A previous version of this story incorrectly listed locations for Neopol Smokery in Union Market and Georgetown. The latter has closed. This version has been corrected.
The sandwich pop-ups/ghost kitchens became a byproduct of the pandemic. They were, in many ways, survival tools, but they also expanded a D.C. sandwich scene already packed with terrific options. Accounting for them all is no easy task, but I tried. Scrolling back through the photos on my phone, I see that I sampled 139 sandwiches for this guide, and that doesn’t include the ones I tried more than once, just to make sure they were worthy contenders.
This list is comprehensive, but imperfect. I wanted diversity: in cuisines, in locations, in the types of bread used as the base. But I also placed restrictions on the hunt for my 25 favorites. I didn’t include hot dogs or hamburgers, which seem in classes of their own. I also didn’t include fried chicken sandwiches or cheesesteaks, both of which I had covered recently. What’s more, I decided that burritos are not sandwiches. True sandwiches gladly let you see their fillings without cutting into them or unfurling them, as if offering a window into their soul.
These rules, however arbitrary, resulted in a guide in which some famous names did not make the cut. It doesn’t mean you can no longer find a decent sandwich at A. Litteri, the Italian Store, MGM Roast Beef or other places with great pedigrees. It just means they may no longer be the best in class. Or that they just have a lot more competition.
Jonathan Taub has a clever method to determine the quality of an Italian hoagie: You should be able to serve the sandwich’s meats and cheeses on a charcuterie board, and no one would bat an eye. “If there’s any ingredient on that sandwich that can’t be eaten on its own, then it shouldn’t be on that sandwich,” says the chef behind Bub and Pop’s. The meats on a Bub’s hoagie — genoa salami, hot and sweet capicola, pepperoni — are sourced from Citterio, an Old World purveyor that can trace its roots to 19th-century Italy. Taub’s aged provolone is from BelGioioso and his pecorino Romano from Locatelli, both respected cheesemakers. The chef makes his own vinaigrette and mayo, the latter infused with garlic confit. This bounty is carefully layered into a custom roll from Lyon Bakery. Taub’s hoagie, it probably goes without saying, is the standard by which all others should be measured.
$10 half; $20 whole. 1815 M St. NW. 202-457-1111. bubandpops.com.
The BLT reminds Andrew Markert of summer visits to see his grandmother in Florida where, as a boy, the future chef would grab a bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich from a shack near the beach and devour the thing with the kind of gusto that leaves a permanent mark on one’s psyche. When the time came for Markert to make his own BLT for the Fight Club pop-up, he wanted to intensify the pleasures, as if translating childhood memory into reality. He cures and smokes his own bacon, which is encrusted with black pepper. He uses only heirloom tomatoes, which can vary from sandwich to sandwich. And, most ingenious of all, he applies a layer of housemade pistachio butter to the sourdough bread. “Bacon and peanut butter are always a fun combination for the sweet world of desserts,” the chef says. “So we kind of built on that.” What they did was build a BLT masterpiece.
$15. 623 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-733-1384. fightclubdc.com.
The last meal Tom Cunanan shared with his older brother was a pit beef sandwich. Eugene Cunanan, whom Tom once described as the “rock star” of his family, died unexpectedly last year. As a tribute, the chef and co-founder of PogiBoy named a sandwich in his sibling’s honor. The Eugene is a Philippine take on Baltimore pit beef, and it is every bit the rock star, too. The sandwich has discovered the sweet spot between pit beef and bistek Tagalog: The kitchen first chars top round on a grill and then slices it thin. Upon order, the slices are warmed in a bistek braising liquid — soy sauce, calamansi juice and onions — before hitting the flat-top. Served on an onion roll with a burnt-onion horseradish sauce and sliced raw onions, the beef is practically a bit player in its own show. “The sandwich is pretty much onions and onions and onions,” says Paolo Dungca, Cunanan’s co-creator in PogiBoy.
$11.95. Inside The Block, 1110 Vermont Ave. NW. 202-681-7516. pogiboydc.com.
