A Philadelphia Sandwich Tour, Part Three

Sarcone's Deli in Philadelphia, PAWith three sandwich stops already in Philadelphia’s Italian Market, one might think we had sampled the full range of tastes on Ninth Street, but the epic Philadelphia Sandwich Tour had one more stop on this street.

Having just consumed a sublime meatball sandwich, washed down with a birch beer, at George’s Sandwich Shop, we headed north on Ninth for a few blocks until we came to the home of all that lovely, crusty, seeded hoagie bread, Sarcone’s Bakery. We didn’t stop in for fresh rolls, though, because a bit further down the block sits Sarcone’s Deli. A simple fact about all fresh foods is that their essential taste is best closest to the source, true for Tastypies and Guinness alike. Forty feet is pretty close to the source, and these rolls were fresh, befitting the best hoagies (but not necessarily the best sandwiches) on the tour.

Of all our stops, Sarcone’s was the busiest. The phone orders came in steadily, even as the line to place carry out orders grew and grew. A crew of four worked steadily, slicing long loaves of that delectable bread down to hoagie size and layering it with meats, cheeses, and sundry toppings. And if I’m not mistaken, there was a signed Brian Propp Flyers jersey overseeing the proceedings. Classic Philly right there.

We ordered two hoagies, though had my constitution been up to the task, I think I would have ordered the entire menu. Our first hoagie was the acclaimed Junk Yard Special (turkey, proscuitto, sauteed spinach, roasted red peppers, sharp provolone, mozzarella, red wine vinegar, oil, and herbs), a hoagie featured on the Food Network (auto-play video).

The Junk Yard Special from Sarcone's Deli in Philadelphia, PA

Of course, I managed to take the picture of the Junk Yard Special with the non-seeded side of the roll facing the camera (I was hungry, if you can believe it, and eager to dig in), but the essential quality of the hoagie’s construction can be seen. There’s so much going on at once in this hoagie. The herbs and red wine vinegar help to tie everything together, and the variety of textures at play—the soft, oily red pepper, the salty smoothness of the cheeses, the crack of the crust—made for an incredible gustatory experience. This is high food art right here.

And yet, our second Sarcone’s hoagie, The C.C. (roast beef, sauteed spinach, roasted garlic, sharp provolone, Balsamic vinegar, oil), proved a point I’ve come to realize about truly, truly great sandwiches.

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Planning a Philadelphia Sandwich Tour

This humble sandwich acolyte has decided to make a pilgrimage to Philadelphia this year, to worship at the various shrines of Philly’s four signal contributions to world sandwich cuisine: hoagie, roast pork, chicken cutlet, and cheesesteak.

Photo of Chickie's Italian Deli by Benjamin Haas on flickr.com, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike License.

My aim is to limit each sandwich type to one or two purveyors maximum, in the city proper, both for logistical and gustatory reasons. A guy can only eat so much!

So, where do I go?

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Taylor Gourmet Takes on Roast Pork

It’s one thing to re-create an authentic Philly hoagie south of the Schuylkill River, as the crew at DC’s Taylor Gourmet have done. Use the right bread (Sarcone’s seeded Italian), with premium ingredients, and combine with an assiduous touch and an generous eye, and you have a hoagie, not a sub. A hoagie from Taylor Gourmet could be served with pride anywhere in Philadelphia.

But there is science, and there is art, and with the recent introduction of the Philadelphia roast pork sandwich to their menu, Taylor Gourmet takes on quite a task.

The roast pork sandwich can’t just be created from good ingredients, any more than a painting is a mere agglomeration of high quality oil paints.

The pork has to be cooked just so, to hold the right amount of moisture yet still provide enough bite; the provolone needs to be ripped into pieces to coat the inside of the roll, with no extraneous cheese flopping over the edge; and the rabe (only rabe) needs to be tender, tearable by the teeth, and bitter without bringing too much “veg” to the experience.

The true masters of this sandwich have an kitchen infrastructure in place dedicated to the creation of this salty, bitter, perfectly balanced foodstuff. DiNic’s, Tony Luke’s, John’s—this trinity creates hundreds (thousands?) of roast pork sandwiches a day between them, and have for decades. The counter staff has an intuitive feel for the sandwich (and generally expects you to order and get the hell out of the way, because the line behind you is out the door).

So how did the DC rookies do?

Roast Pork in DC

Pretty damn well, actually.

The execution was flawless—good proportional balance between the pork and the rabe, with the provolone neatly sundered and the rabe layered just so. The bread held the moisture, and the roast pork was nicely flavored and tender. And the rabe…

Um, can we talk about the bread again? No? OK.

