By: Greg MoragoOctober 5, 2020Updated: October 6, 2020, 9:36 am
The sandwich has gotten chef Benjy Mason through more than just simple hunger during the pandemic. It has become a tasty symbol of survival.
“I’ve been making sandwiches all during quarantine,” said the proprietor of Down House and Johnny’s Gold Brick, adding that he and friends have been sharing photos of their sandwich creations on social media in an informal fashion they’ve dubbed the Quarantine Sandwich Club. “People are looking for comfort and familiarity, and sandwiches fall into that.”
And how. Mason witnessed the power of the sandwich when he and chef Graham Laborde, formerly of Killen’s restaurant group, and chef Chris Roy, formerly of Bernadine’s and Killen’s Steakhouse, launched a pop-up recently called Peace Maker Po-Boys offering po’boy sandwiches invested with Houston creativity and New Orleans flair. The menu of fried shrimp and oyster, smoked turkey, birria debris and Nashville hot mushroom po’boys struck a chord. In fact, the partners had to double their sandwich estimates based on pre-orders. The event was a sellout.
Throughout Houston, chefs and restaurants are putting new efforts into the sandwich — as an efficient and inexpensive business model and a new revenue stream while the dining scene remains in flux. .
Having already popularized the smoked brisket pastrami Reuben as a weekly special, craft-barbecue joint Roegels Barbecue Co. is now high on new sandwich creations. There’s a barbecue Cuban sandwich on Tuesdays as well as a Monday special of spicy smoked turkey katsu sandwich.
“You wouldn’t think of finding a katsu sandwich at a barbecue place, but it works,” owner/pitmaster Russell Roegels said. “If we’re going to survive this thing, we’ve got to get creative.”
Though he admits new sandwiches alone won’t make up for the economic hit the pandemic has caused, they certainly help.
“It’s something new. It’s different and interesting,” he said. “And we’re going to keep doing it even after this is over.”
Sandwiches have become a smart side business for chefs such as Ben McPherson, who recently launched Porchetta & Sandwiches as a daytime sandwich project within his BOH Pasta & Pizza in Bravery Chef Hall, and chef Ryan Lachaine, who opened Louie’s, a to-go business within his Montrose restaurant Riel, offering expert takes on classic sandwiches including the BLT, turkey club, Italian sub, fish filet and chicken Parmesan. Lachaine’s sandwiches are such a hit that he has expanded Louie’s offerings (available noon to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays) to neatly segue into Riel’s dinner service; the Louie’s menu is now available from 5 to 6:30 p.m. for weekday happy hour.
When Hay Merchant retooled its menu during the summer, it was a springboard for sandwich options such as Philly cheesesteak, fried shrimp po’boy and a muffuletta. Bottled Blonde Pizzeria & Beer Garden recently opened on Washington with a menu that includes an Italian sub stuffed with cold cuts and giardiniera, an old-school chicken Parmesan sandwich and a turkey porchetta sandwich smeared with basil pesto. At Latin Bites Kitchen, chef Carlos Ramos has added breakfast and lunch sandwiches to the menu, including a house-made country ham sandwich and a Peruvian pork confit sandwich with aji amarillo mayonnaise. At the White Elm Cafe Bakery, the Grateful Bird (maple-bourbon-brined turkey breast, bacon and brie on cranberry walnut bread) and a duck confit banh mi with garlic aioli have helped make the Memorial newcomer a hit.
The fried chicken sandwich, a phenomenon before COVID-19 struck, has gained newfound momentum during the pandemic. Restaurateur Levi Goode of Goode Co. recently launched a fried chicken concept, Goode Bird, that includes fried and grilled chicken sandwiches. Brennan’s of Houston recently introduced a Creole buttermilk-brined spicy fried chicken sandwich available daily at its Courtyard Bar. Even Whataburger got in the game with a limited-edition spicy chicken sandwich.
When Patsy Vivares reopened her Sticky’s Chicken in Sawyer Yards this summer, she did so with a hot chicken sandwich.
“We felt we needed something on the menu to draw more people,” she said. “We always talked about doing a chicken sandwich, but we were nervous. If you come out with a chicken sandwich, it has to be good. There’s so much competition.”
There are lines around the store at Mico’s Hot Chicken at 1603 N. Durham, where owners Mico and Christopher Frydenlund are offering only three menu items, including an exquisite fried Nashville hot chicken sandwich on butter-toasted brioche.
Restaurant consultant Jonathan Horowitz of Convive Hospitality Consulting said Mico’s is capitalizing on a product that’s in demand for a number of reasons.
“The sandwich is a great value proposition. It lends itself easily to takeout and delivery that we’re seeing so much of right now and has become even more important during COVID,” said Horowitz, who represents Mico’s. “And its real, true comfort food. More than ever, people are looking for comfort. Chefs are playing with the sandwich and putting their own spins on it to provide comfort food for their customers.”
Shannen Tune is a firm believer in the chicken sandwich. During the summer, the chef/owner of Craft Burger in Finn Hall launched a ghost kitchen concept, Thick Chick, specializing in fried chicken sandwiches, including a Nashville hot. Available on both the Finn Hall menu and through his cloud kitchen (for food delivery) location in the Third Ward, Tune’s chicken sandwiches are becoming a happy disrupter within his own burger business.
“Some weeks I sell more chicken sandwiches than I do burgers,” Tune said. “Thick Chick is working for me. Beef prices went crazy in the summer while chicken stayed the same. We use a boneless chicken thigh, so it’s already a lower-cost item. And the chicken sandwich is something that’s relatable to everyone. It’s something people already want.”
Though hot chicken is hot, it might be the po’boy that’s making the most welcome resurgence. Not that Houston is underserved by po’boys — Ragin’ Cajun has been making very fine examples since its beginning — but there’s a new spotlight on the New Orleans-born classic.
At Cherry Block Craft Butcher & Kitchen, chef/partner Jessica DeSham Timmons is breathing exciting new life into the quintessential Big Easy sandwich. Her counter at Bravery Chef Hall is doing big business in new po’boys including shrimp remoulade with fried green tomatoes, and roast beef debris with cornmeal fried shrimp.
“Everybody can do a burger — I do, too — but po’boys are a little different. Special,” she said.
Timmons, a po’boy fan, went to lengths to ensure her sandwiches would be both traditional and distinctive. She engaged Tasos Katsaounis, owner of Bread Man Baking Co., to develop the special bread like the authentic long loaves used in New Orleans.
“I wasn’t going to do a half-assed version of a po’boy.” Timmons added that sandwiches such as the po’boy are what’s driving business these days. “People want something comforting, hearty and filling,” she said.
The Peace Maker boys are counting on that sentiment. While considering plans on making their po’boy concept a permanent thing on the local dining scene, they’ve already planned their next pop-up: It’ll be Oct. 16 at Natachee’s Supper ’n’ Punch.