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What Is a Sandwich?

On hot dogs, arepas, and other sandwich-like objects

Some of SF’s most exceptional sandwiches
Patricia Chang

There’s nothing the internet likes more than a tedious semantic debate. At least that’s the impression you’ll get if you, for instance, do even a cursory search on Twitter for the most pressing questions of our times: Is a taco a sandwich? Is a hot dog a sandwich? Is a burger a sandwich? And is a burrito actually a taco?

To which I say: Maybe. Yes. Absolutely. And sure, why not.

In the Bay Area restaurant scene, mid-pandemic, we’re experiencing a sandwich boom of sorts — perhaps unsurprising, given that the entire food genre seems ideal for these times of takeout and casual counter service. So, starting today, Eater SF will embark on a entire week’s worth of sandwich-related stories, maps, and guides. As we do so, it seems appropriate to pause for a minute and parse out what we’re talking about here: What is a sandwich, really?

Of course, this isn’t exactly original questions. For the past two years, the Takeout, the Gizmodo Media Group’s food blog, has run a recurring feature in which it asks various celebrities, from Angela Bassett to Roger Federer to Pete Buttigieg, to answer the question, “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” — which is really just another way of asking them to define what a sandwich is. In an email, Kevin Pang, the Takeout’s founding editor tells Eater SF that the idea behind the column didn’t go much deeper than running the joke — the absurdity of asking a dumb question to various “respected figure[s] in letters and culture” — into the ground. “There’s nothing illuminating or revealing about asking people this question,” Pang says. “It’s wholly for our shits and giggles.”

Even still, the archives span most of the common lines of reasoning in all “Is X a sandwich” arguments. For some, the idea that two pieces of bread, and whatever filling they have in between, can be positioned parallel to the dining surface is paramount, disqualifying foods like hot dogs that are served on buns that are only open on one end. For other, more liberal-minded folks, a sandwich is any kind of food in which bread, or a bread proxy, gets filled with “stuff.” Even, say, a burrito or an empanada might be classified as a sandwich according to that broad definition.

What, then, do we make of the foods that exist outside of the typical Western framework for understanding what a sandwich might look like? Is a Venezuelan or Colombian arepa a sandwich? What about the classic Taiwanese breakfast — a sesame-seed-flecked shaobing split across its middle and stuffed with a fried cruller or a scallion omelette? What about a mulita?

In the end, it’s probably best to leave the philosophizing to the sandwich philosophers, but this much is clear: With the breadth of vibrant international cuisines that we have here in the Bay Area, it’s a lot more fun to consider all of the sandwich-like foods that we have at our fingertips — to not just limit ourselves to meats stacked in between sliced bread.

In any case, as much as I like to think of myself a big tent person when it comes to questions of food taxonomy, I’ve got nothing on my four-year-old daughter: She’ll pile noodles between two slices of cucumber and call it a “sandwich.” She’ll take a slice of ham, sprinkle edamame on top, fold the whole thing in half, and, of course, that’s a “taco.”

To which again I say: Why not?