The rabe was, sadly, lacking, like the Flyers’ goaltending in any year except those when Parent or Hextall were in goal. The rabe had too much stalk and too many florets. It needed just a bit more cooking time to get it slightly more tender. I look for just a bit of snap in my rabe, but in this sandwich, I wound up pulling whole rabe stalks out of the sandwich when biting in. Though nicely seasoned and bitter, the rabe let down the sandwich as a whole.

Nonetheless, I’ll be going back for more. The Pattison Avenue, as Taylor Gourmet dubs this sandwich, would not be booed out of any of the stadiums lining its namesake street in Philadelphia. And if one measures the worth of a roast pork sandwich on a scale based on the distance from Reading Terminal Market (home of DiNic’s), this one is off the charts. It’s a true roast pork sandwich.

Roast Pork in a Box?

Tony Luke’s recent unveiling of its frozen Roast Pork Sandwich puts Movement Point‘s longstanding advocacy for Philadelphia Roast Pork Sandwich Awareness to the test.

Image from https://web.archive.org/web/20090308002055/http://www.philly.com/philly/business/40631707.html

Any effort to get Roast Pork Sandwiches into more homes and hungry hands must be celebrated, because these sandwiches, with their bewitching combination of tender roast pork, sharp provolone, and slightly bitter greens, have flown under the nation’s culinary radar for far too long. But can Tony Luke’s really pull off a good, frozen Roast Pork Sandwich?

Speaking in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the near-eponymous Tony Lucidonio, Jr., says he can:

“I can’t get into too much detail because we have a Patent pending,” Lucidonio said of the new frozen-sandwich preparation process. “It is the way the meat is made that allows the meat to go from a raw steak into a microwave or a boiler bag and come out as if it were grilled.”

Though he is speaking there about his frozen cheesesteaks, one assumes the process is somewhat similar for the Roast Pork Sandwiches. The proof will be in the pork, as they say. I think…

(Image from The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Serious Sandwiches

Food blog Serious Eats presents a delightful illustrated guide to America’s hoagie heritage, featuring a small but respectful mention of the Official Sandwich of Movement Point, the Philadelphia Roast Pork Sandwich, with accompanying photograph by yours truly.

DiNic's 2

The article attempts to decipher the real differences between subs, hoagies, grinders, and heroes. I don’t think I’ve seen the differences explained as other than regional dialect variations before. Just don’t read the article before lunch or you’ll get hungry.

Serious Eats did a recap of Philadelphia’s best Roast Pork earlier in the year, and their advice for John’s Roast Pork is spot on—do not order the small.

New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni made that mistake and missed out on a moment of epicurian wonder. When I visited John’s earlier this year, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what he had eaten and how it compared to the feast in front of me until I realized he got a small. Don’t get the small. Don’t order anything in a small in Philly.

Roast Pork at the Park in the Times

Movement Point‘s mission to bring the culinary delight that is the Philadelphia Roast Pork Sandwich to the unenlightened adds another of the country’s great newspapers to its list of supporters.

Three months ago, Tim Warren’s encomium on this sandwich made of pork, provolone, and sauteed greens that has labored under the heavy, greasy shadow of the cheesesteak appeared in the Washington Post. Now, we have the New York Times‘ Peter Meehan weighing in, declaring the roast pork sandwich to be among the nation’s most impressive ballpark fare. Meehan’s survey of ballpark food, “Buy Me Some Sushi and Baby Back Ribs,” in the June 8, 2008, Times, took him to Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park, where he found the grail:

Ashburn Alley is home to hoagies, Chickie & Pete’s crab fries (French fries dusted with Old Bay seasoning) and two of the city’s respected cheese steak purveyors, Rick’s Steaks and Tony Luke’s. Tony Luke’s had the better cheese steak of the two (though their other locations are notably superior). Even better is Tony Luke’s juicy roasted pork and provolone sandwich, dressed with tender broccoli rabe, as good a meat sandwich as there is in the majors.

Let’s just emphasize that last bit: “as good a meat sandwich as there is in the majors.”

CBP_Concessions, on flickr.com, by wallyg, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives

OK, so it’s not a third Michelin star, but in the increasingly rarified (and expensive) world of stadium food, that’s quite a review. I have yet to sample a Tony Luke’s roast pork, but I can think of little better place to get one than at the ballpark while watching the Phils push to another pennant. Time for a road trip . . .

(Image courtesy of wallyg via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivatives License.)