The problem with smoking northern pike, says Dorian Brown, is that the whitefish can dry out if you don’t carefully monitor the cooking process, in which temperatures can reach 250 degrees. “If it dries out, it’s still good,” says Brown, co-owner of Neopol. “ But you’re going to end up adding more mayo.” The whitefish in Neopol’s sandwich is actually a combination of pike from the Great Lakes and trout from North Carolina, leaning heavy on the Michigan product. The whitefish is supernaturally smoky, largely because of the oak and cherry wood burned in Neopol’s J&R smoker, but the salad also includes dashes of smoked salt and smoked pepper, both made in-house. Served with tomato, red onion, mixed greens and a lemon-dill aioli on your choice of bread, the sandwich takes a staple of Jewish delis and turbocharges it.
$9.95. Inside Union Market, 1309 Fifth St. NE. 202-543-1864. neopolsmokeryonline.com.
You might take one look at the Ham Jam and be tempted to wave it off as a bloated American take on le jambon-beurre, all meat and no elegance. But you would be wrong. Paul Taylor, the mastermind behind Columbia Room’s ghost kitchen/bar, is a sandwich subversive, drawing on influences near and far to construct his bread-based novelties. The inspiration behind this American declaration of independence is not just the classic French sandwich, but also the Mallorca ham and cheese, a sweet-and-savory combination from Puerto Rico. The Ham Jam’s thick fold of Parisian ham from Schaller & Weber is counterbalanced with honeyed butter and a fat application of housemade blueberry and Beaujolais jam, the elements crammed into a banh mi roll from Lyon Bakery. This is sandwich craft of the highest order.
$14. 124 Blagden Alley NW. 202-316-9396. youronlyfrienddc.com.
Eating prosciutto-and-mozzarella sandwiches is part of growing up in Naples. “It’s like a margherita. It’s everywhere,” recalls Ettore Rusciano, the Naples native behind this Italian deli, now with two locations. The simplicity of Rusciano’s crudo sandwich demands that every element must be on point. The chef starts with housemade pane cafone, a Neapolitan peasant bread that crackles gently under tooth. The bread conceals just two principal ingredients: prosciutto di Parma, straight from the mother country, and fior di latte, a fresh cow’s milk mozzarella from the Grande Cheese Company in Wisconsin. Add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a few grinds of black pepper, and you have one of the exquisite tastes of Naples, right in Washington.
$13. 2703 12th St. NE. 202-699-2397. 33 N St. NE. 202-216-0630. salumeria2703.com.
Bertrand Chemel knew he had a hit on his hands when his two kids approved (one with slight reservations) his Italian take on the croque monsieur. “The kids, they have no filters,” says the chef behind Orso and sister restaurant 2941. “They will tell you, straight up, ‘I like this, I don’t like that.’” Deep down, I must still be a kid, because I couldn’t stop eating this doorstop of a sandwich, featuring two thick slices of toasted brioche that conceal a filling of spicy pork sausage, prosciutto cotto, grana and mozzarella. Did I mention the bechamel ladled over the bread? The whole thing — so monstrous, so ridiculous, so seductive — is topped with nine neat dots of pepperoni, each first rendered of fat in a pan, to ensure that your racing heart is a sign of desire, not imminent death by sandwich.
$10. 400 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church, Va. 703-226-3460. pizzeriaorso.com.
The sign at Lee’s Sandwiches in Falls Church announces — in multicolored neon — that there are “hot baguettes now” inside the store, just waiting for you to decide what to layer into the crusty rolls. The sign tells you two important things about the San Jose-based chain: its commitment to freshness and, with that nod to Krispy Kreme’s famous “Hot Now” lure, its sheer ambition. Any number of Lee’s sandwiches could have made this list, but I’m particularly fond of the ba chi and pâté combination. A roll is split and inlaid with a seam of pâté and a thin coating of housemade mayo, a pair of bread sealants that hold together the cured pork, strips of pickled daikon and carrot, slivers of raw onion, ringlets of jalapeño, and long, slender lengths of cilantro. If that weren’t enough, the sandwich-makers add a not-so-secret dash of soy sauce, setting off a chain reaction of umami detonations.
