The Best Sandwich in San Francisco's Mission, Part 3: San Francisco-Style Subs

I spent five weeks this summer living in San Francisco's Mission District, going to bars that let my dogs roam free, making plans for big hiking trips, and pretending that I was going to learn to surf. Instead, I mostly ate sandwiches. Lots of sandwiches. Over 50 of 'em. This week, I'm walking you through the best.

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Dear Dutch Crunch bread: why have you hidden yourself from me for so long?

It's not that I haven't been made aware of your presence before. Heck, we've even written about you extensively in the past. But your features are perhaps ones that need to be experienced to be impressed upon memory. People can write all they want about your crisp, tiger-striped upper surface, but no words can do justice to the magnitude of your crunchiness. The sheer roof-of-the-mouth-scratching ability of your carapace is enough to make Cap'n Crunch hang his head in shame, and your texture lingers until the last bite is consumed.

And what of your soft, pliant, yet robust interior structure? You know, that pale white crumb that compresses around its fillings, gently cradling the sandwich toppings like a space-age mattress so that every bite comes off cleanly in the mouth without crushing, smooshing, or ejecting any onto to the paper you come wrapped in?

Dutch Crunch—known to the Dutch as "tiger bread"—is the ideal sandwich bread. It's made by painting loaves of soft white bread with a buttery rice flour and sugar slurry before baking. The slurry dries and cracks as the loaf bakes, giving it an outer layer of crunch that is unparalleled in any other bread. Residents of San Francisco may be surprised to find out upon flying the coop that this bread, which they all grew up eating (It's been in the area since the early 20th century), is pretty much unknown outside of the Bay Area. Why this is so is completely beyond me as its magic should be shared with the world.

I'm not sure what I'll do about sandwiches once I get back to the East Coast. Perhaps some intense recipe testing is in order.

Truth be told, my five week-long, 50+ sandwich odyssey this past summer was all triggered by that first taste of Dutch Crunch. What started as a quest for the best Dutch Crunch turned into a quest to find the best sandwich in San Francisco's Mission District, sort of like when Frodo thinks he's going for a little weekend stroll and ends up walking to the fiery pits of Mount Doom and back. Luckily, scooting around on a Vespa is more fun than walking and the Mission is a more pleasant place to travel than Mordor, no matter how orc-like some of its crustier residents may appear.

Today, we're finding the best San Francisco sub-style sandwich in the Mission.

The Criteria

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what makes San Francisco's sub-style sandwich shops unique to the area, and to be honest, this is a completely made up classification system, but all taxonomies must begin somewhere, right? In order to fall into this category, all of these sandwich shops fit at least four of the five of the following criteria:

  • Sliced cold cuts must feature largely on their menu.
  • Dutch Crunch bread should be available (and preferred!).
  • The menu should consist of at least 8 or 9 sandwiches, with no upper limit.
  • The sandwiches must have semi-clever names that involve puns, like "The Devil's Egg" or "The Bay of Pigs."
  • All sandwiches should come with the option to get it "with everything," which includes lettuce (shredded iceberg), sliced tomatoes, pickles, onions, mustard, mayonnaise, and some sort of pickled pepper (jalapeño or banana).

The most well-known of these shops is Ike's, and it's technically not quite in the Mission, but seeing as it's pretty much the archetype of the form, I decided to make a geographic exception in this case.

The Best Dutch Crunch Sandwich: the Danny Zuko From Bite Me Sandwices

The sandwiches at Bite Me Sandwiches are large, well-proportioned, and come in a bafflingly diverse array. Is Bite Me an Ike's Place rip-off? Quite possibly, but who cares when the goods are up to par, the sandwiches are a few bucks cheaper, and you get your food at least twice as fast?

There are over 31 sandwiches on their extensive menu and I've yet to work my way through all them, but the Danny Zuko ($7.45), made with hand-carved, house-roasted turkey, bacon, jalapeños, and Swiss cheese, is a good place to start, and Dutch Crunch bread is a good place to put it. I had mine made all the way with shredded iceberg lettuce (no finer lettuce for a sub-style sandwich like this!), tomatoes, pickled banana peppers, mayonnaise, and their garlicky mojo sauce.

