by Matthew Korfhage
Consider the sandwich. It is food’s bluntest weapon, a bready torpedo with a payload of pure comfort. A good one offers a delicate harmony of flavors, with enough sloppy oomph to overpower its wrapper. And while they might be named for a gambling addict in old England, it was America that learned to love sandwiches best.
The birthplace of sliced bread is home to a strutting peacock of regional offerings that would shame most countries. In Hampton Roads, the soft-shell crab sandwich may reign supreme, but look deeper and you’ll find year-round sandwiches of meat-filled majesty: pork barbecue with sauce born deep in the soul of Tidewater, Frankensteins of fried chicken, spice-drenched Mexican tortas, pastrami steamed to peppered perfection. Here are six worth seeking out.
The Super Reuben
Route 58 Delicatessen, Virginia Beach
For 16 years, 58 Deli’s Super Reuben has been a towering and beautiful monstrosity – an inches-thick stack of corned beef and pastrami that’d make Katz’s Delicatessen blush, slathered in the tang and gentle spice of house made Russian dressing and layered with barrel cured sauerkraut and imported Swiss cheese.
All told, the sandwich weighs two pounds. If you manage to finish it, owner Jeff Goldberg may tack your picture on the wall.
The meat comes from New York, but its depth comes from the three hours it spends in custom steamers, rendering the fats until the tendinous navel and brisket take on the tenderness of a Yiddish Don Juan. And Goldberg won’t tell anybody where he gets his thick rye bread, other than to say he drives personally to the Northeast to pick it up.
The result is a crisp, tender, tangy, spicy, sweet and meaty behemoth, a landmark in Virginia Beach beef and a cheery promise of clogged arteries. Even during the pandemic, popular demand for the Super Reuben remains undimmed.
Goldberg and his crew sell more than a thousand of the $20 sandwiches each month.
When he put the Super Reuben on sale for half price last March as part of a pandemic drive-thru event, so many cars lined up for orders the police had to be called. “They backed traffic up to Little Neck,” Goldberg laughs. “It was insanity. The police department was here, the health department was here. Everybody was here. We were deli public enemy number one.”
Hat tip: For a uniquely Hampton Roads take on the pastrami sandwich, head the century-old French Bakery & Delicatessen in Norfolk. It is grilled and peppery, served with onion, mustard and pickle on bread baked in a brick oven.
Liege Waffle Breakfast Sandwich
Mea Culpa Cafe, Norfolk
The waffle sandwich is a dicey proposition and can easily devolve into a rubbery flop. But the ones at Norfolk’s Mea Culpa Cafe aren’t made with just any waffle. Their Belgian-inspired Liege waffles are imbued with the light chew of yeast-leavened dough, crisp on their edges and studded with surprises of rocky pearl sugar that crumbles into pure sweetness between your teeth.
Amid the light domesticity of a converted home in which they also happen to live, Kris Harvey and Cristina Angelo have made virtue out of simplicity – allowing each ingredient to express itself and then just getting out of the way.
The sandwich changes with the weather, so during winter the breakfast sandwich is a stacked-up winter medley that smacks of the garden – the savory chew of sun-dried tomato, kale oiled with shallot or garlic oil that’s been roasted in-house, squash pan-fried simply with salt and pepper, the fatty comforts of a hard-fried egg and aioli freshened with the oniony undertow of chive. One constant, however, is the delicate harmony of crisply sweet waffle and the savory depths of garden-fresh vegetables, a sunny lightness and balance that comes from using no ingredient that isn’t needed.
Hat tip: Among other meat-free options locally, you never go wrong with the Guyanese-Caribbean flavors of vegan spot Desmond’s Island Soul Grill in Virginia Beach – in particular a jerk sandwich made by smoking portobellos over pimento wood, and then slathering it with spicy jerk sauce made fresh to order. In summer, look to the thick heirloom tomato sandwich at Commune’s two locations in Virginia Beach and Norfolk for a sloppy, stacked update on a Southern garden-season classic.
