'Wich Hunt: Seven of the Rarest International Sandwiches in Denver

Americans may not have invented the sandwich, but we’ve definitely taken the physics and geometry of nearly every bread-and-filling combination to extremes, from teetering Dagwoods to sauce-drenched sloppy Joes to heavyweight hoagies. We’re not the only innovators to latch onto sandwiches as the perfect portable street food or fast lunch, though; lately, Cubanos, Vietnamese banh mi and Mexican tortas have become popular in mom-and-pop shops as well as in sports bars, cafes and delis in this country.

But there are many other sandwich permutations throughout the world that have barely made it to American shores, let alone our landlocked state (heck, even the open-faced green-chile mess called the slopper has rarely headed up the highway from Pueblo to Denver). So we started a list of sandwiches from the far reaches of the globe to see which ones we could locate in our city. Some, like the Uruguayan chivito and the Brazilian bauru, were impossible to find, while others — the aforementioned Cubano and banh mi — have become popular enough that a deep dig was unwarranted.
But after a serious ’wich hunt, a few bready constructions emerged that are either unique to a single metro restaurant or can be found at only two or three joints in the entire region. Here are seven rare international sandwiches and where you can find them.

1) Rou Jia Mo at New Peach Garden
1111 Washington Avenue, Golden
Our search for rou jia mo, a specialty of Xi’an, China, began after we found a similar pocket-style sandwich called a shaobing at Golden Plate II in Lakewood last spring (it made our list of 100 Favorite Dishes). Turns out that the unusual dish has been hiding in plain sight — at a Chinese restaurant on Golden’s main drag. New Peach Garden has occupied its basement-level space for more than twenty years, serving a combination of American-Chinese dishes and Xi’an specialties (don’t miss the chive dumplings and onion bread), with the rou jia mo listed simply as “Chinese sandwich.”

The bread on the sandwich is a housemade laminated pastry split in two to reveal flaky, slightly glutinous, croissant-like layers coiled in a spiral to create a more or less burger-shaped bun. The pork and beef versions both feature slow-cooked, barbecue-style meat in delicate shreds, each bathed in distinct sauces. Both hold just a touch of sweetness but are complex and spicy, with hints of cumin and other dry spices.

Earlier this year, the Huffington Post stated that China had invented the hamburger several centuries ago, owing to the rou jia mo’s shape and filling (which often consists of ground rather than shredded beef) — a notion that the Chinese government latched on to at its official news outlets. The resemblance is only incidental, though: New Peach Garden’s wonderful bread and rich filling stand on their own as a national treasure, with no need for modern comparisons.

2) Zapiekanka at Pierogies Factory
3895 Wadsworth Boulevard, Wheat Ridge
Cezary Grosfeld has quite a cottage industry going with his Polish pierogi company: a food truck, a downtown bar and restaurant, a wholesale business selling pierogi to local grocery stores, and a fast-casual eatery in Wheat Ridge. Considering the name and specialty, pierogi are definitely the way to go when you visit the Wadsworth shop, but if you’re looking for something a little different — and a little sandwichy — there’s also a Polish street-food snack called a zapiekanka on the menu. This open-faced sandwich evolved during the lean times of the Communist era, so ingredients were often whatever was at hand, but usually included sautéed mushrooms and cheese melted atop a half-baguette. The version served at Pierogies Factory also includes shredded cabbage and corn kernels (that most Polish of toppings) added after the other ingredients have been toasted. And in place of a traditional squiggle of ketchup, a milder mayo-based sauce is used, similar to Thousand Island dressing. Now that we’ve checked this Polish equivalent of French-bread pizza off our list, we’ll probably go back to pierogi, but it’s at least a fun glimpse into Eastern European street fare.

3) Vada Pao at Masalaa
3140 South Parker Road, Aurora
Masalaa is the city’s only 100-percent vegetarian Indian restaurant — and that includes this market-stall sandwich, which evolved in Mumbai’s beachfront neighborhoods. The vada pao is slider-sized, the buttery, grilled bun stuffed with a fried potato patty. Masalaa adds green and red chutneys for a blast of heat followed by cooling herbs. The potatoes are boiled first and hit with a curry-spice blend before the patty is formed, and sautéed diced onions also tag along. The vada pao come two to an order; add a hot bowl of mulligatawny for a spicy and filling soup-and-sandwich combo.

4) Mitraillette at Manneken Frites
5616 Olde Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada
Start with a sub-style sandwich roll and pile on thin-sliced roast beef, Gruyère cheese, a mountain of Belgian-style frites (the house specialty) and your choice from a list of 25 sauces. The result is the mitraillette, a sandwich surprisingly invented in Belgium, not the U.S. (although the French call the monstrosity an Americain). The word mitraillette translates to “submachine gun,” an appropriate name given the heft of the thing. Manneken Frites owner Chris Stromberg makes the sandwich a little more local by building it on bread from Bluepoint Bakery; for even more Colorado flair, he offers a 4/20 upgrade that places a hot dog on top of everything else. Stromberg’s tiny shop — an ode to the frites stands in Brussels — also serves an impressive variety of Belgian beers, so a mitraillette and a chalice of something dark and foamy will give you a perfect dose of northern Europe...without the rainy weather.

