Decades from now, the history books will claim that the Great Pretzel-Bread Sandwich Craze of 2013 began with the introduction of Wendy's Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger.
Not for me, though. I fell in love with pretzel-bread sandwiches more than a decade ago, at a little cafe in Cambridge, Mass., that served cheap but delicious sandwiches on chewy, salty, knotted-up buns. There and then, I decided: Calories be damned; every deli and restaurant in America should offer pretzel bread as an option.
Now, it seems like they are. In droves. Wendy's, Dunkin' Donuts, Steak 'n Shake and Sonic all have rolled out pretzel-bread sammies in 2013; Ruby Tuesday launched an entire pretzel-burger menu. And while these may be the most visible entries into the pretzel-bread scene, here in Tampa Bay, they're far from the best.
For example, lunchers in Tampa are overwhelmed with quality options at the Oxford Exchange, the museum-esque tea room and brunchery across from the University of Tampa, so it's possible to overlook the Pork Belly & Blue Burger ($13) — a belt-busting burger topped with bacon, fried egg, smoked paprika aioli, bibb lettuce and tomato, all served on the restaurant's signature toasted pretzel buns, baked in-house each morning. The saltiness of the pretzel is overwhelmed by the blue cheese and bacon flavors, but there's a lovely crisp to the bread. It's messy, though, so be prepared to use a knife and fork. For something a little simpler, try the OE Grilled Pretzelwich ($10), a ham, cheddar, honey and jalapeno sandwich served on a cinnamon-chili-dusted pretzel roll.
Ham and cheese, you'll find, is a common refrain among the pretzel-bread set. Just up Kennedy, The Bungalow serves a massive Twisted Ham & Swiss ($9) that's greasy, salty and slathered in tangy mustard and served with crispy golden fries. Perfect pub grub, in other words.
Speaking of pub grub: The Pub at International Plaza has a Ham and Swiss Pub Pretzel ($9.95). It comes with Guinness-battered onion straws and mustard. But the ham and swiss isn't the Pub's best pretzel-bread sammie. That honor goes to the Welsh Dip Pub Pretzel ($12.95), which is sort of a cross between a French dip and a Philly cheesesteak — it's sliced prime rib, green peppers, onions, melted mozzarella and provolone with a side of au jus.
The World of Beer is well known as a craft beer lovers' destination, both in Tampa Bay and beyond. But most locations don't serve food. That's not the case at the World of Beer in Carrollwood, which has a diverse and filling menu of "tavern fare," including fried foods, flatbread pizzas and curiosities like chicken and waffles, a Scotch egg and something called a "pint of bacon." For $8, you can order a hand-rolled pretzel, the size of a dinner plate, which comes hanging from a hook like a wreath. Or you can go with one of two pretzel-bread sandwiches: The Guinness "Brat" Slider, which is Guinness-infused bratwurst with carmelized onions, peppers and Dijon mustard on a quartered pretzel roll; and the Smoked Chipotle Chicken Sandwich, a smoked breast slathered in bacon, Swiss and chipotle aioli. The menu helpfully suggests a beer pairing — a stout for the brats, an IPA for the chicken — and at the World of Beer, you won't want for options.
The one thing all these sandwiches have in common is, well, they're kind of common. Pretzel-bread burgers and ham-and-cheeses can be found in taverns all over the country. But there is one place in Tampa Bay that dares to think outside the biergarten: O'Maddy's Bar & Grille in Gulfport.
O'Maddy's has named most of the sandwiches on its menu for a staffer, such as Jess's Crab Crab Cake Sandwich — a backfin lump and crab-claw cake on a toasted pretzel bun with chipotle mayo, lettuce tomato and onion. It's spicy and zesty, and the bun's crisp, smoky rim adds a perfect texture you didn't know you were craving.
As a bonus, O'Maddy's doubles as a friendly and laid-back beach bar, with a huge menu of tropical drinks and an open-air bar that faces the water. So as you're inhaling your salty sammie, you can also inhale the salty Floridian air.