“Ohoho, he got himself the chicken maroosh!”
“Yeah, you know it!” I reply to a glowing metre maid standing behind me in the lunchline, unwilling to let on I was in virgin territory. I just got my order called up at a legendary West Philadelphia sandwich shop, Saad’s Halal Restaurant: a Middle Eastern lunch spot with cafeteria-style fixed tables—trapped in the early 90s—and several plaques on the walls informing customers not to talk on their cell phones. I grab my panini pressed sandwich from the cash counter, and immediately know I ordered well. Bright pickles and a sprinkle of parsley sit atop daubs of creamy garlic; and thick slices of tomatoes slant over chunky chicken cubes, all peeking out from a long hoagie roll. On my way back to the table I notice the people queued up for lunch looking at me with genuine respect, as if I had just helped an elderly lady cross the street.
The metre maid throws a glance at the chicken maroosh and hums a passionate “Mhhmmm!” I feel a strange sense of accomplishment. It has been a while since I made someone look so happy. It turns out, all I needed to do was order the right sandwich.
Philly is for food lovers: unpretentious, soulful, and original, Philadelphia’s food scene is indicative of its spirit. Like its boxers, both real and figments of Hollywood’s imagination, the city has persevered against tough odds. Today, those in search of a flourishing American metropolis in tune with its identity will find the City of Brotherly Love doesn’t just impress with its food—it makes you want to move there. The proof lies in that bite of sweet, lip-smacking vindication.
With the likes of Zahav, Verte, and Parc, Philly has a strong, glitzy culinary core. These eateries have earned their accolades and long waiting lists, but they do not define food culture in Philly. If anything, they only enrich the local scene, which rests on the hearty appetites of its wonderful people.
A better dipstick to measure Philly’s culinary depth is the sandwich, in very broad liberal terms—basically anything wrapped or tucked into some form of bread. Yes, even falafel wraps and tacos count. It’s a dish for busy people, it’s affordable, and for many in the city, it’s the best part of their day. But just because sandwiches are easily accessible, doesn’t mean they are a boring staple… at least not in Philly.
Here, sandwiches showcase some of the city’s finest cooking and its ethnic mosaic: from heavyweight hoagies to beautifully laden banh mi; to whiz-smothered cheesesteaks and James Beard-winning pork roast sandwiches.
Journey to a corner front bakery in the heart of South Philly, run by first and second generation Cambodian-Americans, churning out croissants and baguettes that are prepared into some of the city’s most sought after sandwiches. Or, make a trip to Market Street for sinful tacos—of Chef’s Table and Ugly Delicious fame—made by immigrants who hang the American flag alongside the Mexican one outside their storefront.
If you’re hankering for a taste of American greatness, not the ersatz kind scribbled on the back of red hats, but a delectable and diverse range of flavours, look towards Philadelphia. It’s a place where the griddle is always going, sizzling to the sound of spatulas and scrapers clanging away from early in the morning to late in the mid-Atlantic night.
Tender strands of peppery pork melded with a kick of provolone and a garlic-y bite of broccoli raab in a fresh sesame seed roll—this is what many South Philly locals will refer to as the iconic Philly hoagie. Served up in a self-proclaimed ‘cinder block shack,’ since the 1930s, John’s is where foremen with Popeye-sized forearms patiently wait for their lunchtime sandwich like choir boys. Of course, after winning a James Beard Award for this sandwich, plus high praise for the cheesesteaks and roast beef hoagies, tourists now speckle the lunch line. These days a trip to John’s Pork Roast is a pilgrimage for those in search of an authentic taste of Philly.
Non-locals are welcomed here much like John’s hungry regulars. That is, as long as they don’t hold up the line stammering over their order like some nervous teen asking someone out to the prom. The accents in South Philly can be as thick and juicy as the hoagies, so make sure to enjoy them as well.
If anyone’s ever told you the only real Jewish delis are in New York, grab an entire smoked fish from Famous 4th Street Deli and clobber them over the head with it. This tried-and-true deli has been a Philly original since 1923, curing their own corned beef, smoking their own pastrami, and making their bread and bagels in-house. As soon as you walk into this black-and-white-tiled legend, you know you’re going home with a doggy bag.
