermont maple syrup for an expected hint of sweetness, all sandwiched between a Tribecca Oven Challah burger bun.

Behind a good sandwich is a balance of these ingredients and flavors, Crookston notes. Balance, but also memories.

“A good sandwich reminds you of something you love. Even if you haven’t had that sandwich before,” he adds.

Local Tide is known for its crab roll sandwich, and much more.

Photo by Kyle Johnson

Romero’s memories of his family recipes shaped LASA’s sandwich offerings. Its lumpia meatball sandwich, a play on a classic meatball sub, is a combination of his mother-in-law’s lumpia recipe, and a housemade sweet chili sauce inspired by the one his mother often made. The Lechon Kawali, a hoagie roll stuffed generously with hunks of glazed fried pork belly, is inspired by his father’s favorite dish, and one he used to make for the family. It has become, to no one’s surprise, LASA’s best seller.

“Something that helps me is hearing from guests (who say), ‘This reminds me of being at my grandma’s.’” Romero adds, “They’re not even talking about the sandwich. They’re talking about memories.”

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