Sandwich City

Todd Coleman

There's no better place for lunch on a roll than Philly

In Philadelphia, my hometown, the corner deli is the community anchor, and our indigenous foods are hoagies and cheesesteaks. Me, I work in a machinery warehouse. I have two young sons, and I'm the guardian of a ravenous teenage boy. I don't follow "best of" lists, but I know what the average guy eats. So when my sister Betsy, a saveur editor, asked for suggestions, I mentioned the places where I get a good feeling—like my local deli, J&G Lunchmeat Villa, in Ardmore. A hapless boozer nicknamed Dr. Hoagie used to work there; his skill in life was making sandwiches like the Special: mortadella, capicola, salami, cheese, and, in my case, jalapeños. It wasn't, and isn't, gourmet food, but I've been ordering it for three decades.

Other delis tinker. Chickie's, in South Philly, tops its fried tomato hoagie with four kinds of provolone. It's ambitious, but I can really get into it. Still others go for size. Greenman's, in the Northeast, makes its hoagies two feet long. It takes two people to lift one, and four guys to eat it.

Of course, other cities have their heros or subs. But the cheesesteak is a Philly original, and the places that serve the best never change. Take Chink's Steaks. Samuel "Chink" Sherman was a raconteur and a horse gambler who opened a shop near Greenman's in 1949. When he died, his apprentice took over, and he's been behind that grill for 33 years, piling thin-sliced rib eye on a roll with American cheese. At Jim's, in West Philly, for 72 years, the key add-ons have long been Cheez Whiz and a wicked hot sauce.

I also have to mention one cheesesteak relation, a local oddity named the Schmitter, after an old Philadelphia beer. The sandwich is served at the ballpark, but it comes from McNally's Tavern, in Chestnut Hill. I've studied its blueprint: American cheese, steak, fried onions, tomatoes, cheese, grilled salami, "special sauce"—which is like Thousand Island dressing—and more cheese, on a local kaiser roll. With beer and potato chips, it's totally appealing. Less well-known than the cheese-steak but just as indigenous is the roast beef or roast pork Italiano, topped with sauteed greens and cheese. It comes from South Philly, the original home of DiNic's, which is now located in the upscale Reading Terminal Market. DiNic's gets my vote for the most beautiful roast beef, broccoli rabe, and sharp pro-volone sandwich; these guys prepare it all from scratch. But they've lost the street character of a place like John's, a fourth-generation shop located in a South Philly cinder-block bunker, where the roast pork with gravy, fried long hot peppers, and garlicky spinach makes a good package—one almost as tasty as the sandwich served at Lenny's, a sleeper out in the suburbs: moist, fennel-scented pulled pork on a football-shaped semolina roll.

Finally, there's the hot sausage and fish cake at Johnny's Hots, a take-out place by the Delaware River frequented by dock workers and cops. These fat, spicy beef sausages, seared so that their skin snaps, are wedged with creamy codfish cakes onto shiny little rolls. Philadelphians top this sandwich with pepper hash, a finely chopped Pennsylvania Dutch slaw. It's nothing fancy, just straight to the point. Which is the way a sandwich should be, in my opinion. —Albert John Andrews, eating Philly sandwiches for half a century and counting