A few months back in this space, I suggested that clever operators looking for some unconventional new sandwich possibilities could add elements of distinctive ethnic street foods and work these unusual ingredients into the guts of their signature menu items.

Specifically, my suggestion was: “Pick a spot on the world map, take a look at the region’s sandwiches of choice, and consider incorporating the best of the locals’ lunchtime customs into your sandwich offerings.”

My focus at the time was squarely on the sandwich’s interior—the meats, vegetables, sauces, cheeses, and other fillings that serve as the center of the entire operation.  

But if we were to stand that approach on its ear, the possibilities could be equally novel.  What if, for instance, we were to create a new line of sliders not by tweaking what’s between the buns, but by changing out—or tricking out—the buns themselves?  

There are, after all, no city or county ordinances preventing White Castle from placing its famous sliders on German pretzel bread or even on Indian-style naan that’s been brushed with garlic butter. Nor is federal legislation pending in either house that would bar sliders from being served on traditional challah or on crispy little onion-and-cheese pita squares. While these slight alterations could be revelations for guests who crave the essence of those succulent little burgers, who wouldn’t mind a slight variation on a familiar theme?

The ongoing globalization of the American palate has broadened our bread frontiers well beyond what any of us could have imagined even a decade ago. As a nation, we’re still eating many of the same things we used to, but we’re piling those things into, or onto, dozens of different carriers, from Italian-style ciabatta to steamed Chinese bao buns, tortillas, Vietnamese baguettes, Indian paratha flatbreads, or unusual artisan loaves made with ancestral grains like quinoa and amaranth.

What all this means for the crafty menu-development professional is that it’s now possible to give a sandwich a near-complete makeover with not much more than the culinary equivalent of a new coat of paint.

My guess is that the 20-somethings who visit the delicatessen right around the corner from my office near San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf would be a whole lot more excited about the establishment’s ham-and-cheese offering if it were available on something besides white, whole wheat, and sourdough. Likewise, an everyday tuna sandwich would probably entice them if it were delivered between two slices of toasted, salt-and-pepper potato ciabatta.

Peanut butter on standard white bread is something of a nonstarter to people reared on more exotic and adventurous lunchtime fare. But the very same peanut butter on a chocolate chip brioche is something else altogether. And tell me that the standard-issue turkey-and-Swiss number you enjoyed for lunch wouldn’t have been more memorable if it had been served on two arepas—griddled corn meal patties that are used as sandwich carriers at the Pica Pica Maize Kitchen in Napa, California, and San Francisco’s Mission district.

The prospects get even more interesting as the breads themselves become more of a feature attraction and less of a basic sandwich building block. Wrap a piece of grilled chicken in Brazilian cheese bread, and you’ll never see any other grilled chicken sandwich the same way again. Pack your garden-variety pulled pork into a flaky empanada shell, and it’s a whole new experience. And if you make a Salvadoran papusa—a traditional, cheese-filled corn cake—the foundation on which your roast beef sandwich is built, the whole affair turns into something much more mouthwatering.

Even a cursory look at what some popular artisan and wholesale bread bakeries are doing with the basic flour-yeast-and-water formula can provide a menu developer with mountains of inspiration.

At Los Angeles’ Breadbar, golden fig-and-honey loaves share space with parmesan lavash and Mediterranean focaccia. Similar creativity reigns at the James Beard Award–winning Tartine Bakery on Guerrero Street in San Francisco, as well as at Amy’s Bread in New York, where prosciutto and black pepper creations commingle with picholine olive and sea salt varieties. And let’s not forget that La Brea Bakery has brought Kalamata olive, pecan raisin, and rosemary olive oil loaves to supermarket aisles and big-box retail outlets all across the country.

With these generous options and hundreds or even thousands of others, there are endless opportunities for quick-serve chains to take part in this trend of increasing interest in ethnic and artisan-style breads. The toughest question for most of us in the menu-development field is figuring out where exactly to begin our explorations.

By Marc Halperin
Industry News