$6.49. 801 N. Quincy St., Arlington, Va. 571-970-1043. 3037 Annandale Rd., Falls Church, Va. 703-532-0318. leesandwiches.com.
If you order the smoked lamb sandwich at Yellow, the casual offshoot to chef Michael Rafidi’s more refined Albi, you may get shoulder or you may get leg meat tucked into your za’atar-dusted pita. Rafidi likes to switch up the proteins, if mostly to experiment with flavors and cooking techniques. The shoulder meat is rubbed with a Lebanese seven-spice blend and smoked like barbecue before being crisped on the plancha when ordered. The deboned lamb leg, by contrast, is rubbed with harissa and treated more like prime rib: cooked medium rare and sliced thin before a final heat treatment on the plancha. Either way, your lamb will be stuffed into a wood-fired pita with feta, grilled red onions, fresh herbs, garlicky toum and a tahini sauce. I dare you to find a better pita sandwich anywhere in town.
$17. 1346 Fourth St. SE. 202-921-9592. yellowthecafe.com.
Reid Shilling will be the first to tell you that his chivito probably wouldn’t pass muster in Uruguay, where it is often described as the national sandwich. A traditional chivito doesn’t come with a set of rules, like Neapolitan pizza, but the steak-and-egg sandwich does have some generally accepted practices. It, for instance, typically includes hard-boiled eggs and sliced tomatoes, which Shilling promptly jettisoned, either in the name of seasonality or personal preference. He also added a few cheffy touches because, well, he could. He upgraded the bacon to a premium product from Edwards Virginia Smokehouse. He also supplemented the sandwich with a salsa verde, pickled red onions and garlic aioli. I’ve never had a chivito in Uruguay, but I can tell you that this delicious, arm-drip of a sandwich makes me eager to visit the country and compare it to the original.
$17. Inside Shilling Canning Company, 360 Water St. SE. 202-554-7474. ampersandwichdc.com.
Over the years, I’ve developed an ability to stop eating before my stomach signals that I’m full. Call it willpower if you must. I call it self-preservation in a world filled with delicious morsels that do not, over the long haul, have my best interests at heart. I can resist devouring almost anything, with the notable exception of chips and guacamole. Put the pair out for a Super Bowl party, I will glom onto the snack like barnacle to an ocean liner. Which no doubt explains my affection for this unholy creation from partners Andrew Dana and Daniela Moreira, who pack an everything bagel with smashed, lightly seasoned avocados, red onions and jalapeños (deconstructed guac, basically), which engulfs a rich deposit of crushed Fritos. The pair walk a delicate line between junk food and genius with the Horizon, and I’m a total sucker for it.
$7. Locations on Capitol Hill, Georgetown, Park View and Bethesda, Md. callyourmotherdeli.com.
Don’t be surprised if the buttermilk biscuit at this Falls Church shop doesn’t pull apart in golden, flaky layers. Chef Jonathan Coombs didn’t design his biscuit that way. He wanted one that could hold up to sandwich fillings. “A lot of buttermilk biscuits, if you make them into a sandwich, when you bite into them, they automatically fall apart,” says Coombs, a U.S. Army veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart for his service. He has developed a recipe that results in biscuits whose interiors are more cake-y than flaky. They’re an ideal vehicle for his Prime Time, a sandwich that features shaved prime rib, caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, a roasted red pepper coulis and demi-glace mayo, all packed into a compact biscuit. The beauty of this bite is that no one element dominates. “I want all the ingredients to speak for themselves,” Coombs says.
$13. 102 E. Fairfax St., Falls Church, Va. 571-378-1757. preservationbiscuit.com.
