Super Sandwiches

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Zinc Reubenesque_Zinc Cafe
The Zinc Reubenesque at Zinc Cafe | Photo by Zinc Cafe

From cold to hot, classics or unique stacks, these portable meals are perfect for a quick bite and an easy answer when deciding what to eat for lunch, dinner or a snack.

By Sharon Stello


People have long pondered the best thing since sliced bread. The answer seems obvious: a sandwich, since it builds on sliced bread with your favorite meats, cheeses or other ingredients placed right in the middle.

For many of us, a sandwich was the first thing we learned to make in the kitchen as kids, smearing peanut butter on one slice of bread and jelly on the other, then smashing them together. But you can put almost anything between two pieces of wheat, sourdough or rye, making for seemingly endless varieties. From a meatball sub dripping with marinara to an Italian option layered with deli meats or even a simple grilled cheese, sandwiches can be basic—reminiscent of school lunches—or elevated fare.

The sandwich is believed to be named after John Montagu, the fourth earl of Sandwich. In 1700s England, the story goes, Montagu requested salt beef between two pieces of toasted bread so that he could eat with one hand while continuing his long card game sessions. But, although the sandwich may owe its name and popularity to the earl, variations of the concoction can be traced back centuries to the “korech,” consumed during Jewish Passover. Hillel the Elder, a rabbi in Jerusalem around 110 B.C., suggested eating bitter herbs—representing the bitterness of slavery—inside unleavened matzo.

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Spicy Tuna (left) and Sir Melvin sandwiches with pasta salad at Wigz deli | Photo by Ashley Ryan

While not every sandwich is as symbolic, they’re an easy option, whether you’re planning a spring picnic or just looking for lunch. Sandwiches have endured through time, growing in popularity and the number of options.

“It’s like our love for a good burrito—it can be wrapped, thrown in a bag and eaten with your hands,” says Zac Cornwell, co-owner of Wigz deli. “It can be eaten now or later. [And] you can get an abundance of flavors all in one bite without having … to stab it all on a fork.”

And when it comes to tasty and unique sandwiches, from paninis to French dips, this town’s offerings really stack up.


Deli Delights

Wigz, which opened over the summer in a former wig shop on South Coast Highway, is solely dedicated to “sandos.” Cornwell, a former financial planner who grew up in town and managed several Gelato Paradiso shops during college, missed working in the food service industry. And he felt the community was missing something, so Cornwell and his fiancee, Kelly Skvarna, opened Wigz.

“We have needed a proper sandwich shop in Laguna my entire life,” Cornwell says. “Some of the older generation can remember Stottlemyers, but that was way before my time.”

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The Italian Market sandwich at Rye Goods | Photo by Lindsay Jones

Wigz deli offers combinations like pesto grilled cheese packed with veggies and balsamic, the spicy tuna on Dutch Crunch bread and a hot pastrami, among others. Cornwell believes a good sandwich comes down to “fresh ingredients [and] really good bread.” For the record, Wigz uses bread from Bread Artisan Bakery, whose owner lives in Laguna.

“The bread is everything,” Cornwell says about selecting the base for a sandwich. “It’s been a challenge because all of our bread is so good. The main thing I am looking for is how the bread complements the ingredients. When I remake menu items—most recently, October of last year—I really struggle to choose the bread for each sandwich. … A lot of sandwiches will take on a whole new life depending on which bread they come on. The veggie, for example, comes on squaw, but it’s also amazing on Dutch Crunch.”

Wigz customers can choose their own bread or go with the standard option for each menu item. Or they can select a “sub in a tub” to skip the bread completely. Cornwell says another key to a good sandwich is assembling it so that no one element overwhelms the others. “It can be tricky to balance a sandwich, but I think we’ve gotten it down,” he says.

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An egg salad sandwich at Zinc Cafe | Photo by Zinc Cafe

When asked which items are the shop’s most popular, Cornwell has a three-part answer because “it’s not really a fair fight for the top.” First is the Turkey Bacon Avo, “a California classic … on the ever-popular Dutch Crunch.” No. 2 is the Laguna Italian, a filling combination of meats and veggies topped with house-made Italian dressing—“It’s savory with a hint of sweet,” he says. No. 3 is the Sir Melvin, “a local go-to sandwich” created by one of his friends, Brennen Mulvaney (nicknamed Melvin), who helped open the shop. It brings together turkey, avocado, shredded lettuce, tomato, red onion, peperoncinis, mayo, Dijon mustard and Italian dressing on squaw bread. “Brennen … whipped up a sandwich he remembered from his childhood and made me try it. I think I drooled after my first bite and, thus, the Sir Melvin was born,” Cornwell says.

