Remember the simple machines: the wheel, the lever, the inclined plane, and I forget the others? The sandwich ought to be listed among them. It's an irreducible building-block of human endeavor. Two hundred and fifty years after its invention, the sandwich has transcended its origins among the English aristocracy and taken its rightful place as the universal food format.
The Bay Area is not exactly famous as a sandwich mecca—too many yuppies, not enough Jews—but our cultural and culinary diversity have spawned a few sandwiches, like those listed here, that rank among the most delicious anywhere. When you order one of these sandwiches, do not attempt to modify it with extra-this or hold-the-that. Would you ask Caravaggio to go easy on the yellow? The people who designed these sandwiches know more about making sandwiches than you do.
Roasted Yam, Atlas Café Atlas is probably San Francisco's finest caffeine-and-laptops slacktopia, and that's due in no small part to a slate of elegantly conceived sandwiches. Sandwicheur Joe Byrnes has a knack for matching each filling with the perfect bread and the surprising-but-right garnish. Everything on the menu is worth trying at least twice, but Byrnes really achieves greatness in his work with the sweet potato, a quixotic vegetable that gets little love except when it's ritually trotted out at Thanksgiving. The bright orange yams, roasted until they're soft but not mushy, exude sweetness; they're teamed with feta cheese for creamy tang and a toasted baguette for crispy salt-savor. That three-part harmony is set off by onion, cilantro, and a hint of garlic, then juiced up with tomato. Densely flavored but not crowded, light but satisfying, totally original and totally delicious, it's probably the best vegetarian sandwich I've ever eaten.
Roast Pork, Saigon Sandwiches/Banh Mi Saigon This tiny Tenderloin walk-in, crowded with imported candies and snacks, has thoroughly and rigorously translated a Southeast Asian idiom to sandwich form. The warm slices of tender pork are softly aromatic, almost buttery; they're complemented by shreds of pickled carrot and onion, spicy Asian peppers, cilantro, and what tastes like honey aioli. The characteristically Vietnamese mix of seasonings gives the sandwich a deep-rooted foreignness that, adapted to the western form, connotes individual rather than cultural authenticity: I don't know if it's true to the Vietnamese tradition, but it's true to itself. And at $2, it feels like a gift.
Bronx Treat, Saul's Deli Mixed-meat sandwiches are tricky to pull off: the characteristic flavors of each component too often get lost in a generic mass of protein. Saul's, probably the best kosher deli in the Bay Area, has transcended this challenge with the Bronx Treat, which piles pastrami upon brisket. It works because both meats have a rare tenderness and flavor-density. Like a romantic comedy on rye, this mammoth opus plays on the attraction of opposites: the pastrami livens up the brisket with a salty snap; the brisket brings a depth and seriousness that pastrami alone can't achieve. If you can't finish yours, I'll have it.
M&M Sandwich, Kate's Kitchen Meatloaf and mashed potatoes epitomize "comfort food," the shorthand term for dishes that evoke unconditional maternal love. That's why standard-issue commercial meatloaf—essentially a pile of oven-dried ground beef that's been hanging around in a refrigerator for several hours—is usually a deeper disappointment than other bad food: it underscores the pathos of hoping to find security and nurturance on a menu. And that's why eating Kate's M&M sandwich—meatloaf intertwined with mashed potatoes, served between two pieces of toast—is an emotionally complicated experience. The meatloaf is genuinely delicious: good beef, not overcooked, with chopped onions and I'm guessing Worcester sauce in the recipe. The mashed potatoes are smooth and milky. And the whole is seasoned with that mixture of tenderness and loss that we call nostalgia -- the fond hope that, for the duration of lunch, at least, you can go home again. Add a little ketchup.