The first version of Shouk’s mushroom shawarma tried to mimic the cooking method of the traditional Middle Eastern dish. Dennis Friedman would soak, marinate, compress and skewer portobello mushrooms until they ballooned out and “looked like meat on a spit,” the chef and co-founder recalls. The labor-intensive process led to a tasty veg shawarma, but “it just wasn’t realistic, and there was no way to do it at volume,” Friedman says. The current version is far more suitable to a plant-based chain that has ambitions to grow. The staff now peels oyster mushrooms to varying sizes, so that some pieces turn crispy on the flat-top, replicating the mix of textures found with beef shawarma. Shouk pairs the spiced mushrooms with just a few garnishes, including pickled green cabbage, a cucumber-and-onion salad, arugula and tahina. “We’ve always found out that less is more.” Much more in this case.
$12. 655 K St. NW. 395 Morse St. NE. 202-945-4747. shouk.com.
Chefs like to tell you that bread is the most important element of a great sandwich, which explains the lengths to which some will go to bake or source their loaves. Scott Drewno, the chef behind this weekend ghost kitchen at the Chiko on Capitol Hill, opted for milk bread for his breakfast sandwiches. He buys loaves from O Bread in Annandale, a Korean bakery that will make you feel like a kid in a candy store. The ethereal quality of the bread persuaded Drewno that he needed a spread that wouldn’t saturate it in fat, which is why he started to whip butter before applying it to the slices. The chef adopted other tricks, too, such as frying eggs in brown butter and sprinkling them with a blend of spices, including toasted sesame seeds, chile flake and gray sea salt. He even fries the Logan’s brand breakfast sage sausage in a wok to add an element of crustiness to the pork. They’re small techniques that add a world of flavor.
$7. Inside Chiko, 423 Eighth St. SE. ieggyou.com.
Summer, the season of peaches and corn and tomatoes, is not exactly a time for porchetta, that succulent slab of porcine opulence. But Aykan Demiroglu, the man behind Porchetta District, says sales of his porchetta-based sandwiches have increased right along with the temperatures. It could be a sign, he confesses, that people are just ready for anything after 14 months in hibernation, but I prefer to think it’s because the guy makes one mean porchetta. He ought to. He spent four years, off and on, perfecting the recipe. The idea behind his pop-up is to slip that crispy porchetta into sandwiches that traditionally feature pork. Demiroglu’s take on a Vietnamese banh mi is untraditional — and undeniably good. He pairs his rolled and roasted pork belly with cilantro, pickled red and white cabbage and his own Vietnamese mayo, which he infuses with Sriracha, perhaps as a spicy substitute for the jalapeños that usually grace this sandwich.
$12. Inside Georgetown Gourmet, 3421 M St. NW. 202-337-4455. porchettadistrict.com.
The menu lists just five ingredients for the Russoniello: roast pork, aged provolone, broccoli rabe and extra-virgin olive oil, all packed tightly into a seeded roll. This truncated accounting leaves out more information than William P. Barr’s memo on the Robert S. Mueller III investigation. The sandwich owes much to owner Casey Patten’s willingness to sweat the small stuff. Like the marinade for the pork, vibrant with garlic and fennel. Or the pork jus, which is extracted from bones, mirepoix, onions, garlic, herbs and more. Or the hit of lemon on the broccoli rabe, which helps neutralize the vegetable’s natural bitterness. Or the custom bread itself, which is crusty and chewy in just the right proportions. Patten, in short, has created a roast pork sandwich worthy of his Philly roots.
$12.50. 85 District Square SW. 202-216-2999. graziegrazie.com.
I don’t remember exactly when I first tried a kitfo sandwich — I think it was six years ago at Dukem on U Street NW — but the combination of raw spiced beef pressed between slices of yeast bread has become a staple of Ethiopian restaurants. No one does it better than Debab in Silver Spring. Chef and co-owner Emuti Taddese isn’t afraid to serve her minced beef raw, even in this handheld form, which I’ve always assumed is a way to introduce kitfo to those wary of uncooked meat. I’ve ordered this sandwich three times now, and each time, the beef has sported a different shade of red, from mahogany to crimson. The beef is ground in-house and bathed in Taddese’s own niter kibbeh, a spiced and clarified butter that is at once hot and fragrant. You’ll be grateful for the accompanying salad to help douse the fire in your mouth.
