Editorial Note: We asked our favorite member of the infamous Memphis Sandwich Clique to craft our sandwich guide. He did not disappoint. (Well, he might have disappointed the vegetarians.)
By Erik Allgood
Eating out is a luxury, but, like many things, it can be made affordable. My advice? Order a sandwich. Sandwiches are available all over the city in a variety of styles from radically different venues. We’ve done the hard work of trying most of them for you.
To be included in our guide, sandwiches have to meet the following criteria:
1) Fit the definition in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary: “two or more slices of bread or a split roll having a filling in between.”
2) Not be considered first and foremost a hot dog, wrap, burrito, etc.
3) Not be filled with barbecue. (That’s another guide.)
4) Be served at a local restaurant.
5) Cost under $15.
These are listed in alphabetical order by restaurant. You may do your own rankings.
Amongst all the upper-middle-class frippery that is Poplar east of Highland, there sits a small grill with fresh food, unpretentious atmosphere and a little sign visible from the street that tells you if the kitchen is open. This bar and grill feels as if someone took a midsize three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, papered the walls with memorabilia, decked the halls with colored lights, closed off the kitchen, turned the dining room into a bar and put up a big neon sign out front. It’s a great place to grab a drink and a basket of cheese sticks before your movie next door, but don’t sleep on their sandwiches. Belmont’s French Dip is served on a toasted, buttered roll with a generous piling of beef and provolone cheese. The sandwich comes with horseradish sauce and coleslaw (a distinctly Southern feature). Pile both on and dip every bite in the au jus for the single best bite in Memphis cuisine. Get some fries or something too—you work hard.
City Block Salumeria
The Spicy Italian
They clearly didn't call themselves the salumeria as an affectation—because the combination of cuts on The Spicy Italian sandwich is perfectly balanced. Capicola, soppressata, spuma di n'duja, mortadella and city ham give it a nice, fatty heft and pleasant complexity while the provolone gives it creaminess. There is a nice spicy element to it, but the real star is the marinated onions. The acid cuts through everything but has a subtle sweetness to it. All on a French baguette. City Block Salumeria definitely lives up to its intended billing as a classy, big-city deli sandwich shop.
Tucked away on Summer Avenue, Elwood’s is hardly a secret anymore. Trust the vibes you get from the stuffed baby gator on the fountain drink machine and the suspicious abundance of other Creole options on the menu and order the Muffuletta. The key to a successful muffuletta is the bread. Elwood's has the perfect bread-to-meat ratio. The bread is savory and toasted. You can see the generous piling of ham, salami, mortadella and mozzarella cheese. It would be a total grease bomb if it was not undercut with the delightful acidity of the giardiniera and olive tapenade. The sour-sweet-salty mix of black and green olives, red peppers, carrots and onion complicates the richness of the meats and cheeses. This sandwich is moist without being soggy; this isn't a knife-and-forker—you can pick it up. Bring a few of your friends, get a whole muff, and eat well for about $5 each.
Italian Roast Beef
Fino’s has been a Midtown institution for three decades, so the recent preservation by Kelly English of this little piece of local history is a beautiful thing. The Italian Roast Beef is a hot mess, and that’s a compliment. Some people give Fino’s guff for having hard bread. Nah. The Italian Roast Beef’s French roll comes decked out with butter and garlic and develops a pleasant crunch when toasted. It’s also very moist from the mounds of slow-cooked beef. This sandwich is reminiscent of a Chicago beef, dipped, with peppers that someone had the creative insight to cover in marinara meat sauce and two types of cheese (Provel down below and a generous caking of Parmesan on top). This sandwich is a savory, acidic trip with just enough integrity in the bread to keep it from falling apart when you pick it up. If you’re not a messy sandwich expert and value your clothes, you should still use a knife and fork.
