For the next 20 weeks, we'll be rounding up the runners-up to our 2012 Best of Houston® winners. In many categories, picking each year's winner is no easy task. We'll be spotlighting 20 of those categories, in which the winner had hefty competition from other Houston bars and restaurants.
For this week's Rest of the Best list, we decided to focus on the wonderfully portable sandwich, a meal which pleases the pickiest of eaters and in the simplest of ways: bread, meat, maybe some cheese. With that in mind, we kept this week's list to low-key places serving straightforward deli-style sandwiches, preferably those who slice their own meat and carefully source products like cheese and bread (if they don't bake their own).
Banh mi, milanesas, cheesesteaks, tortas, the shrimp BLT I dream about at Frank's Chop House -- all of these are noble and noteworthy sandwiches. But today it's all about the humble deli sandwich.
10. The California Connection at Central Market
There's always a long line at the sandwich counter just around the corner from the deli inside Central Market. And as far as I'm concerned, the line is for its top sandwich: the California Connection. Slices of turkey are jazzed up with sweet, caramelized red onions, two kinds of creamy pesto, chipotle mayonnaise and melted provolone on soft sourdough bread. I like to add avocados for overkill, but the sandwich is terrific ordered as-is.
9. Honey ham and Brie at Carter & Cooley
As mentioned in a recent post covering the Top 10 restaurants in the Heights, the honey ham and Brie is my personal pick at Carter & Cooley most of the time. It also made Jeff Balke's list of favorite Houston sandwiches a couple autumns back. It's a simple, straightforward combo that just makes sense: sweet honey mustard and honey ham mixing with mushroomy melted Brie on a salty, savory onion roll. There's lettuce and tomato involved too, but who cares?
8. Italian hoagie at Paulie's
Topped with just a little oil, vinegar, pepperoncini peppers and salad stuff -- served alongside a couple of scoops of surprisingly light herb-laced potato salad -- the Italian hoagie and Paulie's is actually less top-heavy than its thick stacks of ham, Genoa salami and Provolone would imply. You'd expect to feel like a blimp after eating the hefty sandwich, but the best thing about the hoagie is how it leaves you simply and pleasantly satiated instead.
7. Egg salad at Nielsen's Delicatessen
Very little has changed at Nielsen's since it first opened more than 50 years ago -- including its egg-sellent (I can't help myself) egg salad sandwiches. The secret is keeping it incredibly simple: just hard-boiled eggs and Nielsen's famously tangy homemade mayonnaise. That same mayonnaise is also what makes the chicken salad, the potato salad and the deviled eggs equally amazing here. And good luck trying to get out of there without ordering those deviled eggs on the side, no matter which sandwich you pick.
6. The Cold Fish at Kraftsmen Cafe
This is the perfect marriage of an everything bagel and lox with a far-more-manageable sandwich, which works especially well thanks to the richly flavored and freshly baked biologique bread from Kraftsmen Bakery. The cafe is simply an extension of the huge Kraftsmen Bakery -- which bakes bread for many of Houston's best restaurants -- so you can always expect every baked good here to be fine and fresh, not just the bread. Smoked salmon on that soft biologique bread with a schmear of cream cheese and the crunch of lettuce and red onion is perfect for lunch or breakfast (the latter of which you can get all day).
5. Pâté de France at Spec's
The sandwich is so well constructed that I can't think of another ingredient I'd want to add between its two slices of rye bread. There's even a sandwich within the sandwich: thinly sliced Angus roast beef on one side and a slice of country-style pâté surround a filling of crunchy, mayo-tinged coleslaw. On the outside of the "inner sandwich," fat slices of tomatoes rest against mayonnaise on one side of the bread and whole grain mustard on the other. I may not be able to "see the Eifel [sic] tower" with every bite, as promised on the menu, but that would just be weird anyway; you don't mess with the space-time continuum when you're running a deli.
4. Muffaletta at Revival Market
It's always a gamble ordering a muffaletta at a non-Cajun restaurant. Not so at Revival Market, where the muffaletta just might be the best sandwich on the whole menu. It makes sense here, in this temple to charcuterie, that the best sandwich would feature thin, piled-up slices of Revival Market's house-cured meats under a thick layer of homemade giardinera. That giardinera is thick with pickled cauliflower and other vegetables, but features among the brininess a sweet, citrusy note that makes the entire sandwich hum -- to say nothing of the fun, spongy texture of the fresh-baked sesame bread.
3. Mortadella sandwich at 13 Celsius
The mortadella sandwich at 13 Celsius has morphed over the years, but has always managed to improve upon its past incarnations. The current iteration of the sandwich finds sliced-to-order mortadella, soft and slick, on top of a pretzel bun and covered with a fried egg. I took sandwich guy Jacob Warny's advice last time and let him drizzle some honey on top, too. It was genius. The mortadella is also Terrence Gallivan's favorite sandwich in town, and the chef knows sandwiches (they serve some terrific ones at his restaurant with Seth Siegel-Gardner, The Pass & Provisions).
2. Fiddler on the Roof of Your Mouth at Kenny & Ziggy's
Look at that thing. Look at it. If there's a bigger sandwich in town...well...it's still going to be at Kenny & Ziggy's. The Fiddler (or the Number One, as you're supposed to order it) is actually one of the always-busy deli's smaller sandwiches, which is what makes it one of my favorites. It's more easily managed this way and you can actually make a college try at eating the pastrami-and-corned-beef sandwich as if it were an actual sandwich instead of a impressively towering pile of meat. K&Z's meat is what makes the sandwich, though, with corned beef and pastrami so tender the thin slices nearly melt. Add a touch of whole-grain mustard on top, grab a pickle to crunch between bites and you're in business.
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1. Roast beef at Local Foods
Even though it took over the old Antone's location (a deli) and is now a deli itself, you won't find a typical roast beef sandwich at Local Foods, the Rice Village restaurant from the owners of benjy's. Onto the delightfully rare, paper-thin slices of roast beef goes a spicy horseradish aioli along with some of Local Foods' crunchy kale salad, rosy red tomatoes and a layer of bright-yellow curried cauliflower that elevates the entire sandwich from "quick lunch" to "experience." And like all of the other sandwiches at Local Foods, the roast beef comes with your choice of two generous scoops of freshly made sides like couscous with carrots and pickled vegetables or a bowl of soup, all of which are more exciting offerings than a traditional bag of chips -- and which make the price tags on these sandwich package deals (ranging from $9.50 to $12) a true value.