Sandwich science: Bring Hamiltons’ Sandwich Lab thinking into your own kitchen

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Chef Curtis Shaver and the culinary team at Hamiltons’ are roling out a limited number of one over-the-top sandwich per month, and they’re calling it Sandwich Lab. Photo: Emily Moroné Chef Curtis Shaver and the culinary team at Hamiltons’ are roling out a limited number of one over-the-top sandwich per month, and they’re calling it Sandwich Lab. Photo: Emily Moroné

Making only 12 delicious sandwiches a month for an entire city is just plain cruel. And Hamiltons’ Sandwich Lab isn’t likely to stop the torture any time soon.

The first elusive Sandwich Lab sandwich was announced on Facebook on April 3. The guys in the kitchen of Hamiltons’ at First & Main, the posh Downtown restaurant that’s been around since the 1990s, would make bread-bound treats for the first dozen callers. The lucky few would pick up their lunchtime booty at the bar at the stroke of noon the following Wednesday.

The second installment came May 2. The third, June 18. Each time, the dozen sammies were spoken for within a couple hours. The most recent round of sandwiches was gone in 60 minutes. Nick Cage couldn’t have stolen one of those babies if he had Bill Hamilton on speed dial.

So what do you do? First, you like Sandwich Lab on Facebook and try like hell to land one next month by being one of the first to call in your order. Second, you take lessons from the lab technicians and up your own sandwich game.

“Sandwiches around the world have the same basic ingredients—roasted meat, good cheese, some pickle or vegetable,” said Greg Vogler, managing partner at Hamiltons’.

Chef Curtis Shaver said the idea is to take those ingredients and try to hit all the taste and texture sensations with the ammo stuffed between two bread slices.

“We’re thinking about every taste bud,” Shaver said. “It needs to be sweet, sour, and salty. It should have some soft aspects and some crispy textures as well.”

Each Sandwich Lab creation has come together in a slightly different way, Shaver said, but there are some common elements.

“It’s really as simple as throwing out ideas,” he said. “It might be [sous chef Hannah Moster] and I going back and forth. We will start with this idea and say, ‘that’s cool, but what else we can do?’”

For the first project, Shaver and the team combined pork belly with green tomato relish, collard green slaw, pimento cheese, and sriracha mayo on an Albemarle Baking Company hoagie roll.

“I wanted to do something real southern inspired, and we had that pork belly on the brunch menu,” Shaver said. “The collard green coleslaw is actually on my lunch menu now, and it came from Sandwich Lab.”

The sandwich was delicious—the fat in the hickory-smoked, grilled Double H Farm pork belly wasn’t completely rendered, allowing the meat to melt into the dressing—but the Lab was still working out some kinks. Some of the ingredients were muddled and didn’t shine through. (I detected almost no sriracha.) And I might quibble that the roll wasn’t cut quite to my liking, but all told, this was a successful sandwich to kick off an ambitious project.

For the second effort, the Lab went through several iterations to make sure the results matched the hypothesis. The opening salvo was pickled local ramps with smoked corned beef brisket. From there sprang the idea to approximate a Reuben-style sandwich, with the first two ingredients heaped onto thick-cut rye Hamiltons’ already had on hand.

How to up the game of the Russian dressing on a Reuben? Shaver happened to be reminded of comeback sauce—a spicy, mayonnaise-based dressing popular throughout the South—while flipping through magazines for new ideas.

“Then it was like, what can we do on this sandwich to put it over the top?” Shaver said. “Put French fries on it.”

Toss the fries with some truffle oil and add that cheese Vogler was talking about, and you end up with the finished product: “slabs of house-smoked, Wagyu corned beef brisket stacked with truffle fries, cambozola cheese, comeback sauce, and pickled ramps on thick-cut, grilled rye.”

Sandwich three (duck confit with a poblano-citrus sauce, local beet relish, fresh arugula, Caromont Plank Road Round, and crispy wasabi onions on a kaiser roll) had the makings to wake the Earl of Sandwich himself. According to Shaver, the sandwich started humbly enough, with the local beet relish being a current kitchen favorite. The team also had some short ribs on hand, but they decided something lighter like duck would better fit the season. Then, playing off the flavors of a beet salad, local arugula and goat cheese were added to the mix.

“It was missing a crunch factor, so someone suggested the fried onions, and it was like, ‘how can we make that cool?’” Shaver said. “What goes well with beets? Horseradish. What is cooler than horseradish? Wasabi.”

Vogler said Sandwich Lab-quality sandwiches are all about taking your favorite dough-borne meals and flipping them on their head. The one sticking point for home cooks who want to get into sandwich science is that they aren’t likely to have the resources of a restaurant kitchen on hand. Vogler suggested there might be a glimmer of hope for those who just can’t get past that fact—the Sandwich Lab could, at some point, start cranking out more than just one sandwich per month.

“We would stop doing it if it stopped being fun, but right now it’s not something that’s a burden,” he said.

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