Front Street Deli
Downtown is home to more than a few decent sandwiches. Surprisingly, the sandwich named after the flick Tom Cruise filmed in Memphis in the ’90s is the only one that made the list. In fact, all of the sandwiches in Memphis’s oldest deli are named after Tom Cruise movies. This Front Street institution may be no bigger than the box they keep the bread in, but their sandwiches pack a lot of flavor. Served in a hoagie roll and toasted, The Firm features turkey, bacon, capicola and provolone, which give it a robust, savory flavor; a housemade olive salad that brings up sour and acidic flavors; roasted red pepper, which adds a sweet dimension; and their special “boom sauce,” which brings creaminess and spice to the mix. The result is a tasty sandwich which manages to span the full spectrum of available flavors while still feeling restrained; nothing is muddled and everything goes together.
The Hi Tone is a good place to see a punk show, and for the past year or so it has been an excellent place to get a sandwich. The Hi Tone kitchen operates under Joshua McLane, a local comedian and musician who named the best sandwich on the menu after his popular two-piece band, HEELS—and, yes, that is a reference to professional wrestling. This is Memphis. The sandwich is aptly named because, like the band, it’s a complementary partnership between two different things. It’s part PB&J, part bacon melt, and pressed between buttered bread slices. The genius of this sandwich is the way the ingredients work together. The jam is infused with jalapeño, which complements the savory ingredients, and both provolone and bacon have sweet elements which complement the peanut butter and jelly. An excellent way to avoid a hangover or, if you don’t live the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, a pleasant break from the beaten path.
Jack Pirtle’s Chicken
Jack Pirtle's is a Memphis institution. When KFC tried to buy them out a few decades ago, Jack Pirtle's promptly told them to “get on somewhere” and stayed in business. While KFC is covering their once-proud recipe with nacho cheese sauce and snack chips, Pirtle’s gives you the option to buy extra gravy by the ounce. Their chicken sandwich is perfection. Dress it like their famous steak sandwich with slaw, pickles, cheese and gravy, or like a more traditional chicken sandwich with lettuce, tomato, mayo and pickle. Theirs is not some reconstituted pink slurry—this is a whole, marinated, fried chicken breast. The slaw and pickles provide sweetness and acidity, while the richness of the gravy and the American cheese enhances the fatty, chicken-fried meat; the soft, absorbent bun causes the whole thing to melt in your mouth.
To call Kwik Chek a combination Korean restaurant and neighborhood deli minimizes it, since it is really Memphis's first and best fusion food. This little deli inside a convenience store is cheap, unpretentious and still haute cuisine. The Ninja is one of their signature sandwiches and has the best meat-to-bread ratio of any sandwich in the city. Piled high with roast beef, turkey, provolone, bell pepper, onions, mushrooms, sprouts and spices, this sandwich packs a big punch in a compact package. Order it toasted with their special garlic habanero sauce. The final product elevates a turkey and roast beef club to a masterwork of fusion cuisine that you can eat with your hands. This is a sandwich that you pick up on your morning commute and look forward to all morning long.
It’s no secret that Summer Avenue is the spot for Mexican food in Memphis and has been for some time. Of all the taquerias on the strip, the best is La Guadalapana. The interior is modest but spacious with futbol playing on all of the TVs. It looks like a typical, modest Mexican restaurant, but it is gourmet if you know what to order. Their best sandwich is their Torta Cubana. The marinated pork is served carnitas style (fried and spicy) with a tender, blackened ham steak and an engagingly spicy chorizo. Like any torta, the sandwich is loaded down with plenty of avocado, Chihuahua cheese, a wonderfully larded bean spread, and lettuce and tomato. You can see the grill marks on the sweet roll, which contains this expanding universe of a sandwich that’s best with a little green salsa.
Midtown Crossing Grill
Which ‘wich do you order at this local eatery best known for its pizza? The sandwich that’s made out of pizza, obviously. The bread for this Italian-inspired melt is simply their pizza dough baked in the oven with the rest of the assembled sandwich. These gourmands stack pepperoni and salami an inch thick. The drippings from the meats mingle with caramelized onions, roasted peppers and provolone cheese to create a savory, sweet and tart umami flavor bomb. Definitely order this one with a side salad of arugula, tomatoes and red onion covered in their house-made ranch, along with a draft beer from one of the local breweries.