Customers are greeted by a huge counter featuring slabs of cakes and enormous cookies the size of an adult’s face, all at the convenient height of a six-year-old’s eye line. Walk past rows of smoked fish, and then a glass case filled with golden roast chickens, until you reach the dining room. Head to the window-lined backroom and get yourself some diner coffee. While you wait for your sandwich take in all the reviews and newspaper clippings that paper the walls. Obama certainly seems to have enjoyed
It would be an understatement to call their sandwiches generous, so bring your appetite. In terms of comfort food, nothing beats the corned beef sandwich. However, if you’re looking to break away from Philly’s plethora of red meat sandwiches, go for the smoked fish. Famous has perhaps the widest array of smoked fish sandwiches in the city, offering sturgeon, stable, lox, whitefish, herring and more. All these options come with a smear of cream cheese as thick as a steak.
Everybody in Philly has their favourite cheesesteak joint. Mostly, it is never Pat’s and Geno’s. The historic (and kinda fake) rivalry between the oldest cheesesteak jawn in Philly (Pat’s) against the next oldest (Geno’s), who say all they did was make a good thing better, draws plenty of out-of-towners and few locals. If only to tick a box, it is an interesting crossroads to check out. After all, look at John Kerry’s polling numbers before and after he tried to order a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese (the horror!) at Pat’s in 2004. For those who don’t know, whiz, American, and provolone are the only cheeses, and cheese-like substances, allowed on a cheesesteak. There’s a good chance a faux pas in a Philly cheesesteak joint affected an American presidential election, so never underestimate the power of the city’s favourite hoagie.
Jim’s, on the other hand, is one of the many alternative cheesesteak joints to try out. If you’re smart, you aren’t going there on a weekend when tourists overrun the place. Show up at 12 p.m. on the dot during a weekday instead. A word to the wise, if you plan on demolishing an entire cheesesteak yourself, you most definitely need to walk it off right after you eat it. Otherwsie you’ll be carrying around a food baby all day long.
Cristina Martinez picks up her cleaver with the ginger touch of a sword master unsheathing a katana in a Tarantino flick. “This is the most important,” she says, while wiping down the blade used to chop pounds upon pounds of slow-cooked lamb and pork. Martinez is the type of person to help you lug your oversized suitcase through the restaurant’s two front doors, and tuck it in a corner during the lunch rush. She’s also the type of person who will sit down and talk to regulars with the calm swagger of a neighbourhood matriarch making the rounds. Her manner betrays what you’d assume of a chef who’s basked in her fair share of media limelight, and so does her home-style food—in the best way possible.
The trick to ordering at South Philly Barbacoa is to ask for the meat in bulk and make your own tacos at the table. For smaller groups, get half a pound of the barbacao (lamb), and half a pound of the pancita (pork stomach). Load your tray with nopales (pickled cactus) and whatever other condiments and salsas fit your fancy. This way the in-house corn tortillas don’t get soggy. A melange of texture and hints of citrus permeate the tender hodgepodge of lamb that practically begs you to, “Andale, have another one compadre.” On a cold day, however, the consommé might be the best choice. A viscous-like lamb broth with a bit of basmati rice and chickpeas may seem simple, but Martinez’s execution is that of a master: it is hard to imagine a more comforting dish.
This West Philly neighbourhood joint has been around since 1993, run by Scott Lee, an entrepreneurial South Korean immigrant. Many in the neighbourhood flock to Lee’s for his vegan cheesesteak, a tempeh-based creation, loaded with broccoli, caramalised onions, and vegan cheese. This creation is met with scepticism by many before they taste it, but lo and behold, it works. The soya sauce marinade is the key to maintaining enough flavour in this tasty oddity. Lee likes making unconventional dishes taste good. Other scrummy curiosities that can be found at Lee’s are the Tanzanian Fries, an omelette stuffed with home-style potatoes, cheese, green peppers, and onions, all drizzled with hot sauce, and the Game Over Cheesesteak, an unorthodox combination of chicken and shrimp served with broccoli or spinach.