Tidewater-style Pork Sandwich
Redwood Smoke Shack, Norfolk
Floyd Thomas’ Tidewater pork is a deep piece of local history arrived at by lucky accident. Years ago, he whipped up six or seven different vinegar-based sauces for friends in a whole-hog cookout. But it was the first batch he made, the “Virginia Original” sauce that blended every flavor he liked in barbecue, that everyone agreed was the clear winner.
That sauce is a complicated stew you could gulp as a drinking vinegar; it comes with a sharp cidery tang, the sinus-clearing spike of mustard and cayenne, and the sweetness of tomato, molasses and brown sugar. But by sheer coincidence, it also happens to be a country cousin of the ingredients in a long-forgotten Tidewater regional sauce mapped out by food historian Joseph Haynes. Thomas aligned his sauce even more with the historical recipe, to create the version he now rubs into his pork each Friday at Redwood Smoke Shack.
Thomas’ spicy-sweet vinegar sauce blasted away the competition at a barbecue war last summer, winning both the judges’ and the people’s prize. But the Tidewater-style wasn’t the pork that Redwood was serving. Owner and pitmaster Bob Roberts had traditionally sold his pork Texas-style, seasoned with salt and pepper and a simple vinegar sauce on the side rather than rubbed into the pork. But now he tempers Texas with Virginia, offering the Tidewater-style pork as a standing Floyd Friday Special. It’s a piece of the Old Dominion unknown even to most people in Virginia, served inches thick on a buttery bun.
Hat tip: There’s too much pork in these parts to count. But some of the best barbecue pork sandwiches in Virginia Beach can be found from people named Malbon, whether at Malbon Bros. BBQ & Catering or, especially, from Malbon’s BBQ & Catering. But take your pick of pig wherever you stand: the spicy-sauced P-Town BBQ in Portsmouth, the Chowan County-style Southside BBQ & Catering in Chesapeake, the laborious traditions at Smoke BBQ Restaurant & Bar in Newport News. You’re covered.
The Classic Cheesesteak
Philly Cold Cuts, Virginia Beach
The first thing you hear when you walk inside Philly Cold Cuts is the thack-thack-thack of hot sliced ribeye being chopped to meaty perfection. That beef is then mixed up with cheese until the two become indistinguishable: a synthesis of fats in an Italian bun, with maybe some onions.
For 40 years, the Fuller family has served its cheesesteaks in Virginia Beach – a tradition handed down from a father born in the Philadelphia suburbs to three sons who’ve been making the sandwiches since before they were old enough to drive. Philly Cold Cuts has customers that drive from as far away as the Eastern Shore, paying hefty tolls each way.
The restaurant’s original Great Neck location carries not just history, but the whiff of star power: it was Pharrell Williams’ cheesesteak spot when he was growing up in Virginia Beach, and his picture still hangs on the wall alongside a procession of football stars.
But history only means something if you honor it, and the Fuller brothers are meticulous stewards. They favor a medium chop, and a light grill-toasting of their Philadelphia-baked rolls from Liscio’s Bakery. But the key to their cheesesteak is its juice, a beefiness co-owner Todd Fuller says they maintain by cooking the meat fast enough to suit their customers’ needs, but at a low enough temperature to maintain their signature juicy beefiness.
Tied with: Philly Style Steaks & Subs in Norfolk is the other great cheesesteak icon in Hampton Roads, a shrine to the City of Brotherly Love sprawled out across its walls in countless photos and clippings. There, Joe and Debbie Hatch have been making their own beautiful spatula music for 38 years, shouting out the names of each order over the din of grill-slaps in the kitchen.
The beef at Philly Style is a coarser chop on its Liscio’s roll, with beautiful grill-seared texture and the depth of a long-seasoned flat top, plus a bit more of an edge of seasoning in the meat. It is a competing and equally beautiful vision of cheesesteak, less like the difference between Pat’s and Geno’s than between Dalessandro’s and Jim’s.
And if you know what those names mean, you’ll know exactly how precious these cheesesteaks are the second you taste them.
