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CultureFood & DrinkPile it high at SF's Mt. Rushmore of sandwich...

Pile it high at SF’s Mt. Rushmore of sandwich shops

Banh mis, Leroy Browns, Renzo Specials, tri-tip delights: Four peak spots for grabbing a hearty lunch on the go.

Ahh sandwiches, the people’s food! They’re the perfect balance of intrigue and accessibility. What other meal allows you to indulge culinary extravagance, yet still be able to afford such a venture. The same cannot be said for San Francisco’s oft-pricey food culture as a whole (or any major city, for that matter). But when it comes to sandwiches, everyone can play in this pond. This town is straight up aces for sandos and I’ve devoted a significant part of my fifteen years in this beautiful city to exploring and documenting sandwich culture—a badge I wear proudly. Which brings us to the Mt. Rushmore of SF sandwich shops.

To carve a place on the San Francisco sandwich Mt. Rushmore, a shop needs to have relative ubiquity. It needs to have a story that makes it unique to SF and really, its existence needs to be inextricably tied to the story of the city. For me, it’s quite clear what the four shops that best represent SF sandwiches are and I’m here to spread their gospel.

Molinari Delicatessen

Italian cold cut sandos are a subculture in and of themselves, and no shop in SF represents the rich coast-to-coast Italian deli culture quite like Molinari’s. The North Beach staple is perhaps best known for its world-renowned powdery white-skinned salami. But a trip to this salami’s mecca reveals a full service Italian deli with freshly made ravioli and pastas to take home and best of all, a legendary sandwich counter complete with a cold case of Italian favorites. 

Renzo Special from Molinari Delicatessen on Columbus Ave

It’s a beautiful thing to have your sandwich-maker slice prosciutto di parma and coppa straight onto an Acme soft roll before they continue to build between it. For my Renzo Special, they also pluck a fresh mozzarella ball and marinated sundried tomatoes from the deli case, slice them up and pile ’em on—I add marinated mushrooms to mine too, ’cause you can do that.

Some things have changed at Molinari over the years, like the bin where you used to pick your own roll and hand it to the deli-man as you order is a thing of the pre-pandemic past. Now, a selection of excellent Acme breads is yours for the choosing. But other things haven’t changed at Molinari at all: There’s still a hint of well-deserved snark for anyone who doesn’t have their sandwich order ready to convey when their number is called; a sort of North Beach je ne sais quoi, if you will and the charm of a true Italian Deli. Furthermore, there’s hardly a better place to eat a sandwich in the city than on one of the sidewalk tables overlooking the intersection of Columbus and Vallejo in the heart of North Beach, and it’s been that way since 1896. 

Molinari Delicatessen, 373 Columbus Avenue, North Beach 

Saigon Sandwich

As San Francisco has become an increasingly expensive place to live, there’s a rare beauty in the $5 bahn mi at Tenderloin fixture Saigon Sandwich. The Vietnamese ladies behind the counter don’t have much to say to you when you order and things are generally all business—interviews with them are hard to find and the shop’s website is laughable AI fodder.

But that’s not what keeps the people coming back. It’s a marvel to see the lean team of two or three crank out orders at what feels like more than a sandwich a minute clip during busy hours; always made fresh to order. Order the roast chicken, roast pork, tofu, or the combo with pate, pork roll, and “fancy pork” (it’s belly) blanketed with a stack of fresh cilantro, pickled carrots, and jalapenos that taste like they were picked out at the farmer’s market that morning, spilling over that classic french roll with a light slather of mayo. This has been the most famous Vietnamese sandwich in San Francisco for a looong time, and once deemed by the NY Times as perhaps the best bahn mi in America. Walk down Larkin Street a bit and eat it on the grass at Civic Center Plaza and feel the undying breed that is a Saigon Sandwich.

Saigon Sandwich Bahn Mi on the grass facing City Hall. A San Francisco treat!

