“SANDO” IS THE WORD for sandwich in Japanese. These aren’t deli-style, piled-high monsters; the hallmark ones get tidily cut into dainty pieces, with the crusts trimmed off their fluffy, squishy white bread. In Japan, they’re ubiquitous, sold from street stands and convenience stores, lined up wrapped in crinkly clear plastic, ready to grab after school, on the way to the train or anytime.
For longtime fans, sandos are an uncomplicated, nostalgic pleasure. Two-time James Beard Rising Star Chef semifinalist Shota Nakajima loves them so much, he keeps three different kinds on the bar menu of his upscale Seattle restaurant Adana. “All my feelings and thoughts about sandos …” he mused recently. Then he just said: “Snacks. Happy snacks!” He grew up eating them; his mom made them for lunch. And when he was living in Japan on his own, he bought one “almost every single day … God knows how many times.”
For Nakajima, the katsu sando is the platonic ideal of the form. The simplicity, akin to a fast-food hamburger, is key, he says: “It’s fried meat. Bread.” The meat is pork encased in crispy panko. The white bread seems straightforward, but for him, it has a specificity he’s been unable to find around here — called shokupan, it’s also known as Japanese milk bread. The versions from Fuji Bakery and Regent come close, but not close enough; Nakajima has his overnighted from Japan, and it’s cottony-light, maybe sometimes a tiny bit dry from the travel. His katsu sando at Adana also gets special tonkatsu sauce, made in-house — and yes, that sweetish, familiar flavor is ketchup in the mix, along with sesame, too. Squishy white bread, fried meat patty, that sugary-savory tomato note — it does push a happy-button kind of like a Dick’s burger.
Then there’s the fried oyster sando at Adana, a glorious thing. It’s made with local favorite Hama Hama oysters, little ones with a briny freshness inside their panko coating, which contrasts the cloudlike texture of the bread. There’s kimchi for spiciness; housemade, Kewpie-style mayo for creaminess; lots of green onion over the top for pepperiness, prettiness and crunch. I would eat this almost every single day if I could, but not everything golden-fried can stay: Only the katsu sando has a permanent Adana menu spot, with the other two sandos rotating with the season and what else is happening in the kitchen. Nakajima’s all about trying to reduce food waste, so a past shrimp-cake sando used shrimp tails and also cod belly scraps, “to get that fatty, umami richness.” Coming up, he’s thinking about ham and scrambled eggs, “kind of like a breakfast katsu sando,” or one with the Japanese fried chicken called nanban, “tossed in a sweet, savory soy sauce with sesame oil and ginger, and then an egg tartar sauce.
“Sandos — you can do anything,” Nakajima says.
AT SANDWICH HOUSE TRES in Bellevue, they pretty much do it all when it comes to sandos, making 50-plus kinds at the brightly lit strip-mall shop. Your eyeballs and your Instagram will heart this place: The refrigerated cases full of row upon row of sandos are just gorgeous. Each one is perfectly wrapped with the Tres logo printed on the plastic — it’s a “3” on its side, for the three sides of their triangular-cut sandos, and it also looks like cute pink Mickey Mouse ears.
It can be overwhelming for first-timers, but the counterperson stands by absolutely cheerfully with a basket for your choices: maybe curry croquette, caprese or teriyaki chicken? At Tres, flavors skew sweet, even when the sandos are made with meat. Egg salad, plain as can be, is somehow completely satisfying; the one that also has cucumber offers a little more color and a minimalist fresh crunch.
Then there are the actually sweet sandos, aka the “Fruit Zone.” On a given day, Tres might have apple custard, banana-and-chocolate-cream, rum raisin, more. If you’re trying to resist the strawberries-and-whipped-cream sando, stop: It’s like a handheld strawberry shortcake. Chef Nakajima is an admirer of Tres’ way with this one — “I was like, ‘This is legit’ ” — and has thought about making it at Adana, too (yes, please).
Sandwich House Tres owners Minako Matsumura and Makoto Ogasawara take their bread and its freshness very seriously, baking it in-house three times daily. The friends and business partners both came to the U.S. from Japan in the 2000s; they met working at a Seattle tour company for Japanese visitors, where Matsumura was a tour guide and Ogasawara was the brunch manager. Ogasawara calls their bread recipe “very simple,” but goes on to explain that it’s dairy-free — most Japanese milk bread is made with, yes, milk — and that they are “particular about the water,” using alkaline ionized. Oh, and it took them two months to get it exactly right. They sell their bread, sliced and crustless, of course, so you can make your own sandos at home. The crusts are in a bin, free for the taking — ambitious types could use them to make breadcrumbs for fried oysters for an attempted replication of the Adana sando.
OR YOU COULD just use Wonder Bread. It’s good enough for Seattle chef Mutsuko Soma — famous for her artisanal handmade soba noodles, she’s twice been a Beard Northwest Best Chef semifinalist, and she’s one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs 2019, too. She’s making sandos for patrons to snack on at her tiny brand-new sake bar and bottle shop, Hannyatou. “Why Wonder Bread?” she said there recently. “Because I like it!” she answered her own question, with total glee.
Hannyatou is the fun little sibling to Soma’s grown-up restaurant Kamonegi, which is in the same building, and the playfulness is built in. If you polish off a bottle of sake, you can take the lid and pop it into one of the round cutouts in the dark wood above the bar, like a game of Connect Four. If you try a sake sampler for fun, they may just hand you a bottle cap anyway. Soma might also give you something extra to try, like a bit of Brie she’s cured in miso for a month.
But back to Soma’s sandos — she toasts the Wonder Bread, leaving the crusts on (rebel!). On the Hannyatou opening menu, there are two, and I very much want to eat one of them again right away: the shima saba sando. The silvery mackerel inside it tastes perfectly bright from its curing in housemade celery vinegar, plus some pickled ginger; definite spiciness comes courtesy of horseradish cream; and there’s shiso for that minty spike. This is perfect drinking food, with that exact savory-umami magic that drives the bite-sip-bite cycle until, suddenly and sadly, it’s all gone.
The tamago sando seems like a love-it-or-hate-it affair: The light, plump and glossy omelet-stack of egg inside is made with dashi, and the sando has Kewpie mayo, but the taste is resoundingly sweet — like the sweetest tamago sushi you’ve ever had, but sweeter. This is not a breakfast sando. I liked the itty-bitty pickles that came with it better (including adorable fiddleheads), but if you’ve got a sweet tooth and are ready for dessert, this one’s for you.
What will Soma put on Wonder Bread next? Coming up in the sando rotation, she says, will be pork belly braised in some miso she made with Cocoa Puffs.
1449 E. Pine St., Seattle; 206-294-5230, adanaseattle.com
SANDWICH HOUSE TRES
1502 145th Place S.E., Bellevue; 425-643-7333, tressandwich.com/eng
1060 N. 39th St., Seattle; 206-294-4104, hannyatou.com