Even the ones from 7-Eleven are works of art

By Natalie B. Compton
June 14, 2018
Photo by Natalie B. Compton

Japan has a way of reworking ideas from the West and making them a hell of a lot better. Take the toilet, allegedly invented by England’s Sir John Harington in the 16th century, but taken to another dimension by the introduction of the Toto Washlet. The sandwich has also taken on an artful new life in Japan. “In Japan every detail is considered, even with something as humble and seemingly simple as a sandwich,” says Akira Akuto, co-owner of the forthcoming Japanese sandwich shop in Los Angeles, Konbi. “Because of this, even their most basic egg salad sandwich is something that haunts our dreams when we land back in the USA.”

When I was in Tokyo, I wandered the aisles of 7-Eleven like I was at the Louvre, ogling the items on the shelves with the same gusto as an art history student at a Renoir exhibit. It’s not just that the store sells higher caliber food than American 7-Elevens. It’s the oddities next to the food also surprise and delight. Should you pull an all-nighter at the bar near your office, you can pop into a conbini—or convenience store—for a fresh collared shirt, socks, underwear, and a toothbrush to hide the evidence. You can pick up sake and anime porn in one fell swoop. In the refrigerated section—not only at 7-Eleven but at Family Mart, Lawson, and other conbinis—you’ll find rows of consciously constructed sandwiches, often crustless, ripe for the picking. I chose an OG sampler pack: three small triangles of ham and egg, tuna salad, and ham, cheese, and lettuce. All are mayo-heavy and made with pillowy soft white bread.

Ham, egg, and cheese sandwich from a 7-Eleven in Tokyo
Photo by Natalie B. Compton

Unlike in the States, you don’t have to cringe at the sight of eggs on a convenience store sandwich. It’s a classic pick in Japan. “One of our favorites is the egg salad sando at Family Mart,” says Akuto, who grew up in Seoul and Tokyo before moving to Connecticut when he was 6. “It has both an egg mixture and a perfectly boiled egg inside that they magically place right in the middle where they cut it, so you get to see the beautiful bright yolk.” The fried pork cutlet and cabbage with Tonkatsu sauce is another staple.

Then there are flavors that make less sense to the foreign palate. Alongside the chicken and avocado varieties are the shrimp and broccoli, spaghetti, peanut cream, and blueberry and cream cheese. The latter isn’t necessarily for breakfast. “They make different fruit sandwiches for dessert that have fillings like strawberries or slices of melon and cream,” Akuto says.

The Japanese convenience-store sandwich is so far beyond the sad excuses of what Subway sells, partly because they’re made better with better ingredients, and partly because they’re not smashed down into a sad mushy disaster. The longer I ate my way around Tokyo, the more often I was told that Japanese people eat as much with their eyes as their mouths. Aesthetics matter.

In Daikanyamachō, a Shibuya neighborhood that tourists often compare to Brooklyn, there’s a shining example of visually-appealing sandwich-making at King George Deli. Tucked down an alley, made more alley-like thanks to a potted plant canopy leading to the doorway, King George is a two-story, highly Instagrammable sandwichery. The deli’s specialty is fat, stacked sandos bursting with neatly layered ingredients. You’re not going to find the typical crustless conbini sandwiches here. The bread’s got more going on, like sesame seeds and rye. I first learned about King George on Instagram, for I am a millennial. Three years ago, I braved multiple subway transfers and a bit of walking to make my way to the deli for their vegetarian option. I replicated the trip again this week to feast my eyes on the beautiful meatless stacks once more. While not as convenient as a 7-Eleven ham and mayo, it’s as dazzling as a rainbow, and I ate it as much with my mouth as I did with my eyes.

Back in the States, I’ll soon have that same pleasure in Los Angeles. “We love Japanese sandwiches and think they should be more readily available. The style and culture of these shops in Japan deeply inspires us to want to share whatever we can of that experience with others,” Akuto says. “Konbi is a place where guests can come every day and leave happier than when they arrived.”