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The crazy-quilt character of American food is all contained in sandwiches. Every region, every city, every family has its favorites, and it is rare indeed to find two that are exactly alike. Some of the most memorable are austere, like the plain, perfect fried fish sandwich Coleman’s sells in the old market of Wheeling, West Virginia; others are baroque, like the goopy, soupy hot brown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Sandwiches with ethnic roots abound: Italian roast pork in Philadelphia, the ubiquitous diner souvlaki, high protein Uruguayan chivitos, Nebraska’s Russian/German bierock. Many sandwiches are only-in-America delights: pimiento cheese throughout the South, New Mexico’s roast green chile wrap, New Orleans’ oyster loaf, Great Lakes walleye (with beer on the side, of course).
You could travel coast-to-coast eating nothing but sandwiches and never have the same one twice. Restaurants that serve them are as varied as the landscape, from the film-noir sawdust floors of Philippe the Original in Los Angeles (home of the French dip) to the buoyant cafes that serve Cuban sandwiches in Miami. A few notable Roadfood favorites are served in quite swanky dining establishments: chicken Vesuvio at Harry Caray’s in Chicago, sardines on Rye at the Pine Club in Dayton, Ohio, spiedini of beef at Louie’s Back Yard in Key West. Many more come from blue-collar diners (peanut butter and bacon at Becky’s of Portland, Maine), street carts (Roque’s Carnitas of Santa Fe), butcher shops (ring bologna at In’t Veld Market of Pella, Iowa), and bars (corned beef Reubens at McBob’s of Milwaukee).
For so many Americans, sandwiches are a vital part of our culinary selves, helping to define who we are and where we come from. In fact, your name for a sandwich of warm roast beef with gravy is an identity marker nearly as precise as a fingerprint. If you call it Italian beef, you are from Chicago. If it’s beef on weck, you are a Buffalonian. If you ask for it with debris, you are from New Orleans. Call it wet beef or beef Manhattan and we’d bet you live in Kansas or the western plains. Hot beef is strictly an upper Midwest term. French dip used to be southern Californian, then generally Western, and is now universal.
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