Sometimes the character of a place bleeds into the food and elevates both the joy of being somewhere and the sensation on your tastebuds. This is the Patty Melt at P&H Cafe. Each one is lovingly crafted by renowned local artist Robert Fortner using the most unpretentious of ingredients: buttered white bread, a burger patty, American cheese, sautéed onions and a couple of dill pickle slices. All grilled together and served triangle-cut as God intended. This sandwich with a PBR tall boy is the antidepressant of choice for that soulful strip of Madison that’s neither downtown nor Overton Square. Come within these tar-stained walls and know peace, friend.
Growlers overhauled its kitchen a month ago and replaced it with RAWK’n Grub. This former food truck has a fun, unpretentious menu with music-themed entrées like the fried chicken sandwich called “Stevie Chicks” and the grilled cheese called “Cheesy Like Sunday Morning.” A standout is the “Philly-delphia Freedom.” The cheesesteak’s hoagie is deliciously buttery and crisp—blessed are the sandwich shops that don’t treat the bread as an afterthought. There were a lot of smart decisions involved in this sammie: the choice to use a quality meat like the tender, juicy ribeye; the way the tartness of the beer cheese complements the smoky sweetness of the onions. However, the one thing that most elevates this Philly is the use of poblano peppers instead of the traditional green bell peppers. Poblano is a meaty, earthy pepper with just enough heat to accentuate the other flavors instead of mask them.
This place was the area’s best kept secret for a long time, but now it has blown up for good reason. It is disingenuous to jaw about a “best” sandwich at Sam’s. Their muffuletta is great. Their Cuban is great. Their roast beef is great. Hell, if you’re not a sandwich person, try their bibimbaps or samosas. The shop, which has a bar, is very inviting and warm. The Sub 65 is made with Chicken 65, a spicy fried chicken dish originating in India. Make sure to complement this complex but not overpowering heat with their signature garlic habanero sauce. The genius of this sandwich is how the heat of the Chicken 65 and garlic habanero is counterbalanced by the subtly sweet mint chutney, crisp romaine lettuce and sautéed bell peppers. The provolone gives it creaminess and binds everything together. It’s all served in a toasted French hoagie roll, making it the most unique sandwich at one of the most indispensable sandwich shops in the city.
Special Banh Mi
Vietnam Restaurant is located along that stretch of Cleveland between Madison and Jackson with many Vietnamese institutions and plenty of delicious food. There’s really only one sandwich though: banh mi. It is a complete meal on its own, but try ordering it with pho. The sandwich is served on a baguette with pâté, mayonnaise, barbecued pork, pickled daikon, carrots, cilantro, serrano peppers and cucumber. The surplus of flavor-forward fresh vegetables gives the sandwich some vibrancy while the sour pickled veggies bring out the pork a bit. Pro tip: Try dipping your banh mi in the pho broth. It’s delicious.
Steak, Egg, and Cheese Sub
Yum’s is one of those places that, if you don’t know better, you drive right by. It has locations all over Memphis and serves both excellent hot subs and Chinese food. They even serve a cheeseburger sub-style. This is a place that doesn’t so much blend Chinese and American cuisine as serve them simultaneously with inspiring competence. They are also super cheap! The steak, egg and cheese sub comes complete with mayo, pickle, onion, lettuce and tomato in a hoagie bun. Half of this sandwich can make a complete meal. If you eat both halves, you’ll waddle out of there. Yum’s is comfort food at its most comfortable. This is a good meal to take home for a streaming binge if you’re living that bachelor life—or three or four of these bad boys will definitely make a happy family.
Erik Allgood is a freelance journalist, teacher, writer, producer and performer who has lived in the Mid-South for almost a decade and loves it. He resides in Memphis with his girlfriend and will gladly take any food recommendations, sandwich or otherwise, especially around the downtown area. He can be reached for inquiries via a direct message on his social media accounts, Erik Allgood on Facebook and @erikallgood on Instagram, or through an email to email@example.com.