One of the most beloved sandwich shops in University City is Fu Wah, just off Baltimore, right next to Lee’s. Local residents (many of them college-goers) flock to the mini-mart like it’s a cool aunt who’ll bump you a smoke and tuck five bucks in your shirt pocket. Except in this case, it’s a middle-aged man handing you a reasonably priced banh mi that just so happens to be delightful. The banh mi aren’t overstuffed, nor are they miserly—they are the perfect size to fill you up unlike the rest of the behemoth sandwiches in Philly. The Classic Pork is, well… classic. You get your traditional accoutrement of manicured veggies, pork pâte, and pork cold cuts. If one had to nitpick, perhaps an extra smear of pâte would be nice, for an extra charge as the Vietnamese staple is already reasonably priced.
Despite how popular both the classic and barbecue banh mi are, the most popular sandwich is surprisingly the tofu banh mi. Everyone in the neighbourhood seems to have admiration for the marinated tofu that ties the sandwich together. In fact, the ingredient is so popular Fu Wah actually sells standalone tubs of the marinated tofu to their customers.
The folks at Artisan Boulanger Patissier like a challenge. In 2002 they opened a French bakery and patisserie in a heavily Italian-American neighbourhood. It was a place and time where change was looked at with not-so-mild disdain. They were also people of Cambodian descent making French baked goods and Vietnamese sandwiches. Some people from the neighbourhood didn’t look for legitimacy in the taste of their food, but in where they came from—a narrow-minded error—but, hey, it was their loss. Not all Mexican chefs have to make tacos, and not all Italian chefs pasta. A Cambodian man went to France to study baking, then followed his dream to America where he met the love of his life, and now arguably makes the best baguette in the birthplace of America—now that is the kind of American dream that makes you smile.
A few James Beard nominations later, along with neighbourhood regulars who know exactly how lucky they are to live close to the bakery, it’s not uncommon for the boulangerie to sell out of nearly everything. The hot tickets are definitely their banh mi, inspired by the ones at Fu Wah, and taken up a notch by their baguette, an organic preservative-free stick of bread made in a specialty 50,000 dollar oven (which has a steaming factor that helps get the perfect crust with soft, pillow inside). However, it is important to remember the baker, Mr. Chin, is a classically trained French pastry chef. He brings all that talent to his bodaciously buttery, fantastically flaky croissant. When stuffed with a bacon, egg, and cheese combo, this French classic becomes an American one, a bit of breakfast bliss that goes great with a cup of Cafe du Monde coffee.
27 years ago a Lebanese man by the name of Saad started a halal lunch truck on 38th and Spruce. Taking into account Philly’s large Muslim population, Saad was determined to offer an entirely zabiha halal menu, often taking up the onus of slaughtering, and sometimes skinning, cows and sheep in accordance with his tradition. Now a brick-and-mortar University City restaurant on 45th and Walnut, Saad’s is a comfortable local treasure, with indoor pygmy date palms lining the walls and traditional Arabic fanous (lanterns) adorning the ceiling. Alongside the famous chicken maroosh sandwich, Saad has an entire menu people want to eat, most notably the falafel rolls, the shish tawook, and his cheesesteaks. He even serves a chicken cheesesteak, which done by anybody else would be declared blasphemous, but he makes it work with a cult following. If you wonder why everything tastes so good, everything they can make from square one is made from scratch. Keep in mind, Saad’s is shut every Friday and for the entire month of Ramadan.
They might not sell sandwiches, but they’ve been making some of the best bread in all of Philly for five generations, since 1918, with zero preservatives. Grab a loaf early in the morning and head a few blocks down 9th Street to Di Bruno’s for some stellar cheeses, cold cuts, and condiments. You just might make yourself the best DIY Italian hoagie of your dreams. Also, don’t forget to try the tomato pie at Sarcone’s.
Cannoli purists may look askance at Frangelli’s Famous Franolli, and little wonder. It’s a hole-less doughnut, sliced horizontally, and filled with cannoli cream. Don’t hesitate, though, because it’s delicious! The doughnut is yeasty and just slightly sweet, making a lovely contrast with the cool, creamy filling, flecked with mini chocolate chips (no overpowering citrus or candied fruit here). Lightly dusted with powdered sugar, this is a grown-up treat that pairs perfectly with your favourite coffee. Unlike with a traditional cannoli, there’s no possibility of a shattered shell. The soft sponge doughnut holds the filling in place down to the last bite.
