It doesn’t require all that much to put together a good sandwich, so long as there’s meat involved: Consider how many European countries make perfection out of simply bread, ham, and cheese, or even just bread, ham, and butter. Remove the meat from the equation, though, and the challenge gets steeper. We’ve come a long way from a time when “vegetarian sandwich” meant simply “cheese sandwich” — or maybe hummus and a random assortment of vegetables, if you were lucky. Nothing against the cheese sandwich, of course (particularly when grilled), but, as vegetables’ star has risen, the game has been seriously upped. Putting aside the falafel sandwich, which is ubiquitous enough to be its own category, and the veggie burger, which arguably doesn’t count as a sandwich (and also is its own category), here are five of the city’s most exciting meat-free, veggie-centric options, so good you might choose them over ham and cheese.
2. Court Street Grocers’ Vegitalian Combo
485 Court St., nr. Nelson St., Carroll Gardens; 718-722-7229
The idea of making a vegetarian version of one of the greatest, not to mention most meat-centric American sandwiches of all time, the classic Italian combo, seems like a joke. But the sandwich scientists at Court Street Grocers were undaunted by the challenge and they completely nailed it, by layering roasted butternut squash with a holy trinity of exactly the right kinds of Swiss, mozzarella, and Pecorino cheeses, plus a handful of nutty arugula, red onion, CSG’s green-olive-based hoagie spread, and a generous swipe of glossy mayo, on a perfect, crusty hero from Caputo’s Bakery, just down the street. It’s totally different but truly rivals the real thing.
3. Superiority Burger’s New Creation
430 E. 9th St., nr. Ave. A; 212-256-1192
Using a plant-based substance to mimic meat can be a risky endeavor — do it wrong and you end up with something that would have been served to a 1970s cult. It’s hard to make tempeh appealing. But Brooks Headley knows exactly what he’s doing with yuba, the skin that forms on the surface of fresh soy milk when it’s heated, sort of like cheese curd. Torn into wide, chewy strips, it gets griddled until it’s just crispy, caramelized, and slightly sweet — with a texture reminiscent of the exterior of a pancake or slice of French toast — then piled onto a squishy roll and dressed with a Dijon vinaigrette and shredded lettuce. In another iteration, only sometimes on the menu, it becomes the base of Headley’s vegan take on a Philly cheesesteak. The Yuba Philadelphia is another perfect example of a meatless creation that’s inspired by a meaty standard but doesn’t strain and struggle to emulate it exactly, becoming instead firmly its own, glorious thing. The yuba isn’t meant to fill in for steak; it simply also tastes great tangled with sautéed peppers and onions and blanketed in a satisfyingly runny cashew “cheese.”
4. Dirt Candy’s Beet
86 Allen St., nr. Broome St.; 212-228-7732
Available only at brunch, this sandwich alone is worth braving the Lower East Side crowds on a weekend morning. It’s almost like a deconstructed borscht, as clever as it is delicious: two slices of chewy Bien Cuit sourdough enclosing silky, fantastically flavorful slices of hickory-smoked beet; a mash of grassy fresh dill; horseradish cream (made with Vegenaise); and thin rounds of quick pickles, battered in cornstarch and fried to a crackly-yet-airy texture reminiscent of honeycomb.
5. Breads Bakery’s Vegan
18 E. 16th St., nr. Union Sq. W.; 212-633-2253
The beauty of Breads Bakery’s sandwiches is their absolute simplicity. Sold from a big glass case, they’re freshly made throughout the day, then promptly wrapped in plastic for maximum carry-out appeal, and often contain no more than a few ingredients. This one, starkly named the “Vegan,” is no exception, but it’s exceptionally good: cauliflower steaks roasted in a bread oven until their exteriors are evenly golden brown and interiors creamy; thick walnut pesto made with both basil and parsley (but without cheese); and a spray of radish sprouts. The bread, of course, sliced from their malty, chewy, crusty French sourdough, more than holds its own.
A&A Bake and Doubles Shop’s Double
481 Nostrand Ave., nr. Macon St., Bedford-Stuyvesant; 917-892-9562
At just $1.50 a pop, this traditional sandwich from Trinidad and Tobago, made from two pieces of fried bread stuffed with curried chickpeas dressed in mango chutney and sauces made from tamarind and hot peppers, is not only one of the best vegetarian sandwiches in New York, it’s also probably the cheapest — which just means you should get two, plus a banana soda to wash them down.
By Chloe’s Pesto Meatball
185 Bleecker St., nr. MacDougal St.; no phone
The meatball sub is not often given the vegetarian — let alone vegan — treatment. This one is bewitchingly successful, lighter than its inspiration, of course, but still somehow satisfyingly indulgent, with balls made from portobello mushroom and brown rice squished into an Orwasher’s potato-bread hero roll, then dressed in marinara sauce and basil pesto with ribbons of sweet red pepper, cashew mozzarella, and almond Parmesan.
Il Bambino’s Artichoke Panino
34-08 31st Ave., Astoria; 718-626-0087
Pesto is nice, but romesco, its Spanish cousin, is underused, particularly on sandwiches. Il Bambino’s version, made with piquillo peppers, toasted almonds, garlic, and a bit of roasted bread, marries perfectly with marinated artichokes, creamy béarnaise, and shaved Parmesan, pressed flat on ciabattini from nearby Gian Piero Bakery.
No. 7 Veggie’s Zucchini Parm
238 Bedford Ave., nr. N. 4th St., Williamsburg; 718-734-2321
The beloved sandwich mini-chain has always offered lots of vegetarian options, but now they have a spot devoted entirely to them, inside the Williamsburg Whole Foods. The zucchini parm is an oldie but a goodie, with thick slices of juicy fried zucchini layered with melted provolone, sweet onion puree, jalapeño, and barbecue potato chips for extra crunch.
Untamed’s Sheemakers Bounty
43 W. 39th St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 646-669-9397
The ingredients in this sandwich — charred broccoli, fried almond butter, pickled raisin jelly, and garden cress, on a Grandaisy ciabatta — are a very unlikely combination, but somehow it works.