Some sandwiches, like the Wigz Grinder, include a house-made spicy cream cheese, which is a flavor bomb that simply must be tried. “Cream cheese is an underrated sandwich ‘sauce,’ in my opinion,” Cornwell says.

Aioli is also among the oft-used spreads. When it comes to classics, head to Sapphire, Cellar-Craft-Cook for the BLT, which incorporates herb-and-pepper aioli, applewood-smoked bacon, sweet gem lettuce and tomato on artisan multigrain bread.

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The Crunchy Chicken Sandwich, which layers in potato chips, at Reunion Kitchen & Drink | Photo by Emily J. Davis

Meanwhile, Rye Goods downtown offers an Italian Market sandwich with house-made mustard, mayo and pickles, Swiss cheese, shredded gem lettuce, radicchio, heirloom tomatoes, capers, red onion and Italian vinaigrette on sourdough. “We … will be releasing more and more flavors as the weather warms up and more produce hits the market,” says Rye Goods owner Sara Lezama.

Additionally, the cafe has a breakfast sandwich that starts with a sesame bagel smeared with chive cream cheese, then layers on crispy smashed potato, an over-medium egg, chives, house-made chile crunch oil and lemon drizzle, proving sandwiches aren’t just for lunch.

A breakfast sandwich can also be found at Zinc Cafe with two fried eggs, cucumber, tomato, arugula and pickled onions on a bagel with herb cream cheese. For lunch at Zinc, consider the egg salad, with Tabasco, Dijon, butter lettuce and tomato on whole wheat, or the Zinc Reubenesque with roasted beets, sauerkraut, Gruyere cheese, Zinc sauce and coriander on toasted rye.


Hot Stuff

When it comes to sandwiches, some are a delicate affair—think crustless nibbles at tea time—while others offer a hearty helping that fills you up like a plated meal. For example, Orange Inn serves a Holiday Turkey rendition with Thanksgiving fixings like turkey and cranberry sauce, finished with mayo, red onions and lettuce, and a hot-off-the-grill corned beef and Swiss on rye with pickles and onions.

Over at Rye Goods, spring diners will find The Alpine, a hot pressed sandwich on a fresh-baked sourdough baguette with Alpine cheese (similar to Gruyere), sauteed alliums (leeks and spring onions), house-made creamy pepper bechamel and hot honey. “This is an amazing sandwich and sold out so fast on launch day,” Lezama says.

Reunion Kitchen & Drink in north Laguna features quite a few savory sandos, from pulled pork to the Cafe Patty Melt and Prime Rib Dip, which sometimes sells out. The patty melt is based on a recipe that originated at Tiny Naylor’s on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood around 1958. Triple-thick cheddar is served with grilled onions on a special grilled marbled rye (without caraway seeds), a side of Thousand Island dressing and a pickle.

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Oak’s chicken pesto sandwich | Photo by Christina Vogt

“A great sandwich is all in the details,” says Scott McIntosh, co-owner of Reunion Kitchen & Drink. “From oven-roasted prime rib to fresh grilled chicken or USDA Prime hamburgers, the protein must be prepared properly. Fresh baked bread is a must—we receive it daily from OC Baking Co. All sauces should be spread completely to ensure maximum flavor in every bite.”

The Prime Rib Dip piles on meat that’s roasted daily. “It’s wildly popular because we really care about doing it right,” McIntosh explains. “It’s USDA Prime beef, thinly sliced, rich au jus and then we spread it with horseradish aioli. All served up on a beautiful OC Baking Co. baguette.”

And Reunion’s grilled meatloaf sandwich takes this classic up a notch—without the typical addition of ketchup. Warm meatloaf is nestled on Parmesan sourdough with roasted garlic mayo, smoked bacon, American cheese, tomato and shredded lettuce; grilled onions are optional. “It’s basically like if Krispy Kreme made a meatloaf sandwich—that’s what it would taste like,” McIntosh says.

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The BLT, with herb-and-pepper aioli and applewood-smoked bacon, at Sapphire, Cellar-Craft-Cook | Photo by Sapphire, Cellar-Craft-Cook

A grilled tuna melt is another dineresque sandwich at Reunion. The tuna salad comes together with cheddar and sliced tomato on grilled Parmesan sourdough; avocado and bacon can be added upon request and a hand-cut dill pickle (the same one used at Disneyland) is served on the side. Wigz also has a tuna melt with white cheddar, havarti, tomato, mustard and spread on marble rye. But one of Cornwell’s favorites at Wigz is the spicy tuna, which ups the ante with pepperjack cheese and a bit of heat; he prefers this panini grilled on Dutch Crunch bread. Penguin Cafe, opened in the 1940s as a malt shop, also offers a tuna melt while another tuna sandwich variety—with a fun name to boot—is the Lagoona Tuna at Orange Inn, which comes toasted with white albacore and pico de gallo.

