Sandwich Goes Gourmet

Just a plain old sandwich as a gourmet treat or a fine eatery’s signature dish? A while ago every self-respectful Zagreb foodie would laugh at the mere notion! But not anymore.

The new wave of cool and trendy value-for-money bistros that’s been spreading all over Zagreb like a forest fire is to take the credit for upgrading the sandwich into simple and affordable yet elaborate little feast. True, sandwiches have always been a popular option for a quick bite, but they were something like the last resort, emergency fast food. Nobody expected anything special from them, they were taken for granted.

“Good ol’ boring ham and cheese sandwich.” 

Of course, some sandwich joints have never lost their good reputation or loyal audience, but again, they offered just ordinary, well-known sandwiches, not a real eating-out experience. The legendary Pingvin kiosk in Teslina Street, established way back in 1987, is a fine example. In the wee hours, especially during the weekend, you’ll always see a queue in front of it. My personal favourites are biftek ficlek and ramstek. All the major bakery chains also have a number of good-quality standard sandwiches on display. However, new kids on the block changed the world of Zagreb’s sandwiches as we know it. So, from a quickly prepared simple bite, sandwich has evolved to serious stuff, requiring an inspired, dedicated and skillful chef. And the preparation can actually take hours. What’s common to most of these craft sandwiches is that they’re fusion, inspired by international cuisines, not just Croatian, and using a wide range of spices and condiments from all over the world. There are some ground rules. Fresh and seasonal ingredients are always top priority, frozen and processed things are avoided, and your nice, big, juicy sandwich is finalized on the spot, after you order it.

“Pork cheeks and lardo in sourdough brioche bread, teriyaki sauce, roasted peanuts, Asian salad.” Image credit: Mundoaka

I’m talking about places like Mundoaka, Bistro 75, Dežman Bar, or even Kralj kobasa, and their sandwich specials. Most of the popular new recipes revolve around high-quality, skillfully cut but not necessarily expensive pieces of meat. Pulled pork is the perfect example. Mundoaka just off Ban Jelačić Square introduced Zagreb to this tasty, irresistible sandwich, and perfected it. The secret is in marinating or seasoning the pork and cooking it slowly to soften, literally for hours. Similar applies to the ox tail or turkey necks, used at Bistro 75. Lots of patience and love is invested into these seemingly humble snacks. Underrated cuts of meat get the respect they deserve and reach a higher level of existence in gourmet sandwiches. Although the original Bistro 75 opened in Knežija neighbourhood quite recently, the word on the street is they are opening a bigger branch in downtown Preradovićeva Street, so their specialties will be accessible to a broader audience.


“Dry-cured tuna & wasabi sandwich.” Image credit: Dežman Bar

Of course, cooking and marinating for hours is not always necessary. There also sanwiches which can be prepared fast and easy, but with first-rate ingredients and some imagination, they are turned into funky fingerfood specialties. At Dežman Bar they’re really good at that. Combining Croatian dry-cured tuna with wasabi, chili and coriander, why not? That’s the beauty of gourmet sandwiches, you can play around and unleash your creativity - sky is the limit. And it seems some of these restaurants are now competing to create the tastiest possible sandwich. For example, the only Bavarian restaurant in Zagreb, Maximilian in business-oriented Radnička Street, has just put a Croatian-based sandwich on its menu. Again, it’s pulled pork, but using the meat from the native black Slavonian pig, served in a black bun (with charcoal). It doesn’t have a name yet, and it should become their springtime hit.

“Slavonian pulled pork in black bun, with mustard, honey, and horseradish sauce, cheddar and sauteed onion.” Image credit: Domagoj Jakopović Ribafish

Matched with good wine or local craft beer, these delightful sandwiches can become a more relaxed, budget-friendly dining-out experience. Spring days on Zagreb’s sun-drenched terraces will be just the right time to put this idea to the test.

Header image credit: Bistro 75

Author: Morana Zibar / Taste of Croatia