The Best Fast Food Sub Sandwich In America

We put these turkeys to the test.
10/02/2018 05:45am ET
F. Roy Kemp via Getty Images
How do turkey subs from popular chains stack up?

No one gets excited to eat a turkey sub these days. You don’t see millennials, for example, spending 10 minutes trying to post the perfect picture of a turkey sub sandwich on Instagram. But don’t let that hurt turkey’s reputation as a reliable standby. It’s as simple as a sandwich gets: a few slices of the meat on a roll, tomatoes, shredded lettuce, cheese, vinegar and oil (or sometimes mayo), and you’re done.

And it’s freaking delicious. It stands the test of time. Even better, you can buy it at every major sandwich chain in America. But which turkey sub is the best?

We went to seven of the biggest sub chains in America to test their turkey: Jimmy John’s, Jersey Mike’s, Subway, Which Wich, Quiznos, Firehouse Subs and Potbelly. For the sub shops that didn’t have standard toppings for their turkey sandwiches, we created one for them (lettuce, tomato, cucumber, cheese, oil/vinegar). These are the seven best fast food sandwiches in America, ranked.

7
Which Wich
Lee Breslouer
I marked the type of sandwich and toppings I wanted on a paper bag and then handed it to the guy behind the counter. Which’s branding is strong: wall-to-wall yellow, a miniature clothesline where brown paper bags hang and slide over to the cook, and a display of amazing drawings people have made on said paper bags. But let’s talk sandwiches. At $6.25 before tax for a 7”, I had high expectations. They charge more than other shops, so it must taste better, right? While this be an ideal spot for premium offerings like gyros, Philly cheesesteaks and reubens, it be for my order: turkey on a white roll with provolone, lettuce, tomato, cucumber and oil/vinegar. It came out hot (a bonus!), but the roll was forgettable and the turkey was nothing special. Nothing popped about the sandwich. No. 7 it is.
6
Subway
Lee Breslouer
When I was in college many (many!) years ago, I’d go to Subway at least once a week. It was a cheap, quick meal, and you knew exactly what you were getting. In many ways, it was a forebear to Chipotle: a cafeteria-style checkout where you select only the ingredients you want, and you’re in and out quickly. So it felt very familiar when I watched the sandwich artist take a few slices of turkey from a huge black bin, slap it on a white roll, and then add tomato, cucumber, provolone, salt/pepper, tomato and oil/vinegar. The bad: The employee rightfully steered me away from adding any sad-looking lettuce and the turkey lacked any real flavor. The good: The tomato and cucumber were crisp and the roll did have a fresh-baked quality to it. But 6” for $4.89 with all the toppings you want? It remains a solid deal, even after all these years.
5
Quiznos
Lee Breslouer
Plenty of restaurant chains got their start in Denver, Colorado: Qdoba, Chipotle and Smashburger, to name a few. Back in the ‘80s, Quiznos did too! (Apologies for the unintentional rhyme.) But they’ve fallen on tough times these past few years, having filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I know them mostly as the sandwich spot in the Denver airport. Every day offers a helluva deal on a different 8” sub for $5, including a turkey, swiss and ranch dressing option. But because I’m trying to keep things consistent, I ordered a 5” turkey sub for $5.60 with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, cheddar and red wine vinaigrette on white.The cheese was perfectly melted, and overall it felt more like a turkey melt than a standard turkey sub. While the shredded lettuce was drier than Phoenix in August and I couldn’t pick the roll out of a lineup (of two rolls), the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Toast it all together and it works as a sub. Next time my flight is delayed, I know where I’m eating.
4
Potbelly
Lee Breslouer