$13.99. 952 Sligo Ave., Silver Spring, Md. 301-844-5149. debab.com.
The sandwich that hogs all the attention here is the pastrami, a stack of thick-cut brisket so generous the shop automatically adds an extra slice of pumpernickel to handle the inevitable overflow of meat. But to my tastes, I prefer chef Jamie Stachowski’s Butcher Shop Dip, a roast beef sandwich with a surprising touch of Tunisian spice. The kitchen rubs top round with harissa and then cooks the beef slow in a low-temperature oven. Cooked medium-rare, the beef is sliced thin and divvied into 12-ounce portions, which are, upon order, reheated in a jus that grows more complex as the day wears on. “There’s the secret,” Stachowski says. The jus “starts off as beef broth and then it keeps getting richer and richer” with every dunk of roast beef. Tucked into a crusty loaf, the beef is paired with a tangle of hot and sweet peppers, softened onions and aged provolone. Your mouth won’t know what hit it.
$14.99. 1425 28th St. NW. 202-506-3125. stachowskimarket.com.
On a counter at Tres Reyes, the owners have lit a prayer candle, whose base is submerged in a bowl of water. Countless diners have tossed coins into the bowl, perhaps for a laugh, maybe as a genuine offering to the gods, maybe both. The deity in this case is the one who has dominion over the lottery. I should have tossed a few ducats into the bowl myself. I mean, I feel as if I hit the jackpot after learning about the chicken cemitas here from my friend, Gabe Hiatt at Eater DC. One day, we polished off a pair of cemitas, named for the soft-but-sturdy seeded buns from Puebla, Mexico, which can hold back an army of ingredients, including our breaded chicken, black bean paste, Oaxaca cheese, mashed avocados and more. Gabe and I applied the housemade salsa verde to our cemitas for a hit of acid. As we ate, talked and looked out onto the parking lot, we felt, for a minute or two, like the luckiest food writers alive.
$6.75. 5403 Kenilworth Ave., Riverdale, Md. 301-779-6060.
If you order a Muff-A-Lotta at Bayou Bakery, the odds are good your sandwich will be 24 hours old, which is exactly how chef and owner David Guas wants it. The kitchen assembles and refrigerates his Muff-A-Lotta the day before diners can actually buy it. The reason is simple: The advance prep allows the olive salad to seep into the bread, spreading its oils and acids deeper into the sandwich. A native of New Orleans, Guas is acutely aware that his take on the muffuletta bucks a few traditions. He, for starters, prefers to serve his warm, to add a little crustiness to his custom-made bread, this dense, seeded Italian roll produced exclusively for the shop by the French Bread Factory. He also likes to mince his olive salad, which he finds easier to spread compared with the chunky version found at, say, Central Grocery, home of the muffuletta. He makes no apologies for his tweaks. He likes it this way, and so do I.
$9. 1515 N. Courthouse Rd., Arlington, Va. 703-243-2410. bayoubakeryva.com.
Tony Mangialardo, third-generation proprietor of this storied Capitol Hill deli, doesn’t come right out and say those who prefer soft rolls are snowflakes. He offers up an anecdote instead: “My grandfather could eat a hard roll with, or without, his dentures,” he says. “They don’t make men like that anymore.” You can order a “G” Man — created by Mangialardo’s father, Joe, for two FBI agents headed to a game by the team formerly named after a racial slur — with a soft roll (from H&S Bakery) or a hard roll (Catania Bakery). The hard roll has tradition and a kind of inflated machismo behind it, but the truth is, the “G” Man is a thing of beauty no matter what bread you select. It’s the fatty-acid interplay between ingredients — sliced meats, cheeses, oil, vinegar, hot peppers (always hot peppers), onions, lettuce and bread — that makes this sub so unassailable. You order the Bub’s Italian Hoagie for the sheer craft. You order the “G” Man for the history — and its old-school rush of flavors.