My Mama’s Kitchen, Norfolk
My Mama’s Kitchen is the sort of down-the-way spot you always hoped would be down the way – a hidden house of unending comforts tucked just off Shore Drive, where chef Moe Stevenson cooks up fried chicken the way he learned it from his
mother, who used to sell it in Harlem.
His wings are easily some of the best in town – crispy, sweet and spicy – and the fried chicken sandwich is perhaps like no other in the area. The key is freshness: Each item is made from scratch and cooked to order.
Inspired by the famous Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville, Stevenson’s Drip sandwich is a torrent of flavors. His breast is brined overnight in buttermilk and egg, dredged in Cajun-spiced flour, and fried in oil already rich with chicken fat until it attains a thin scrim of crispness. The fried breast then takes a swim in Stevenson’s own personal whirlpool of spice, a smoky-sweet garlic-cayenne sauce with molasses and seasoning. Its flavor is as complicated as the soul of America.
Add the mustard-paprika kick of Cajun remoulade, tangy slaw and the crisp snap of house-made pickles on a buttery brioche bun, and the Drip is a high-wire balancing act of every flavor you ever wanted in a sandwich – so intense you can’t stand it, but somehow delicate in its textures. When customers come for it, Stevenson says, they don’t get just one. They order two or three at a time. “We were trying to do something nobody else did,” he says. “They can try to copy it, but they’re not going to get there.”
Hat tip: Ever since Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen made the fried chicken sandwich a cultural phenomenon, local spots have been turning out the hits. Every Sunday, Fuller’s Raw Bar in Phoebus kicks out a $5 Chick-fil-A replica that’s better than the original. And over on Norfolk’s Colley Avenue, the great fried chicken is legion, including the pepper jack-melted thigh at Codex, the Northern African-influenced secret sauce at Cagney’s Chicken & Seafood Eatery, and the ever-changing chicken sandwich at LeGrand Kitchen. The chicken at LeGrand never disappoints: kimchi slaw one day, then Hong Kong XO or Alabama white barbecue sauce the next.
Chorizo Mexican Eatery, Norfolk
Every smart visitor to the west Mexican town of Guadalajara knows not to leave without getting their hands wet indulging in a torta ahogada. The name – literally, “drowned sandwich” – is the perfect description for the fiery pork carnitas sandwich dunked bread-and-all in a sauce of spicy chile de árbol. Like many great inventions, it was apparently an accident. Legend has it a hurried train station chef in the 1800s had a slip of the hand and dropped his whole sandwich in the salsa.
At Chorizo Mexican Eatery, Guadalajara-born Rodrigo Ochoa has brought the torta ahogada to Norfolk as a weekend special, filled to brimming with long-roasted pork shoulder cooked to tantalizing depth and sweetness in orange juice, milk and Coca-Cola. Ochoa then ladles the sandwich with a flood of two sauces: a sweet and light tomato, then a fire engine-red chile sauce whose flames won’t leave your mouth for minutes afterward.
To stand up to those sauces, the bread must be special – a crisp-edged take on a French sourdough called birote that is loosely named after its inventor, a Belgian named Camille Pirotte who arrived in Guadalajara with the invading French army in the 1860s. Ochoa gets his sourdoughs from local French bakery La Brioche Bakery & Coffee and hopes to work with them on a custom version to nail the exact texture of bread.
But his torta is already a riot of meaty sweetness, fire and satisfying chew, brightened by the crisp snap of red onions. It is a torta like no other nearby, a sandwich you can’t put down because it is wetter than an otter’s pocket. And yet, you’ll never want to put down until it’s through. With your lips burning and your tongue singing arias, you just have to chase that dragon all the way to its tail.
Hat tip: For another drowned torta, stop by Taqueria La Patrona Bar & Grill in Virginia Beach for a sandwichy take on the bright orange quesabirria taco, with long-roasted beef laden with Oaxaca cheese, stuffed into bolillo bread and then dunked in bright red consomé made from the drippings of the meat. It’s a style of sandwich you’ll never find in Mexico, and it almost assuredly didn’t exist anywhere else until this year.