Philadelphia is definitely a sandwich-kind of city.
It doesn’t have neither the big dollars of New York or Washington nor the rich history in arts and culture of Chicago and Los Angeles. It’s just a good honest city built on its crucial role in America’s founding and blue-collar workers that is now equal parts metropolitan big city and industrial small city.
The humble sandwich fits that archetype in the food world. It’s a complete meal in one package, capable of being turned upscale or made into value food. Bread, protein, veggies and fats come with each bite. Tradition runs deep yet there is still tons of room for improvisation and experimentation in between those two slices of bread. It’s little wonder that the sandwich is top dog in a city like Philadelphia.
Of course, none of this is needed to realize what is seemingly obvious; just think about where cheesesteaks come from! Philly cheesesteaks are as ubiquitous as New York pizza or LA tacos and it’s not a baseless stereotype either. This isn’t like hot dogs in New York which are honestly no different than hot dogs anywhere else in the world.
Tourists who come looking solely for cheesesteaks miss a huge part of what makes Philadelphia delicious. If there’s one message to take from get from this Philly sandwich post, it should be to forget about the cheesesteaks and start looking for roast pork!
Roast pork can feel like a misnomer for visitors like me. Carnitas-style shredded pork sits in large vats of potent pork drippings, resulting in meat with a unappetizing soggy appearance. The deliciously rich pork flavour more than makes up for it though!
A Travel Channel show last year, Adam Richman’s Best Sandwich in America, proclaimed DiNic’s roast pork sandwich in Philly the best in America! It’s not just the exception to the rule around here either: several other sandwich shops are also bandied as contenders for ‘best in Philly’, let alone in the country.
The allure of award-winning sandwiches and $9 roundtrip bus tickets from NYC made a last-minute trip to Philadelphia a must!
I was planning to try three of Philly’s famous sandwich stops, Paesano’s, John’s Roast Pork and the aforementioned DiNic’s. Unfortunately DiNic’s was planned as dinner but it closes at 6pm most days of the week! It sucks to miss out on such an institution but luckily the other two sandwich places more than lived up to the hype.
All three are sandwich shops that focus on doing one specific thing right. Paesano’s offers pretty traditional Italian-influenced sandwiches with an American touch while John’s Roast Pork serves no-frill roast pork and cheesesteaks.
For a local (Vancouver) reference point, Meat & Bread is a pretty good comparable albeit with a pretty different specialty, namely porchetta or Italian-style roast pork with herbs.
Make no doubt about it, these are true destination sandwiches that will make others look boring with no need to break the lunch budget!
Destination 1: Paesano’s
Paesano’s may only be a few years old, but it’s quickly become one of Philly’s essential sandwich institutions! It doesn’t have the same history as Pat’s or Geno’s, the two long-standing and famed cheesesteak places, but it’s hard to keep good food a secret for long.
The philosophy here revolves around presenting traditional Italian sandwiches with a touch of local style. At any moment there are around 10 different sandwiches on the menu, ranging from traditional recipes to more current creations.. There’s a few other things on the menu, but everything about the lunch-counter style ambiance and focused menu is a sign to go for the sandwiches!
Chef Peter McAndrews is big in the local Italian restaurant scene with his biggest venture being Modo Mio, which serves regional Italian cuisine. His empire is reminiscent of the Torrisi Italian Specialties guys in New York with their gourmet sandwich shop, Parm, to go with a more formal Italian dining venture.
Paesano’s has been featured on many food and travel shows and some of their fans include TV personalities like Tony Bourdain and Bobby Flay.
I really enjoyed the sandwiches here! They’re simple and homely, just like you’d expect these types of sandwiches to be made by Italian grandmothers. They’re hefty and certainly sufficient as a meal but each bite is loaded with complexity and stays interesting even until the end.
Because of how easy it is to make, the attention to details that comes more naturally with other foods gets lost with sandwiches. That’s not the case here though, and throw in how affordable these sandwiches are and you have the profile of a winner!
Things Roger Ate like a Pig
Paesano – 4/6 (Very Good), $8
- Beef Brisket, Horseradish Mayo, Roasted Tomatoes, Pepperincino, Sharp Provolone & Fried Egg
When trying a restaurant it’s always a good idea to try their namesake dish right? The Paesano is a pretty solid representation of the Paesano’s philosophy: straightforward meats with a carefully curated selection of accentuating toppings and condiments.