$9.75. 1317 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-543-6212. mangialardos.com.
The element that undermines too many tortas is the bread: big, airy rolls that swallow up the star ingredients, leaving you with the sensation that your sandwich is more filler than fillings. Chef Alfredo Solis knows this sensation well, which is why he worked with La Flor de Puebla Bakery to create a bread that has a crackly exterior and a fine, streamlined crumb. It is, as Solis likes to say, perfect for tortas. He and his sister, Jessica Solis, have crafted a line of tasty tortas, but the one I love most is, essentially, a spicy variation on ham and eggs. The chorizo con huevo features crumbly pork from Toluca Que Rico in Baltimore, whose heat is muted, though not extinguished, by a water brigade of ingredients, including scrambled eggs, avocado, Oaxaca cheese and chipotle mayo. The miracle is not that the bread never threatens to overwhelm the fillings, but that it can contain them at all.
$9. 1227 11th St. NW. 202-815-4789. 262 Cedar Ln., Vienna, Va. 703-712-7701. elsol-dc.com.
“If you go to an old-school Italian and you tell them that you mix fish with cheese, they’re going to kill you,” says Matteo Venini, executive chef and co-owner of Stellina. He’s joking, but only a little. The pairing of seafood with cheese has become a thing in Italy only in recent times, says Venini, who was quick to jump on the trend. Back in 2019, before we all went underground, the chef created a sandwich that forced fried octopus, rapini and burrata to share the same squid-ink bun. He’s perfected this shotgun marriage with his latest: battered and fried octopus combined with stracciatella, that silky mess of curds and cream found on the inside of burrata. The pair are tucked into blistered pizza bread with Calabria peppers, charred rapini, black olives, golden raisins and a red bell pepper sauce. I’d suggest that you not lift the hood on this sandwich to inspect the interior: It looks like a train wreck. But it eats divine.
$16. 399 Morse St. NE. 202-851-3995. 2800 S. Randolph St., Arlington, Va. 703-962-7884. stellinapizzeria.com.
When Rod O’Savio debuted his jerk club sandwich, he served it on sourdough. It was a pretty preparation, O’Savio recalls, but the chef was not totally satisfied with it until about three years ago when he switched the base to coco bread, the small, pillowy loaves famous in Jamaica. The slightly sweet coco bread provides equilibrium, serving as a counterweight to the scotch-bonnet burn of the Walkerswood jerk seasoning. O’Savio’s jerk chicken is nontraditional in that he bakes the breast meat instead of grilling it. But after years of trial and error, the chef has learned a secret not taught on the side of any commercial bottle: Those chicken breasts need to taste good before you add the jerk seasoning. His unorthodox jerk chicken makes for a delightfully unorthodox club sandwich.
$11. 133 E. Annandale Rd., Falls Church, Va. 703-942-8580. caribbeanplate.biz.
The interior of this sandwich is deceptively spare: a mixture of sliced roast pork and slivered onions, crisped up on a flat-top with a little salt. Slipped into elongated wedges of Cuban bread, the mixture has only the pressed loaf between you and the bone-deep savor of the filling. Owner Ariel Valladares puts nothing on the inner half of that bread. No mayo. No butter. No mustard. He places no garnishes atop the meat and onions, either. What he does is this: He allows you to enjoy the rush of slow-roasted pork shoulder, shot through with bitter orange, black pepper, onions, garlic and more. It’s so simple and so sensual.
$11.75 1424 Park Rd. NW. 202-813-3489. micubacafe.com.
Photos by Rey Lopez for The Washington Post. Food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post. Photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory. Editing by Joe Yonan, Camille Kilgore and Panfilo Garcia. Art direction and design by Jose Soto; additional art direction by Amanda Soto.