5 Things I've Learned in Pursuit of Houston's Best Sandwiches

The Cuban from the Cuban Spot is an example of balanced perfection.
The Cuban from the Cuban Spot is an example of balanced perfection. Photo by Jeff Balke
For well over a year now, I have scoured the city for the best of one of life's basic food groups: sandwiches. They are generally cheap, easy to eat on the run and often remarkably sophisticated for something that could easily be Wonderbread and baloney.

As I've eaten a bunch of them here — and in a few other cities — my appreciation for what was already one of my favorite things to eat has only grown. More importantly, I've learned a few things, not just about what makes a sandwich good (or great), but what makes almost everyone love them so much.

Balance is critical to a great sandwich.

This is, in all honesty, true of most dishes, but it is particularly so in a whole-meal-wrapped-in-bread kinda way. Too much of anything — even really good stuff — can easily overwhelm an otherwise killer sandwich. Heat, salt, sugar, smoke, acidity...they can elevate or deflate the experience of a sandwich.

But this balance isn't just confined to flavor. Texture plays a key role. Even in a gooey grilled cheese, the crunch of the toasted bread cannot be understated. And if a sandwich comes layered with potato chips (yes, please!), it needs a creamy element to make the whole thing melt in your mouth.

There is no good dry sandwich.

I know there are plenty of mayo haters out there, but if there is one thing I would hope we could agree on, it's that dry sandwiches are simply lacking. A dry sub is like eating a piece of stale, plain toast. It feels weird eating it and leaves you reaching for your water glass. The ONLY exception is a sandwich built specifically for dipping, but even those don't come made like a desert.

No one wants a soggy sandwich that won't hold together, but without some kind of moisture, even the flavors fall flat.

click to enlarge The Lucky Luciano at Tony's Italian Delicatessen in Montgomery is full of ingredients that make the sandwich. - PHOTO BY JEFF BALKE
The Lucky Luciano at Tony's Italian Delicatessen in Montgomery is full of ingredients that make the sandwich.
Photo by Jeff Balke
"Minor" ingredients often make a major difference.

Diced cornichons, balsamic caramelized onions, honey mustard, spicy relish, crumbled potato chips, arugula, avocado. These are all examples of what might otherwise be an accoutrement on a dish that takes a sandwich from good to unreal. We all get the show stoppers like great meat, bread, unique cheeses or trendy add-ons like bacon and fried eggs, but the subtle, secondary role players often radically changes the flavor profile of an otherwise bland sandwich.

Bacon doesn't always equal better.

Speaking of bacon, there is an idea that adding bacon to just about anything makes whatever you are having infinitely better. I am here to tell you that is nonsense. This is not to say I don't like bacon. Believe you me, I do. But, when it takes over the flavor of the dish, why not just order a side of it and be on with your life?

It certainly makes sense in a BLT. After all, it is the B. It can add a lovely, smokiness to turkey, something that might otherwise fall a little flat, or an extra twang when mixed into an aioli (more of this, by the way). But, when it is just two hunks of bacon on an otherwise perfectly fine sandwich, I'll pass and, frankly, so should you.

Bread is your friend.

If there is on constant in virtually every sandwich I have loved it is that the bread is great. It is such an overwhelmingly important component of a sandwich, it is almost impossible to overstate the difference it makes. And, it could simply be squares of toasted rye or white bread. It doesn't have to be an artisanal loaf of fresh baked perfection, though I'll happily accept those offerings.

Mostly, it's about what it adds to the overall. If it is too tough, for example, the contents go spilling out the back end with every bite. If it is overly soft, you could have a wet mess on your hands.

The perfect bread on a sandwich is also the perfect complement to the whole. Sorry keto followers. There is no sidestepping the carbs when it comes to a great sandwich.
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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