And it’s wild to consider how the prices have barely risen over the years here. What was once $3.50 in 2012 and still just $4 in 2018, it has stayed at or below the $5 marker until earlier this year when the prices went up, reasonably to just $5.50. Let’s be honest, give these ladies all of the money please (cash only, natch.) Because there’s nowhere else in SF where you can get these perfectly, unbelievably constructed creations that’ve stood the test of time through every dot-com and tech boom and bust, pandemic, and national ire directed at the TL ‘hood. Saigon sandwich continues to persevere… Cast this shop armor and bronze it twice over for future generations to appreciate it forever. Long live Saigon Sandwich!

Saigon Sandwich, 560 Larkin Street, Tenderloin

Roxie Food Center

You wouldn’t know that there was more than liquor, chips, and sodas through the doors of Roxie’s if you never sauntered in. And let’s be real, most people in the city hardly ever venture into Balboa Park to begin with. But that’s at the core of what makes Roxie Food Center an SF icon. It’s served the longstanding blue collar communities on the city’s southern border towards Daly City for what will be 50 years in 2025. 

Just look at this baby from the Roxie.

The Tannous Brothers immigrated from Jordan and opened the shop in 1975; when they retired in 2020, they sold the business to their cousins Mike and Nick Zunoona, ensuring that the gigantic sandwiches that the community grew up with would stay the same. You can still order Tony’s tri-tip special with melted cheddar, bbq sauce, onions, jalapenos and horseradish, and it’s still barbecued on the modest grill in the building’s tiny backyard. The Dutch crunch here is supreme, like with the Joker Special, with tri-tip, pastrami, cole slaw, swiss cheese, jalapenos and horseradish. From kids to lifers, everyone knows how to order here, because they all grew up coming to Roxies and learning the ways of a workhorse sandwich shop. The beauty in it for the rest of San Francisco, is leaving your bubble to come discover this crown jewel of Balboa Park. 

Roxie Food Center, 1901 San Jose Ave, Balboa Park

Deli Board

The youngest sandwich shop on San Francisco’s Mt. Rushmore is Deli Board, and the SOMA outpost has more than earned its flowers. While Deli Board gets flack for being one of the most expensive sandwich shops in the city (most sandos are in the $20-$23 range), the shop has been open about using the highest quality ingredients (like Romanian pastrami) and providing a livable wage for his employees (dude who took my order earlier this month told me he’s worked there for four years.) And you totally get what you paid for, ’cause these bad boys are STACKED. 

This Leroy Brown is baddest in the best way.

Take the Carzle, with Romanian pastrami, brisket, provolone, cherry peppers, pickles, cole slaw, and Board sauce on a garlic french roll. Split it apart and it’s one of the most Instagram-friendly sandwiches you’ll ever see: melty, juicy and totally jam-packed. The lines are often long, but in a way, Deli Board is a direct reflection of the ebbs and flows that San Francisco has gone through since it opened in 2009.

An early favorite of the wave of people moving here for jobs in the 2010s, going to Deli Board for lunch was a “getting to know the city” rite of passage of sorts. As the city’s prices soared, so did Deli Board’s (a story I wrote in 2014 clocked them at $11-$14 a pop), but how else does a business become a mainstay in the wild environment of SF’s past decade and a half?

Since the pandemic, Deli Board is a to-go only establishment, but it still sells out of daily specials like the generously filled with genoa salami, capicola, and capicola spin on an Italian sub known simply as “#1.” On my last visit, it was the Leroy Brown’s marvelous combo of Romanian pastrami, turkey, kosher salami, both American and Muenster cheese, a pepperoncini blend, pickles, board sauce on Dutch crunch that stole the show. There isn’t a sandwich in the country that tastes quite Deli Board, and this shop is really a monument to SF right now: Extravagant, expensive, trendy, memorable, and downright creative.

Deli Board, 1058 Folsom Street, SOMA 

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Adrian Spinelli
Adrian Spinelli
Adrian is a Brazilian-born, SF-based writer covering music, booze, festivals, and culture. Follow him on Twitter @AGSpinelli.

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