The Holy Trinity, if you will, of Philadelphia food: the cheesesteak, the soft pretzel, and any incarnation of the TastyKake.
But—blasphemy!—I hereby disavow the cheesesteak, for I have tasted of the roast pork sandwich, dripping with pan juices and sauteed greenery.
This salty wonder has long been available, but it failed to appear on my mental menu of Philadelphia foods before I came across a lackluster mention of the sandwich on Frank Bruni’s New York Times food blog:
And the roast pork sandwich, on a round and soggy roll, was disappointing through and through. The meat had so little taste it could have been mistaken for turkey.
Not an auspicious review, but the entry piqued my interest. Where had this sandwich, apparently a Philadelphia classic, been all my life?
I certainly can’t claim to have grown up in Philadelphia, but I’ve put in my time sampling Philadelphia foods thanks to many visits there and to the far-flung Philly sububurbs of the South Jersey shore over the past three decades. And I never had even hint of the existence of this the mouthwatering combination of pork, provolone and, of course, the greens. Oh, the greens!
It’s the greens — brocolli rabe, traditionally, or spinach — that must have kept anyone from offering this sandwich to me. Leafy greens aren’t on most children’s list of favorite things, nor adults either. Perhaps I was just in greens-averse company while in Philadelphia.
A recent trip to Philadelphia gave me a chance to sample this sandwich at what some consider the epicenter of roast pork perfection, DiNic’s in the Reading Terminal Market downtown. I arrived just shortly before they closed for the day and found a modest four person line that moved with some speed, no one needing to peruse the sparse menu. When I placed my order, I was confronted with the choice of “Spinach or brocolli rabe?” Well, rabe, though I still don’t quite know what rabe is. Tasty, though.
The sandwich came together speedily. The chef (perhaps too formal a word, but there was artistry involved, so permit the indulgence) pulled a fresh hard sub roll from a paper bag, split it down the middle, and sliced off the ends. Cracking the roll, he layered on provolone cheese that had already been torn into small pieces, creating a fairly even layer against the full interior surface. Not a speck of cheese peeked outside the roll. Next came the roast pork, packed in, moist from a long bath in pan juices. The chef pressed the meat down slightly then crowned the sandwich with two tong-fulls of sauteed rabe.
Total time between first roll cut and efficient wrapping in butcher paper—thirty seconds, max. With a drink, I escaped with enough change from a ten to buy a Philadelphia Daily News (the better to eat with, being a tabloid size paper).
The overall impression was salty and tender, the provolone adding a sharpness to the proceedings. The rabe, sauteed into submission, had no chewiness to it, providing a bitter counterpoint to the equally soft pork.
It wasn’t a messy sandwich. I think the cheese base prevents the juice from pork and rabe from penetrating too quickly into the bread, so there’s a solid handle from start to finish. I expected a bit more garlicky flavor. It was, on the whole, a well-behaved sandwich that more than justified my detour that day.
I would be willing to put the roast pork sandwich up in the pantheon of Philadelphia foods. Certainly I’d opt for this meal over an unpredictable cheesesteak any day.