Aside from the bustling, streamlined setting of Reading Terminal Market—Philadelphia’s popular food hall—DiNic’s Pork Roast Sandwich is a close second to John’s Pork Roast, which means it is very good. The one difference that works in favour of John’s over DiNic’s is that the way the roast is rubbed and basted gives it a hit of extra piquancy, a trait some say elevates the sandwich, especially when paired with sharp provolone. However, given DiNic’s central location, it is a more convenient option for tourists rather than hoofing it down deep into South Philly. Also, the Travel Channel named this bad boy the ‘Best Sandwich in America,’ so you might want to see how that title holds up.
This regional king of chain convenience stores and gas stations holds a special place in many a Pennsylvanian’s heart. Early weekday mornings and late weekend nights are when WaWas are in true form, as breakfast sandwiches and cheesesteaks are ordered by droves of dedicated customers with half-opened eyes. This is either because they’re on their way to work or they’re suffering the aftermath of an Eagles game, for whether they win or lose, there is always aftermath to an Eagles game. Out of towners may want to try the sizzli waffle breakfast sandwich, served all day. Thick waffles substitute bread, somehow already imbued with a hint of syrup, and are packed around the winning combo of bacon, egg, and cheese. This is the way many folks in Philly start their morning. A local rule, however, is to never order a WaWa cheesesteak before midnight. After 12 a.m., with the help of a couple of pints is the appropriate way to indulge yourself.
If you happen to be a restaurant owner, the saga of Goldie’s reception in Philly might be the most infuriating success story you’ve ever heard. After the owners, Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook, of the wildly successful Zahav, opened two other instant successes in Philly, they needed a place to house Rooster Soup Co., their soup kitchen -turned-restaurant, whose profits they donate to charity. The basement location they were looking at had an upstairs section that had to be rented part and parcel with the downstairs. The two owners had a falafel-centric concept modelled on a specific falafel that Solomonov grew up eating in Israel (Falafel Devorah); they had been toying with executing this plan for over a decade. To make use of the extra space they decided to suddenly take this plan forward, after keeping it on the back-burner for so long. In 2017 they started a vegan falafel shop serving Turkish coffee tehina milkshakes (which are absolutely out of this world), and without a lick of advertising they had lines out the front in no time. Goldie’s is another well-deserved success serving perhaps the best falafel you’ll ever have: thin crispy fritter shells, breaking open a pillowy centre of chickpea and parsley.
Order a fried chicken sandwich and doughnut, perhaps the blood orange or an Eagle’s-themed one served on game day. These great chicken sandos are most likely the weakest contender on this list other than WaWa. And even then, they are mighty tasty, giving you an idea of just how high the sandwich-making game is in Philly.
Everybody has a different idea of what is the most iconic or definitive Philly sandwich. Tourists chase the cheesesteaks, food writers try and convince audiences the pork roast is the unsung hero, and locals seem to gravitate to more ethnic options, like banh mi, tacos, and falafel wraps (and, of course, the occasional late night WaWa run). If one wanted to make friends, they’d perhaps say all these great sandwiches coming out of a single city is what makes its food culture special, and then everyone could all hold hands and chant kumbaya together. Well, that’s not going to happen. For my money, Nick’s Old Original Roast Beef offers the best creation between breads in Philly.
The roast beef sandwich makes you want to throw around typical baby boomer phrases as praise. “It hits the spot; it’s the bee’s knees; kiss my grits that’s good!” Honestly, the sandwich is frighteningly simple, a Kaiser Roll, some sliced provolone congealed to the bun, and their roast beef pulled from a vat of steaming bone marrow pan sauce. The flavour is all in that USDA prime roast beef and bone marrow gravy. Handled by two bruisers, who look like they dole out headbutts for handshakes, the roast beef is skilfully carved on the countertop.
It’s brought over by a chatty waitress with a kind face. She might point out a black-and-white photo hanging on the wall, and let it slip that the man in the back of the photo was connected, offering a gesture to let you know he was a trigger man. The sandwich hasn’t changed much since that photo was taken over 80 years ago. And if you’re of Italian-American descent and have rewatched too many Scorsese movies for your own good, you might get a kick out of the possibility that that a little paisan with a quick finger probably enjoyed a couple of roast beef sandwiches that were pretty much the same succulent burst of marrow-y goodness. After all, what would the boomer say? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
Thanks to Lily, Elizabeth, and John, local Philly folk who put their patience and their bellies on the line for this feature.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.