Many (many!) years ago, I went on a business trip to the Windy City, and we knew we had to stop at one beloved chain for a sandwich: Subw... duh, it was Potbelly. It’s a Chicago-born chain that’s spread its wings beyond the Midwest to places as far afield as India. This chain has grown quite a bit from its roots as a quirky sandwich place with an actual potbelly stove from the owner’s antique shop next door.I ordered an Original (6”) Turkey and Swiss on white since that was the build recommended by the chain. Not bad for $5.55. The sandwich-maker encouraged me to get all the toppings, and I didn’t argue. He didn’t steer me wrong. Swiss is my least favorite cheese, but when it was combined with their turkey and mayo, mustard, lettuce, onion, tomato, pickles, oil and Italian seasoning (oregano/salt/pepper), it worked. And hot peppers! It was just enough to lend the sandwich some heat, and the warm-but-not-overly-toasted bun turned this into a comforting and tasty meal. This is a standard sandwich elevated to another level.
3
Firehouse Subs
Lee Breslouer
This chain was founded by firemen. You know how I figured that out? Other than that it was written on the door? And the tables had a Dalmation print on them? And there was a hose affixed to a wall? And fire engine red chairs? And firefighter gear everywhere? OK, you get it. They lean so hard into the firefighter thing it’s kind of charming. It feels like a Disney-fied fire station that doubles as a sub shop.The small is only 3”, but it’s also only $3.99. I could’ve ordered the plain turkey sub, but the Hook & Ladder is its signature. That sub includes Virginia honey ham, melted Monterey Jack and is served "fully involved" (lettuce, tomato, mayo, onion, mustard, deli pickle). Because including a sub with ham is unfair, I swapped it out for more turkey (for free!). But I’m glad I went with a toasted sub. The melted cheese and distinct freshness of the veggies, combined with an expert mix of condiments and the perfectly toasted bun resulted in a top-notch sandwich. And you get a pickle, too!
2
Jimmy John's
Lee Breslouer
The neon “Free Smells” sign in the window of many a Jimmy John’s has always creeped me out. But that’s part of Jimmy John’s goofy branding, and it works for them. The brand also differentiates itself on the basis of food, thankfully. The bread is baked in-house all day long. The meats (including the turkey) have nitrates or nitrites. That’s a big deal, as deli meats with those ingredients have been shown to be potentially harmful. I’d had a sub or two at Jimmy John’s before, but never really thought much of it other than the bread. Can we talk about the bread? I don’t know what sort of culinary magic it takes to make a roll this pillowy, but hats off to the wizards in the kitchen. They could charge me the $5.65 for an 8” sub without anything in it and I’d probably go home happy. Lucky for me, this sub had turkey, lettuce, tomato and mayo. It doesn’t come with cheese, which is a bummer, but on the plus side, this was also the crispiest lettuce I had of the entire bunch. And did I mention that bread?!
1
Jersey Mike's
Lee Breslouer
If you grew up on the East Coast like me, you know sub shops. I grew up near one of the first Capriotti’s, and frequented other sub shops in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The meats were always sliced fresh, the rolls were soft, and the sandwiches were so huge you could never eat them in one sitting. But I’d never been to Jersey Mike’s, which was founded in the ‘50s on the Jersey Shore. I thought it was a gimmick cooked up by a chain to make it sound like an East Coast sub shop. It’s not. This is the real deal.When I walked in to order, a huge meat slicer greeted me — not by speaking, that’d be weird. It was just hard to miss. The guy behind the counter took my order (a 5” Mini #7 Turkey and Provolone) and began slicing the turkey in front of me. Just for me. I asked for the sub to be dressed Mike’s Way, with onions, lettuce, tomato, oregano, salt and a mix of red wine vinegar and oil. I took one bite and was blown away. After that bite, the red wine vinegar and oil covered my fingers. I didn’t care to wipe them off because I was too busy eating. The roll was fresh (they bake them every day), there was plenty of fresh turkey packed into a relatively small sub, the veggies popped with flavor and the seasoning enhanced all the ingredients. It reminded me of home. I remembered how good a sub could be. That’s a dang good deal for $5.99.
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