Philadelphia feels like an overlooked city. Located on the Eastern seaboard between New York City and Washington DC, it’s often a place you have to drive through in order to get to where you really want to go. While anyone with even a passing knowledge of American history will know it as the birthplace of the United States, Philadelphia also doesn’t come to mind as a foodie Mecca. But Philly is where Morimoto launched his first eponymous restaurant; is known as a haven for lovers of Italian-American cuisine; and has become a breeding ground for cutting-edge restaurants like Vedge and Zahav. If you come to Philadelphia, you best pack your favorite stretchy pants because you will certainly eat well.
Let’s face it though: the real “cuisine” of Philadelphia is what you’ve always expected it to be.
Their most famous sandwich is, of course, the Philadelphia cheesesteak. I remember having a spirited discussion with friend (and lifelong Philadelphian) Will in the middle of Terminal Reading Market on what the “authentic” version of the cheesesteak would be if you had to choose between Pat’s King of Steaks or Geno’s (the two most famous purveyors of this sandwich, ironically forgetting for the moment that authenticity is a trap and a sham). My hypothesis was that Geno’s cheesesteak was the “real” one because it featured Cheez Whiz as well as thinly-sliced beef (alas, you must place your order in English there, because you are in MURICA). Will pointed out that Cheez Whiz was not invented until the early 1950s, while cheesesteaks have been around since 1930 (again alas, he is correct).
The basic history of cheesesteak, after some very basic Googling, is that hot dog vendor Pat Oliveri (of Pat’s!) created the sandwich in 1930 after throwing some beef on the grill to make himself a snack. Unlike Geno’s, Pat’s uses melted provolone and beef chopped into bits (also, presumably, you can order in different languages). At both places, you order your sandwich “wit” or “witout” chopped onions. Cheesesteak aficionados would probably agree that both sandwiches are not the best specimens available in today’s Philadelphia.
Incidentally, Wawa produces a decent cheesesteak, and has done so since the Middle Ages, when I was in college at Bryn Mawr. What makes it are the hot peppers, which are apparently not a mainstay at either Pat’s or Geno’s.
I am not here to tell you where to get the best cheesesteak. There were way too many sandwiches for me to try and I was there for a limited amount of time. I am here to say that Philadelphians happily embrace their cultural heritage. Even the sushi bars do a twist on the sandwich.
The next famous sandwich of Philly: the roast pork sandwich from DiNic’s, the entire reason I was in the crowded Reading Terminal Market braving COVID. This sandwich — roast pork on a hoagie bun with melted provolone and broccoli rabe — is VERY popular, luring hundreds of customers a day to queue up in an orderly fashion with squalling toddlers in tow wondering why they have to wait so long for lunch. Here I admit I had a little dustup with Karen (who is, after all, also a Philadelphia native). You see, after doing yet again some basic Googling, I was informed that shredded pork was less dry than the usual roast pork slices. Our friend Pasha also said that “long hots” were what made the sandwich (sense a theme here?), an addition that I and all of my neighbors in line happily partook of.
Karen was unhappy that I would choose a sandwich that was not the one that every other person was in line for. In fact, she believed in the importance of tasting the original sandwich so strongly that she stood in the long line herself, getting me the roast pork sandwich with “greens” and provolone as God had always intended.
I am grateful to Karen’s sacrifice in the name of research. I have to say, though (in whisper): I hated the melted provolone on the roast pork. The bitterness of the broccoli rabe was a relief. Maybe I was kosher in a past life. Also, the long hot peppers were really the savior of this sandwich. The bread was great on both versions.
Better than either the Philadelphia cheesesteak or DiNic’s pork sandwich? A sandwich that wasn’t even in Philadelphia. It was in Atlantic City, at a place called White House, where Karen made us drive to try the famous “White House hoagie” (an Italian hoagie with extra salami and provolone). It is the flavor of Karen’s childhood, spent at the boardwalk (where she also sampled copious amounts of salt water taffy and fudge). Best of all, the sandwich hasn’t seemed to change over the past 30-some years.
Yes, it was delicious. And Karen made sure to order extra red peppers, which in this case came chopped up finely for you to scatter into the nether regions of the sandwich at will. Again, the peppers made the sandwich. The mountains of salami and provolone didn’t hurt either.
The best thing to have after such a sandwich, of course, is a “water ice”, a name which Karen pointed out doesn’t make any sense, since ice is made out of water. The important thing to do here is to pronounce “water” as “wood-er”. I have yet to perfect this skill. Warning: this shaved ice dessert will dye your tongue for hours, so beware when you order something that’s not red or pink.
Ultimately though? Sorry to disappoint you sandwich lovers (and Joey from “Friends”), but this was my favorite sandwich of my trip to Philadelphia. Yes, I know it’s not really a sandwich. It’s a quesadilla filled with huitlacoche (the fungus that grows on corn, which sounds horrible but tastes like mushrooms). It was delicious and part of the best meal I had in the city.
Having gotten all those sandwiches out of the way, I will be returning for more of this.