Four Days, Four Sandwich Shops in Austin

Austin sandwiches for the win!
Austin sandwiches for the win! Photo by Jeff Balke
Austin is an interesting food town. It's short on diversity but long on craft with plenty of interesting and unique restaurants — along with a whole mess of barbecue and taco joints. While visiting friends and relatives recently, I wondered how their sandwiches stack up. In Houston, the list is expansive. As cool as the food scene has become in ATX, it's still a much smaller place with a far less diverse palette.

Still, I figured there would be some good options and I was not disappointed. I managed to hit four sandwich spots in the four days I was there and they all left me wanting more. And I didn't even make it to a couple of favorites like Home Slice, never mind Aaron Franklin's new sandwich joint that has yet to open.

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The Turkey Sweet at Walton's was savory and, well, sweet.
Photo by Jeff Balke
Day 1: Turkey Sweet at Walton's Fancy and Staple

For the life of me, I have the hardest time remembering the damn name of this place (Fancy and Staple???), but I won't forget the sandwich. The Turkey Sweet is as tasty as this downtown restaurant-slash-flower-shop (only in Austin) is adorable. It's turkey, bacon and white cheddar, but the sweet comes from a combination of caramelized onion chutney and maple aioli served on a croissant. First, where the hell has caramelized onion chutney been all my damn life? I could eat that off a spoon and be perfectly satisfied. Second, maple aioli? Put it on anything and I'm down.

The result is a sweet and savory sandwich that paired perfectly with the flaky croissant. I added a pinch of salt to mine to balance out the sweetness, but it didn't really need it. That thing was magic on a plate. It's the most popular, but there were some other interesting looking items on the menu for next time.

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A little small for a torta, but absolutely jam packed with flavor.
Photo by Jeff Balke
Day 2: Cuban Torta at Austin Daily Press

I have a lot to say about this place. We actually ordered four sandwiches tortas from ADP (as the rather difficult to find sign outside of this trailer in east Austin reads) and every damn one was delicious. All of the ADP sandwiches are tortas served on a smaller version of the traditional talera bread, so that's a start in the right direction. The bread was fresh and soft, as it should be, on all of them. I zeroed in on the Cuban because I love that delicious Florida-born concoction. It wasn't like any Cuban I'd ever had, so it was difficult to compare, apples-to-apples, to others. For these purposes, let's call it a take on a Cuban, but what a take.

It had all the traditional ingredients — pork, ham, Swiss, mustard, pickles (made in-house) and a touch of aioli — but this wasn't pressed. Then there was the addition of white cheddar and, most critically, pork belly carnitas substituted for the traditional roast pork. Holy crap, y'all, why haven't more people done this? One of the big issues with Cuban sandwiches can be the roast pork drying out. No chance of that with pork belly.

And I hate to give short shrift to the other ordered tortas, but suffice it to say they were expertly prepared with fascinating flavor combinations like lemongrass pork shoulder and escabeche (the Lucille); citrus grilled chicken, plantain chips and pineapple (the Deville); and roasted chicken with an incredible black pepper maple gastrique. Pretty sophisticated for a trailer. And they have a mini torta flight of three sliders every day so you can almost try them all.

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A surprisingly foodie sandwich in a dive bar.
Photo by Jeff Balke
Day 3: The Julia at Gourmands

When you read the name of the sandwich and the restaurant, it sounds pretty fancy, right? Maybe a bistro with hipster decor and linen napkins. Think again. Gourmands is a dark pub full of all-day drinkers. And yet, it produces some wildly impressive sandwiches like the Julia, a smoked turkey and havarti built more like something from a health food spot in southern California than a dive bar. It's got sprouts, shaved lettuce and onion to go with tomato and house made honey mustard. And did I mention fried avocados? Yeah, fried.

The care that was put into making it — and the pickled veggies and in-house fried chips — was evident. Everything from the fresh hoagie roll to the perfectly shaved vegetables — shredded lettuce and onion together are magnificent — screamed high end gourmet food, not a $10 sandwich in a barely lit beer joint. Look, the whole thing came out on butcher paper, not in a basket with a side of greasy fries. It was as unexpected as it was delicious. When it comes to food, Gourmands has its name in the right place even if it doesn't look the part.

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Feta and avocado together at Food Heads.
Photo by Jeff Balke
Day 4: Chicken Special at Food Heads

A couple of people had mentioned this quaint west campus spot in an old wood frame house with its reclaimed tables and sophisticated menu items. There were some very unique combos of squash and mozzarella; portobello mushroom and blue cheese; and chicken, eggplant, goat cheese and basil pesto. The Chicken Special (actual name, not a special of the day) is Food Heads' most requested and for good reason.

Gently grilled chicken breast is served on ciabatta with lettuce, tomato and avocado, pretty standard. Those ingredients, however, are super fresh and the chicken was perfectly tender. But, the next two ingredients caught my attention. A chicken and avocado sandwich seems to lean a certain direction, almost to a fault. But, when feta and tarragon mayo are on the list of additions, I wondered if it would work. Oh, it does. That herbaceous mayonnaise and the tangy feta were a perfect foil to the rich avocado and smokey bird. I probably never would have come up with that combo, but I'm glad someone did.

I'll be back for more sandwiches soon, Austin. Be ready. Although, it seems you already are.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke