smashed brat burger from shift photo by greg rannells

St. Louis is having a sandwich renaissance

Legend traces the modern sandwich’s history to an 18th century British nobleman who habitually ate pieces of beef between slices of bread while playing epically long card games. His name was John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich. Though this story could be a myth, there’s a meaningful parable to be found in it: The sandwich was a dish born of necessity. Now, as a pandemic plunges the restaurant industry into the unknown, a similar type of necessity has emerged, especially for concepts whose normal modes of service, from elegant tasting menus to hot-off-the-grill proteins and veggies, are temporarily halted. Fortunately, there’s almost nothing more primal, more functional and more satisfying than a sandwich.

“In March, we closed, and we had no interest in doing curbside or to-go, but obviously there’s not really an end in sight right now,” said Logan Ely, the mastermind behind Shift, a New American restaurant known for tasting courses like asparagus with creamy egg yolk in celery root-mussel foam and a widely acclaimed preserved onion with yeast mousse.

Faced with the existential crisis that came with the closure of their dining room, he and his team searched for a new way forward. “We started with barbecue stuff, some local meats, through a barbecue pit that’s on our patio. We did that for a month or so, but thought, ‘Maybe that’s too expensive and not accommodating people who want a quick bite or are buying food for themselves.’” So Shift forged a new, more accessible program in July, premiering an extended pop-up called Shift Sausages & Sandwiches. “Sandwiches seemed like a fun thing to do,” he said. “We make all the bread, all the sauces, all the patties. It’s an easier and better way.” The rotating menu has featured a foot-long chicken wiener with sorrel, a French onion melt with yeast fondue (a play on Ely’s beloved onion dish), and an Italian sausage with shaved peppers, pickled kale and tomato jam. The towering smashed brat burger, complete with a massive tater tot patty inside, was an inventive amalgamation of treasured summer dishes. 

the 10-inch hoagie at elmwood // photo by izaiah johnson

As changing city guidelines and skyrocketing COVID-19 numbers dictate how and when restaurants can operate, some chefs have found that sandwiches are a perfect solution to the unstable nature of the industry today; the flip side, however, is there’s no way to ensure the longevity of any menu or dish in this environment. For example, Ely’s second restaurant, The Lucky Accomplice, opened at the end of September, at which point he put Shift on hiatus – not his original plan but one that made sense in light of how the latter evolved this year. Thus, there’s a good chance you may never be able to taste the sandwich on the cover of this issue, unless it’s served at his new spot. 

Many of the new sandwiches we’re seeing aren’t ends in themselves but brainstorming sessions, wild gambits meant to help these restaurants keep things running while considering new ways forward. Though temporary in some cases, together the excellent dishes discussed in the following paragraphs provide a snapshot of a deeply precarious moment for local dining. Regardless of what happens with the pandemic, we will look back at this sandwich renaissance as a pivotal moment for the restaurant scene – one that was ultimately about more than sandwiches.

Since opening in January of last year, Elmwood has received accolades for its bold flavors and confident use of indoor grilling, showcased in dishes like charred sweet potato baba ghanoush, mafalda with grilled vegetable Bolognese, and Bangs Island mussels with Sichuan spice. After closing its dining room in response to COVID-19, it developed a great carryout pizza pop-up that included a killer hoagie, one bite of which evoked all that is extraordinary about the Maplewood restaurant’s regular menu. A first-rate use of spice and acid – super-punchy vinegar and jalapenos – gave the sandwich edge, while its combo of tasty meats (mortadella, capocollo and Genoa salami) lent it citizenry to the realm of authentic hoagies. Crusty, perfectly baked bread provided an immersive, gratifying bite. At Elmwood 2.0, we went for the pizza but stayed for the hoagie. 

crispy chicken thigh sandwich at perennial on lockwood // photos by izaiah johnson

Little Fox opened in December with a sharp cocktail menu, an impossibly smart wine list and a battalion of inventive dishes that highlighted chef and co-owner Craig Rivard’s sophisticated mingling of delicate flavors. Now, after a full menu overhaul and the addition of a large, outdoor dining space, dishes like onion soup with bone marrow and a tomahawk pork chop Milanese have given way to a grilled mahi mahi sandwich that’s helping bridge the gap. “We just had to take takeout into consideration,” said Rivard. “Our previous menu didn’t translate to carryout very well. That was one of the sort of taking [in] some of those summer vibes.” Served on an airy Martin’s potato roll with creamy fennel-cabbage slaw and spicy pickles, this subtly brilliant sandwich bears as much of Rivard’s signature style as anything he’s created. And the restaurant’s not stopping there – Little Fox also recently launched a brunch service that sees an egg sandwich and a slow-roasted pork sandwich sitting alongside other elevated brunch items like smoked trout hash, fried green tomato eggs Benedict, and a liptauer (spicy cheese) spread. “For me, brunch has always been an egg sandwich,” Rivard said. But as with many of these new ideas, there’s no way to know how long it’ll be around. “Weather’s going to be a little bit of a determinant on how long we’ll be doing brunch,” he explained. “As long as people want to sit outside, we’ll be trying to continue it.”

For other restaurants, sandwiches haven’t been mere additions, but have spearheaded entire new menus. At Southern-inspired Juniper, whose dining room is closed for the foreseeable future, weekend biscuit sandwich pop-ups have joined an already strong carryout menu, providing a cool new option for the brunch crowd. While many restaurants try making fast food clones, most fail, underestimating just how much development and science go into making commercial food successful. Not Juniper, where a menu composed of just two biscuit sandwiches, hash browns and beverages (coffee, juices and standard brunch cocktails) not only evokes but improves upon everything that makes popular on-the-go breakfasts what they are. The sausage, egg and cheese biscuit is balanced, pitting a flaky, not-too-buttery biscuit against aromatic breakfast meat; the fried chicken scrapple biscuit has a similarly buoyant feel and has a nice, mild spiciness. These sandwiches have been a perfect addition to the restaurant’s lauded, fried-chicken-forward menu.  

breakfast sausage, egg and cheese biscuit sandwich at juniper // photo by izaiah johnson

While COVID-19 is presenting newly launched restaurants with uniquely trying circumstances, new delis and shops that feature standout sandwiches appear to be not only surviving but thriving. Perennial on Lockwood, a collaboration between Perennial Artisan Ales and Olive + Oak, opened in July and came out of the gate with an absolutely insane Sichuan peppercorn-tinged chicken thigh sandwich. Sandwich shops Nomad and The Banh Mi Shop, which opened in February and March respectively, both offer smart, dynamic menus full of classics as well as boundary-pushing specials like Nomad’s head cheese banh mi and a smoked portobello “burger” with onion marmalade and brie. Similarly, in late June, as the pandemic was ramping up, chef Chris Bertke was in the process of leaving Benton Park’s Utah Station to start Vegan Deli and Butcher, a spot of his own in St. Charles. What he came up with was perfect for today’s dining culture: a cafe centered around freshly made, accessible sandwiches and sides that travel well. The soy-based meatball sub on a toasted hoagie is a hearty, fulfilling beast, but Bertke’s unassuming turkey club steals the show.

In other cases, untimely farewells have yielded exciting new beginnings. For the past five years, Sardella had been one of St. Louis’ coolest and weirdest restaurants. Serving unique iterations of regional Italian and world cuisine like hamachi crudo, black trumpet scarpinocc, foie gras torchon and ‘nduja french toast, it almost played like an experimental kitchen, especially compared to neighbor Pastaria’s broad menu of satisfying Italian classics. But when the pandemic forced Sardella to close its small dining room earlier this year, co-owner Gerard Craft transformed the space into a new concept more suited to the current state of dining. Enter Pastaria Deli and Wine, a sandwich carryout pop-up (and soon-to-be actual restaurant) that found its stride in salami, caprese and meatball sandwiches – all served on Union Loafers Cafe and Bakery hoagie rolls – as well as its great wine selection and pragmatic menu of sides and extras (house-made giardiniera!). Sardella may be gone for now, but Pastaria Deli and Wine is likely here to stay.

In all of these sandwiches, whether solid updates on classics or dazzling inventions, we see chefs thinking on their toes and finding new ways to engage diners. And while some of these sandwiches may be around for years, others will surely be gone by the time you read this. Of course, as wonderful as these new dishes are, we should not take for granted the true forces behind the sandwich renaissance: a city that loves great food and a restaurant industry that continues to deliver.

Coming soon:

You already love the Kitchen Kulture breakfast sandwich. Soon, you’ll be able to get it at Songbird, the new cafe from the sandwich’s creators.
Instagram: @songbird.stl

A new pop-up operating at Chao Baan and various other locations, Izumi promises to have Japanese sandos and more starting sometime this month.
Instagram: @izumistlouis

Sando Shack
Another Japanese sandwich concept, Sando Shack has been posting pictures of a sweet-and-spicy chicken sandwich as well as beef and chicken katsu sandwiches.
Instagram: @sandoshackstl