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, from 23 different sandwich shops—that's every single self-proclaimed sandwich shop in the Mission, and then some.
Normally, when I head out on endeavors like these, at least one or two duds show up. Not this time. I can honestly say that I enjoyed each and every sandwich I ate, though some more than others.
I've already named my favorite Grilled Cheeses, Mexican Sandwiches, San Francisco-style Subs, and Wacky/Fancy Pants Sandwiches from the Mission district. Here now, I present the best of the best. The 9 sandwiches that make me yearn to be back in San Francisco, the 9 sandwiches that should top your list if you ever make it that way, and the 9 sandwiches that every resident of the Mission should never take for granted, because there are some folks who go a whole lifetime without experiencing sandwich joy like this.
Of course, as with any list, this is all up for debate and personal preference might sway you one way or another. You think I'm outright wrong? Or am I missing something that deserves a special shout out? Let us know!
And away we go.
#1: Dave's House-Smoked Brisket From Pal's Takeaway ($10)
Chef/owner Jeff Mason of Pal's Takeaway might be the only person in the world I know to whom the term "Sandwich Artist" would apply. He has a magical way of taking ingredients that sounds totally wacky on paper, sticking them together in bread, and transforming them into something mind-blowingly delicious.
Try this: Thick slices of Dave's smoked brisket (Dave Knopp was Jeff's partner in opening Pal's and still makes most of his smoked meats and pickles) served with a spicy and herbaceous slaw, some cherry tomato relish, and some hot and bitter greens with a bit of homemade Russian dressing hiding in there as well. He puts it all neatly on a Firebrand roll, hands it to you for $10, and stands idly by as your mind is blown.
His menu changes daily, because as he puts it, he's "always vigilant in the search to find some more good fucking stuff to put between two pieces of bread for you." But no matter what that good fucking stuff is, he knows what to do with it.
#2: The BLT Zarella From Pal's Takeaway ($10)
These were my first two choices for The Best Fancy-Pants, Wacky, and "Other" Sandwiches category, and my overall winners as well.
The BLT Zarella ($10) changes up occasionally, but it's always got some form of tomato (in this case breaded and fried green tomatoes), great chewy-crisp bacon, heirloom lettuces, and a spicy mayo. It used to be made with Tabasco. These days he's switched over to Sriracha--just enough of it to get some heat in there, but not so much that its overpowering garlickiness takes over. This guy comes stacked on toasted bread made by Josey Baker, one of the finest young bakers in town.
#3: The Danny Zuko From Bite Me Sandwices ($7.45)
There are over 31 sandwiches on the extensive menu at Bite Me Sandwiches 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. Thinking of heading to Ike's and braving the line? Forget it. Come to Bite Me, where the sandwiches are faster, more inexpensive, and, frankly, better.
#4: Rajas Con Queso From La Torta Gorda ($6.75/Jr. $8.95/Reg.)
The name of this 12-year-old Mission stand-by translates to the "The Fat Sandwich." It'd be an apt description for any of the 21 variations they have on their menu. Even if they served only their "junior"-sized versions, they could name the restaurant "The Not-Quite-Fat-but-Still-Big-Enough-to-Make-a-Large-Meal-and-Maybe-Leak-Out-Onto-Your-Hands-Just-The-Right-Amount Sandwich"
My favorite? La Torta Gorda's Rajas con Queso ($6.75/Jr. $8.95/Reg.). Strips of poblano pepper roasted until they're sweet and smoky that get smothered in melted Oaxaca cheese and queso fresco. Top that with some guacamole (a.k.a. nature's butter), a smear of refried beans, onions, pickled jalapeños, and a chipotle spread and, well, you've got a tasty number that can barely be contained by its paper wrapper.
#5: The Pork & Cheese From Mission Cheese ($10)
It's no surprise that a cheese shop knows how to put together a tasty grilled cheese sandwich. The best of the bunch was the Pork & Cheese ($10), made with Gruyère, Framani salami, tiny chopped cornichon, and a smear of grainy mustard. Perfectly grilled on a panini press between slices of Josie Baker's excellent bread (it placed second in our best bread in San Francisco taste test), this is everything a grilled cheese should be. Bolden brown and crisp without being overly greasy or buttery, plenty of oozy melted cheese with just enough other complementary other ingredients, all served with a brightly dressed salad of bitter greens to refresh your palate for the next bite.
#6: The Chorizo Torta From Torta Los Picudos ($6.50)
While not quite as messy, decadent, or all-around-fun as the sandwiches from La Torta Gorda, Tortas Los Picudos' Chorizo Tortas ($6.50) have the kind of perfect balance and structural integrity that inspires awe from engineers. It's rare to find a sandwich made of loose, crisply-fried sausage meat that holds together as you eat it, but through the clever use of a sour cream and queso fresco-based adhesive, they manage this trick deftly.
#7: The 500 Club From Clare's Deli ($8)
The ingredients are not artisinal—that's just plain, high quality deli ham and sliced cheese on that there sandwiches—the bread is a tasty but non-pedigreed white pullman loaf, and the tomatoes are average for California (that is, very good by any other standards), but the bacon is crisp, the mustard is spicy, and the mayo is spread on just right.
The 500 Club from Clare's Deli is a club sandwich made by someone who knows and understands club sandwiches. Zero pretense, zero snootiness, just a great sandwich stacked in perfect proportions and made with care and attention, and that's all I ever really wanted in a sandwich.
P.S. If you aren't feeling quite so flush, the always-on-the-menu, always-three-dollars "Broke Boy" bologna and cheese sandwich is excellent and comes pinned together with a mini American flag.
#8: The Spicy Turkey From Tartine Bakery ($13.75)
As the hands-down winner of our San Francisco bread taste test, we knew that Tartine Bakery's sandwiches would have a good lead off of the starting block. Thankfully, their sandwiches don't disappoint. With nearly a dozen pressed grilled cheese variations on the menu, it can be hard to pick what you want. Let me make a suggestion: The Spicy Turkey ($13.75).
Made with slices of roast turkey as moist as I've tasted, along with plenty of melty provolone cheese and a spread of bitter-hot broccoli rabe pesto, it's only downside--the only thing keeping it from snagging first place--is a slightly greasy crust. In some sections, the bread was completely saturated with fat from the generously greased panini press.
#9: The Fidel From Bi-Rite Market ($8.99)
The hipster is strong with this one will be the first thing you think when you walk into Bi-Rite Market, but man, do they know how to put together a sandwich. Heritage pork shoulder braised until it's pulled-pork tender, served on a toasted Acme roll with a garlicky, lemony mayonnaise, dijon mustard, carrot and red cabbage cole slaw, and pickled jalapeños.
If you want to grab a quick look at more of the sandwiches I tried for this roundup, check out this album here!
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.