The flavor combination is spot on with plenty of acid and crunch from the pickles and vegetables, and the The Dutch Crunch at Bite Me tends to have just the right level of fine striations to softer crumb.

Best Dutch Crunch Runner Up #1: the Menage A Trois From Ike's Place Sandwiches

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Ike's Place offers over 75 sandwiches for lunch, each one customizable with toppings that include deep fried zucchini and onions. It's overwhelming, but don't worry—the long lines will give you plenty of time to peruse the options. I'd start with anything made with their excellent house-roasted chicken. Rather than thin deli-style slices, their Halal chicken comes picked into moist shreds. The most popular variant? The Menage a Trois ($11.11), made with pepper Jack, Swiss, and cheddar along with honey mustard and barbecue sauce. It's sweet, saucy, and, frankly, it's tough to distinguish between all three cheeses, but if you're in the mood for something big and juicy, it'll do you well.

Best Dutch Crunch Runner Up #2: the Tony Soprano from Mr. Pickle's Sandwich Shop

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The sandwich chain Mr. Pickle's is another one of the sandwich shops that falls under the umbrella of Ike's Place clone, but it's a good one so long as you stick to the right items. High on that list: the Tony Soprano ($7.49), their version of an Italian sub made with sliced mortadella, cooked ham, salami, and provolone.

The Dutch Crunch bread at Mr. Pickles lies somewhere between Bite Me Sandwiches and nearby Rhea's Deli (see below) on the tear-up-the-roof-of-the-mouth factor. On a scale from Rice Krispies (no tearing) to Cap'n Crunch (blood drawn), it rates at an admirable Kix. Just enough crunch to add texture to every bite without so much as to be painful.

The Best Wacky Combo: the Korean Beef from Rhea's Deli

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Rhea's Dutch Crunch is by far the crunchiest—painfully so, in fact. I actually preferred their standard Acme sweet roll, which was my bread of choice for their popular Korean Beef sandwich ($8.99). It's made with bulgogi-style marinated ribeye, shaved paper thin, griddled, and slapped into a roll with melty cheddar cheese, pickled red onions and jalapeños, a garlicky mayo, and a spicy sauce. A bulgogi hoagie, if you will. It doesn't acquire any of the nice smoky sear that really great bulgogi gets—the flavor is more steamed than browned—but it's delicious nonetheless. Just make sure to eat fast, because it'll soak through that bread by the time you walk it home.

P.S. If mock meat is your thing, Rhea's vegetarian BBQ chicken sandwich is actually quite a tasty number—even if you're not into mock meat, really.

Best Wacky Combo Runner Up: the Love Affair From Bite Me Sandwiches

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I've already mentioned the stellar roast turkey from Bite Me sandwiches and their best-in-class Dutch Crunch. How about we add to that some creamy brie and a handful of salt and vinegar chips? That's what you get in the Love Affair ($6.75) and it's a genius move, adding salt, vinegar, and texture to each bite.

Honorable Mentions

The Muffulata From Dagwood and Scoops

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The Muffulata [sic] ($8) from Dagwood and Scoops isn't really a muffuletta in the true, New Orleans sense of the word (check out our recipe here if you're interested in that), but it's a tasty sandwich nonetheless. Made with layers of ham, mortadella, salami, capicola, and provolone, it's served hot and toasted with Italian dressing, olive spread, and pickled peppers.

The Avocado Bacon From The Sandwich Place

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A tiny counter with a couple of outdoor seats near the 16th and Mission BART stop, The Sandwich Place is a little less flashy and a little less wild than the other sub shops in town, but it puts out a great sandwich or two nonetheless. I particularly liked their Avocado Bacon ($6.75/small, $8.75/large), which comes with avocado, sun-dried tomato mayonnaise, crisp bacon, tomato, pickled, onions, cheese, greens, and balsamic vinegar on a toasted roll that's almost torta-like in its softness. The rich and fruity tomato spread makes it.

More of San Francisco's Best Sandwiches!

See all of our San Francisco Sandwich Week coverage here!

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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