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Man eating baguette

Brussels has no shortage of lunch options. Plenty, as the regular traveler might see, fairly expensive. But there are ways to eat well and cheap in the rip-off capital. In recent times living here, I’ve discovered a more “local” kind of lunch (here I’m using local very liberally), the baguette sandwich.


And okay, it's nothing new. Just I didn't discover it because I'm over forty and am quite capable of slapping together a sandwich for myself. But sometimes it behooves one's sensory experience of the world and the city if you just cave and go out for lunch once in a while.


And for visitors/newcomers to Brussels: Don’t be fooled by croques and paninis—more on those at the bottom. Rather, experience a properly savory sensation. It might not be Quick, but it’s still a real Belgian fast food experience.


There is, of course, Panos, but there’s hardly anything unique about that chain. Support your small businesses, not the corporate soul-eaters that will slice up your passions and serve it between two slabs of inspired dough.



Rue de Namur
Rue de Namur, where our sandwicheries are

A note about baguettes

I love baguettes. I’ll get that off my chest right now. My wife is currently on a run of not eating any bread, so I’ve stopped buying them for the house. But that means, I need to fill up my carb-hole from somewhere else. And why not from sandwiches? I’ve never really been keen on paying money for sandwiches, so perhaps this is what has prompted my culinary exploration.


Choosing a baguette in a grocery store can be challenging. In France, they apparently have “baguette purity” laws or whatever, but in Belgium there tends to be more of a free for all in baguette ingenuity. If you want a real crunchy French baguette, you either have to ask for a “pain Francaise”, or a “baguette croustillant”, or look for something similar on the label.

For a fresh baguette, hit up a “boulangerie”, or time your visits to Carrefour Express appropriately (guilty admission—Carrefour baguettes are banger, for some odd and mysterious reason).


A place to sit

On Rue de Namur, there is a weird line of coffee shops and sandwicheries (I’m writing this from the Golden Bean, a Luxembourgisch company), which has a really terrific standard coffee. Rue de Namur is a short stretch of pavement from the Royal Palace to the ring road that, because it's a main avenue connecting Ixelles and the old town, is a non-touristic stretch that also has a massive concentration of coffee shops and sandwicheries. The coffee shops here all stress “No laptops on weekend”, which I suppose means laptops are more than welcome during the week for us socially disadvantaged folk, so here I am.



Interior of Golden Bean coffee shop in Brussels


A sandwich for all seasons

In Brussels, the true, meaningful “Brussels sandwich” is made from one of those lovely baguettes. Some places prefer the “crusty” baguette, others prefer the soft style—and some places have a range, but don’t trust that bread to be as good—and here you just have got to experiment from place to place.


Don’t expect the over-stuffed sammich that Americans love. These are much more delicately balanced, and perhaps err in the favor of the bread lover over the meat lover.


Now, specifically on Rue de Namur, there are two sandwicheries of note. There is JeanBon (a local chain), closer to the Porte de Namur metro station, and La Burrata, right up from Place Royale. Solid options for any visits to the Magritte Museum or the Musical Instruments Museum.



When I discovered these sandwicheries, they were through my usual tactic. I’ll look up an area and type into Google maps. Then I’ll peruse the reviews and finally make up my mind. Google maps has definitely revolutionized traveling, and made it so, so easy to figure things out for those savvy enough to wield the tool appropriately.


La Burrata

One of the most common style of sandwicherie in Brussels is the Italian variant, which makes me believe that Italy must be the motherland of sandwiches, despite claims to some earldom in the United Kingdom. Sandwiches from Italian shops cost anywhere between 5-10 euros and are usually pretty basic: a baguette, maybe some ricola, some slices of meat, and cheese.



La Burrata prides itself on its burrata—basically a globby ball of mozzarella and curd cheese—which is made in the shop, so it’s extra fresh and cheesy. It’s a very industrial looking shop with tall ceilings and lots of stainless steel. There’s a few tables there, but it looks like a place they might butcher animals in after hours, with seating only an afterthought.


I did one of my main tactics of choosing the spiciest-sounding thing on the menu (also a common tactic of mine, and also, don’t expect anything actually “spicy” in Brussels, unless it’s doused in samurai sauce—more on that in a later blog). That was the Piccantino, composed of burrata, salame piccante, and rucola. The salami was just the perfect amount of spicy (for a slice of salami), the baguette was lightly and beautifully crusted, and the sandwich, despite being so basic, was perhaps one of the most exquisite layering handheld food I’ve ever had. Will definitely go back.


JeanBon

My next trial was JeanBon, which is a much more “Belgian” sandwicherie, with more experimental sandwiches, like “The Brusseleir”, “The Forestiere/Mushroom”, or “The American” (which is about the least American thing I could describe a sandwich).

The place has a much more inviting and boutique feel than La Burrata, despite actually having little to no interior seating space (about two/three tables depending on how you count). As a charcuterie, the place prepares its own sausages and sandwich meats.



I went with the Google maps recommendation of “The Brusseleir”, but now I realize I should have gone with “The Brusseleir De Luxe”, or at least I should have read the friggin’ menu first. The Brusseleir is composed of meatball, emmental, rucola, tomato and mayo. The Brusseleir De Luxe has meatball, tomme de savoie IGP, rucola, egg, truffle mayo, and balsamic syrup. Now that does sound “delux”, and the difference is only 60 centimes.

Whatever, the Brusseleir Basique was still good and tasty. Served on a softer baguette than I would have preferred, I’d still be happy eating it again. But sandwich to sandwich, I’d probably have to go with the piccantino I had at La Burrata. I will definitely return to try some other varieties though.


Croques and panninis in Belgium

Of course, any sandwich blog in Belgium needs to mention these savory atrocities.  

You will often find on menus this tourist bomb of a dish, the “croque monsieur”. For one, it is not a traditional Belgian dish, but French, invented to perhaps swindle tourists out of their cash at fine Parisian delicatessens. Indeed, it is French for “grilled cheese sandwich”. Made with cheap bread, cheap cheese, and cheap sandwich meat ham, it is nothing to faun over, nor is it anything to pay the outrageous 10-20 euro price that you often see in Brussels.

But, if you really insist on gaspillaying your money on these croque of shits, know what you’re ordering.


  • Croque monsieur – Grilled cheese sandwich with ham

  • Croque madame – Same, but with a poached egg. Inspired, perhaps, by the Egg McMuffin

  • Croque mademoiselle – Vegetarian version with cheaper cheese, cucumber, and lettuce, and because it’s “vegetarian” it usually costs a couple more euro

  • Croque Bolognese – Same as monsieur, but with tomato meat sauce

And of course, the Italian version of the croque of shit, the panini. Also just a grilled cheese sandwich, but usually on a mini-baguette. Though, sometimes they’ll have tomatoes or something they’ll throw in to help burn the roof of your mouth.

Just avoid them. Neither are really Belgian (I know, my advice to take an Italian sandwich from Italian sandwicheries might come across weird in that light), and neither are any good.

So there you have it. Enjoy your lunch and bon appetit!

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