5) Cemita at The Hornet
76 Broadway
Mexican tortas are more common in Denver than Philly cheesesteaks or Louisiana po’boys, but the Mexico City specialty is only one of many sandwiches that rely on regional Mexican breads to make them unique. In the city of Puebla, the cemita rules as the king of sandwiches. The creation is named after the cemita roll on which it is built, made from egg-based dough and topped with sesame seeds.

Despite the size of the city of Puebla and the number of Poblanos (as residents of that city are called) who have settled in other parts of the U.S., Denver is surprisingly short on Pueblan restaurants (Chili Verde on Federal Boulevard being a notable exception) and bakeries.

The Hornet on Broadway doesn’t let a technicality stand in the way of bringing its version of the cemita to the international sandwich stalkers of Denver. It hews close to tradition by using a sesame bun (with a texture closer to a standard hamburger bun than a true cemita roll), Oaxacan cheese, sliced avocado and chipotle-tomato salsa, but instead of a paper-thin pounded and fried beef cutlet called a milanesa, the kitchen uses a thicker, crustier chicken-fried steak for the sandwich’s meaty center. The Hornet also brings in an herb called pápalo — a must if you’re eating your cemita on its home turf — when it’s in season; otherwise, cilantro makes for a reasonable substitute. The result is a fatter sandwich than the original, but with tender beef and a delicious amalgam of creamy and spicy flavors that will do until a cheap plane ticket southbound is in the budget.

Managing partner Sean Workman says that he was originally sourcing cemita rolls from a local Mexican bakery, but that ensuring a consistent product was difficult, so the kitchen is currently using that sesame-seed bun. He also notes that fresh pápalo is coming into season, so he’ll be able to add that distinctly Pueblan ingredient back to the sandwich. But difficulty in sourcing the proper ingredients means that Workman is considering dropping the cemita from the menu altogether, so head to the Hornet, give it a try, and let the staff know if you like it.

6) Saint Paul Sandwich at New China Chef
5135 Chambers Road
You’re going to think we made up this sandwich — that we just brought two slices of white bread to a Chinese restaurant and asked them to throw on a crispy puck of egg foo young. But we swear it’s real — and if you’ve been to any number of American-Chinese eateries in St. Louis, Missouri, you’d recognize the Saint Paul sandwich right away. It’s a bite of fusion history that arose in mid-century St. Louis as a way to attract more white customers, but James Beard compares it to the much older Denver sandwich (just a Denver omelet between bread slices), another one you don’t see on too many menus these days. In a recipe from James Beard’s American Cookery, the chef/author states that it’s “a Chinese dish which has been pretty thoroughly Americanized and which inspired one of our standard sandwiches — the western or Denver. Both of these must have originated with the many Chinese chefs who cooked for logging camps and railroad gangs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”

No matter the origin, it’s possible that New China Chef, a strip-mall joint north of Interstate 70, is the only Denver restaurant to serve a Saint Paul. True to form, the sandwich consists of two slices of white bread, a smear of mayonnaise (or is it Miracle Whip, even?), a handful of shredded lettuce, and a fried egg foo young patty, available with a choice of meats embedded within (we recommend pork). The owner of the restaurant says the sandwich ended up on the menu after an employee visited relatives in Missouri and came back with the idea. It’s definitely a serendipitous find for those of us who enjoy the slightly trashy, slightly kitschy and completely smile-inducing wonder of the dish. And at only $3.20, it’s worth seeking out at least once.

7) Medianoche at Frijoles Cuban Cafe
12095 West Alameda Parkway, Lakewood
The Cuban sandwich is another historic, handheld meal that relies on a specific bread as a mark of authenticity. Lost to history is the exact origin of the sandwich, though we know it was eaten in both Cuba and Florida by the beginning of the twentieth century. But one thing is certain: Cuban-Americans and Floridians in general will turn up their noses at the many variations of the sandwich constructed on anything but the proper Cuban bread. Frijoles is one of very few Cuban eateries in Denver, and the Cubano here is just as it should be. But even rarer is the medianoche, a sandwich that, to many novices, would seem identical to a Cubano — with thin-sliced ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles — but for the style of bread. Instead of the fine-crumbed, baguette-style loaf needed for a Cubano, the medianoche comes on a sweeter, eggy roll that’s also pressed and grilled.

The distinction is subtle, but the flavor and texture of the bread bring out different qualities in the stuffing. Pork has an affinity for all things sweet, so the bread on the medianoche — made in-house — brings out the best in the pull-apart tender meat. The word medianoche means “midnight” in Spanish, and the sandwich is so named because it was originally served as a late-night treat. Unfortunately, Frijoles closes at 8 p.m. (9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday), so you can’t go for a midnight snack, but you can order a Cubano and a medianoche side by side for a tasty comparison. Or at least that’s what we’d do.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation