Perhaps nowhere is San Francisco’s history as a cultural melting pot better expressed than on its sandwich boards. At delis, food trucks, and mom-and-pop(up) shops around town, artisan craftsmen constantly reinvent the notion of the hand-held lunch, stacking flavors and ingredients from India to Italy, Korea to Kansas between slices (or hunks or slabs or pillowy pockets) of bread. Eat your way through our list of stellar sandwiches, then walk it off on a cool city tour or shopping trek.
Best sandwiches in San Francisco
You know you’ll be in hog heaven at any place that offers a weekly Pork Happy Hour. The artisan butcher, with outlets at the Ferry Building and Hayes Valley, does daily sandwiches that showcase its premium salumi, roasted and smoked meats and succulent pork products. On Wednesday evenings (5:30–7pm), they butcher a whole hog, and guests get to sample all the trimmings accompanied by other small bites and wine/beer. The daily sandwich menu includes a porchetta sandwich on focaccia with fennel, arugula, Meyer lemon and luscious hunks of melt-in-mouth roasted pork. And don’t miss the meatball sandwich—a drippy, rich meal-and-a-half, made with pork, beef and ricotta meatballs, heirloom tomato sauce, basil and shaved grana padano cheese.
What started eight years ago out of a doorway has expanded to a dozen outlets around Northern California, as well as LA and Arizona, with a following that might make Taylor Swift jealous. More than 200 different sandwiches are offered on the menu (tip: Look online before you go—the wall menu doesn’t have room for nearly all the options), sporting names like Name of the Girl I’m Dating (hand-shredded chicken, honey mustard, avocado, pepperjack), Matt Cain (shredded turkey, roast beef, salami, Godfather Sauce, and provolone) and Favorite Sesame Street Character (cucumbers, lettuce, tomato, avocado, pesto, cream cheese). All sandwiches come with Ike’s garlicky Dirty Sauce, which is spread over house-baked rolls. The line is invariably long, but the wait is worth it.
There are a hundred reasons to go to Tartine, San Francisco’s revered and beloved French bakery, but the croque monsieurs and hot-pressed sandwiches should be at the top of any list. It begins with the bread—Chad Robertson’s chewy, moist, tangy country loaves that could win sandwich awards with nothing on them (you can buy a loaf to-go after 4:30pm). Their croque monsieurs add béchamel, gruyere, pepper and a choice of ham, turkey, shitake mushroom or fromage blanc before grilling to luscious perfection. Among the favorites on the hot-pressed sandwich menu: Idiazabal & Membrillo, a grown-up grilled cheese experience like none you’ve ever had; Pecorino & Almond, a melted mélange of sheep cheese, crushed almonds, olive oil, lemon and sage; and Sopressata, Fontina, and Broccoli Rabe Pesto—the perfect blend of salty, spicy, bitter, creamy and chewy.
Look up the definition of old-school Italian delicatessen and you’ll find Molinari. Opened in 1896, it’s the oldest deli west of the Rockies, and one of the few remaining intact relics of a time when North Beach was the hub of Italian life in San Francisco (Joe DiMaggio, who grew up in North Beach, even stipulated in his will that Molinari cater his wake). Step inside and admire the shelves crammed full of anchovies, artichokes, olive oils, pasta and sauces; the cases stuffed with all kinds of cheese; and the salami, coppa and cured meats hanging from every rafter. Then grab a hard roll from the box, hand it to the man behind the counter and get him to make you an Italian sub with all the trimmings.
Tucked away in the back of Tony’s Market in the lower Mission, Pal’s Takeaway is a labor of sandwich love—from the fresh, handpicked ingredients to the breads perfectly paired to each of Jeff Mason’s savory creations. Stellar guest chef additions have made their way onto the menu, but recent Mason offerings include bacon, chili-lemon asparagus, grated pecorino, pickled radish and almost-hard-cooked eggs with miso-yogurt dressing on brick-fired Firebrand ciabatta; and chicken breast with avocado crema, corn chips, queso fresco, arugula, and house mayo.
For 30 years, this deli and market has been cooking up turkeys and chickens, studding them with garlic, basting them with pan juices, rotisserie roasting them to juicy perfection and then carving them in front of your eyes to be placed atop sourdough and dutch crunch rolls. You can even specify which kind of turkey you’d like the meat to be carved from: oven gold, Vermont maple honey, cracked pepper or mesquite smoked. Lettuce, tomato, thinly sliced cucumber and purple onion are layered on top of the meat. And—the best part—it’s still warm when you take your first bite. For those who can’t get enough at Thanksgiving, go for the dark turkey with cranberry sauce and avocado.
Banh mi sandwich spots in San Francisco are almost as common as pizza joints in New York, with followers who will argue the merits of their favorite places just as fiercely. While Bun Mee in Pacific Heights may not win over purists, its inventive and deeply satisfying flavors more than compensate for any breaks with tradition. Choices of banh mi include grilled lemongrass pork with shaved onion, pickled carrot, daikon, jalapenos, cucumber and cilantro, spread with garlic mayo on a French roll; and the Belly Bun, made with Kurobuta belly, radish relish and hardboiled egg. Whatever you do, order a side of the sweet potato fries, which comes with red curry mayo dip.
Despite the fact that you can’t buy a cigar (or smoke one) at Mario’s, you shouldn’t pass up this classic North Beach café, wedged like a slice of pie on a prominent corner overlooking Washington Square Park. The only thing that drips more than the atmosphere are Mario’s fabulous oven-baked meatball, eggplant marinara and grilled sausage sandwiches, made with fresh-baked focaccia from SF’s legendary Liguria bakery across the street.
Snout-to-tail cooking is the mantra of The Whole Beast, which offers an eclectic global menu of meats cooked on open flame, oven or Hawaiian imu pit. Up until recently, you had to go to an Off the Grid food truck gathering to try their transcendent beef brisket, Wagyu roast beef, lamb gyro or pulled pork sandwiches. Happily, two quasi-permanent (semi-temporary?) outlets have opened, where you can sit and savor John Fink’s epic smokehouse creations: The Hall, a pop-up marketplace in the up-and-coming mid-Market area, and The Yard, a restaurant village created from recycled shipping containers that opened in the lot next to AT&T Park. All meats are smoked on-site and sandwiches are served on fresh Acme rolls. Available at Picnic at the Presidio, Sun 11am–4pm; The Hall, Mon–Sat 11am–8pm, 1028 Market St between 6th and 7th Sts, thehallsf.com; and The Yard, Daily noon–8pm, 3rd St and Terry A. Francois Blvd, theyardsf.com.