And Wigz recently introduced the Rumari’s Meatball Sub made with meatballs from Rumari, the Italian and Greek restaurant next door. “It has been a hit,” Cornwell says. “It is first come, first served, so if it’s on your mind, you might want to call us ahead to make sure we haven’t sold out. [And] there will be some additional new creations coming soon.”

A few other places in town offer a meatball sub, including Gina’s Pizza, which also has a chicken Parmesan sandwich. At Alessa by Chef Pirozzi, the lunch menu claims its version has the “best homemade meatballs ever” with a cheese blend in a ragu sauce, and warns diners that “this is addictive.”

Other local specialties include a Monte Cristo at Kitchen in the Canyon, complete with ham, turkey and Swiss on Hawaiian bread dipped into a French toast batter and fried, then served with raspberry jam. This canyon spot also whips up a variety reminiscent of a Philly cheesesteak, with tri-tip, sauteed bell peppers and onions, melty Swiss and horseradish mayo on a French roll.

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Lumberyard’s fried chicken sandwich with jalapeno tartar sauce | Photo by Jeannie Simons

No doubt, we could write an entire story on chicken sandwiches around town, from the Honey Chicken Brie—a fan favorite at Reunion—to the pesto chicken and spicy crispy chicken sandwiches at Oak, the fried chicken option with jalapeno tartar sauce at Lumberyard and Ahba’s Chicken Sammie with green cabbage slaw, pickled mustard seed, Fresno peppers, harissa honey, Ahba sauce and a side of buttermilk ranch. And then there’s Reunion’s Crunchy Chicken Sandwich with grilled or fried chicken breast and, among the layered ingredients, crumpled potato chips. “My wife, Rosemary, always puts potato chips on her sandwiches—gives it that extra crunch,” McIntosh says. “We thought it was a fun idea and our guests love it.”

When it comes to seafood, The Deck on Laguna Beach features a grilled mahi mahi sandwich with Cajun remoulade, cabbage slaw and pickled shallots among the accouterments. And Mosaic Bar & Grille at Montage Laguna Beach has both a blackened fish sandwich made with the daily catch as well as a lobster roll with Maine lobster, tarragon creme fraiche, pickled celery and smoked trout roe.

Of course, sometimes simple is best, and Oak has the perfect grilled cheese and roasted tomato soup, a timeless pairing. Many other local eateries serve grilled cheese, from Penguin Cafe to The Cliff and The Deck, the latter of which uses Danish fontina and Vermont cheddar, caramelized onions and applewood bacon, also with tomato soup.


Wordly Wonders

Different cultures have their own take on the sandwich, too. Adolfo’s Mexican Food offers “tortas,” which start with toasted bread slathered with mayo, then pile on beans and your choice of carne asada, carnitas, chicken, chorizo or bacon and eggs, all topped with lettuce, tomato, onions, guacamole and sour cream. It offers all the flavors of a burrito, but in sandwich form. Mosaic also offers an al pastor torta with grilled chicken, pineapple slaw, lettuce, tomato, avocado and jalapeno aioli.

Head to Oak for a Cuban-ish Sandwich, served warm with smoked ham, pastrami and peppered bacon, melted Swiss, So Cal sauce and spicy pickles. Or visit Moulin, where the menu features traditional French options including Le Croque Monsieur, a grilled house-made ham and cheese, and Madame, which builds on that with a sunny side-up egg on top.

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Banh mi sandwiches at Saigon Beach

At Saigon Beach, the banh mi sandwich reigns supreme. This Vietnamese creation—with French influences from colonial times in the Asian country—starts with a toasty baguette giving way to savory grilled pork or other proteins, a sprinkling of cilantro, tangy pickled carrots and jicama, some heat from sliced jalapenos, a light layer of mayo and the cooling crunch of cucumber. Swap the grilled pork for pork belly, brisket beef, shredded chicken, tofu, mushroom or jackfruit.

“An employee favorite … is a pho baguette dip,” says Saigon Beach manager Annabel Vu. “It contains the fixings of a pho noodle soup in a toasted baguette served with a side of pho broth. You can dip it or sip it. So delicious and perfect when you can’t decide between soup or sandwich—have both.”

And Starfish Laguna offers a slider version of the banh mi—either beef with house-pickled slaw and Sriracha aioli or crispy seasoned soft-shell crab with fresh vegetable slaw, cilantro and an aioli trio.

With so many options, the hardest part is deciding which to choose. Luckily, every day is an opportunity to try a new iteration of the best thing since sliced bread.

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