Fried egg on a sandwich? Sign me up! Unfortunately this egg was fried with a mostly solid yolk but it did make the sandwich a little less messy. I wouldn’t have minded the extra mess though! This might also have been a consistency issue as most people seem to have had it with a runny egg instead.
There was a decent amount of beef brisket in this but it wasn’t quite as meat-loaded as the Arista sandwich. The meat was fairly neutral in flavour with only a moderate hint of salt to add to the beef flavour but was quite tender and did well to soak up the other flavours in this sandwich.
Speaking of soaking, the whole sandwich was soaked solid with horseradish mayo dripping everywhere! It made for a huge mess but the creaminess and slight kick of horseradish was welcomed to add another dimension to the brisket.
Throw in the smoky sweet goodness of excellent roasted tomatoes and the unadulterated funkiness of sharp provolone gave the Paesano a true Italian feel! Unfortunately I didn’t really taste the pepperincino but there was more than enough to sustain interest until the very end.
A pretty solid sandwich overall with a good selection of toppings, although I thought the brisket seemed quite ordinary and consistency with the fried egg seems to be an issue.
Arista – 5/6 (Excellent), $8
- Roasted Suckling Pig, Italian Long Hots, Broccoli Rabe & Sharp Provolone
I absolutely loved this! This was so simple yet so delicious and complex at the same time. Everything about this sandwich is classically Italian, from the roast pork preparation to the essential Italian long hots and extra-sharp provolone.
Eating this sandwich is the carnivore’s equivalent of watching a bikini-clad beach babe climbing out of the water and looking mighty fine with drops of water falling off in slow motion. Luscious pork juices came dripping out without any encouragement needed and I ended up resorting to dipping the sandwich in puddles of pork essence to avoid waste.
The carnitas-style shredded pork was wonderfully tender and each bite was infused with aromas of black pepper, rosemary, fennel seed and dill. The meat was very ‘porky’ in a good way: the aromatics enhanced the natural pork flavour without any distractions caused by excessive spice. Holding it all together was some decent and not overly crunchy Italian sesame seed bread with the right meat-to-bread ratio (1:4 maybe?).
Italian Long Hots, also known as Italian frying peppers, are Jalapeño like green hot peppers with a characteristic sweetness to go with their mild spiciness. These were fried to a pretty mushy consistency but that was no worry because I loved the subtle heat and sweetness that they brought!
Put it all together with the slight bitterness of the broccoli rabe that built on the tempering qualities of dill and the funkiness of the sharp provolone and you have an irresistibly complex mélange of flavours!
Everything about this sandwich screams must-try! A trip out to Paesano’s is well worth it for their Arista sandwich alone.
Destination 2: John’s Roast Pork
The real reason I came here initially wasn’t actually for the roast pork, rather it was for their cheesesteaks! As clichéd as the cheesesteak impression might be to the locals here, I still had to try one voted as the best in Philadelphia, well, just because!
John’s Roast Pork perfectly embodies the attitudes of the locals. It’s the quintessential no-nonsense locals-only far-off South Philly outpost that would do little to attract tourists if it wasn’t for their stellar reputation.
John’s stands alone in an industrial desert of big-box stores and trucking companies. Even walking here requires skillfully navigating past train tracks and tractor trailers while walking along neglected and sometimes nonexistent sidewalks. The fact that there’s a lineup here from opening till closing (or food running out) each afternoon at 3pm means something must be attracting the regulars!
The service here is efficient and no-nonsense and visitors might not get the hang of it quite so fast, but don’t take that as a disrespect to the food! They know what they’re doing here and judging by the quality of the food I think they deserve the right to run things the way they want!
The menu may look diverse, but the locals typically stick with one of two things: steak or roast pork.
Despite the awards for best cheesesteak, I actually didn’t find anything too special about the version served here and to be honest it didn’t fit my possibly bastardized impression of what a cheesesteak should be.
The star of the show is the roast pork (seems like they got their name right after all!). This sandwich is an absolute must-try in Philadelphia! It might be the most ‘boring’ destination sandwich in America, but these boring plain looking slices of pork will astound you with their multi-faceted deliciousness.
Things Roger Ate like a Pig
Cheesesteak Sandwich – 2.5/6 (Okay – Good), $8.50 (12 oz meat)
This was the reason why I came to John’s, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that the roast pork and not the cheesesteak is the main attraction here.
The sandwich was pretty meat heavy, with maybe 80% of the filling being thinly-sliced pieces of beef. There was a decent amount of pepper flavour in the meat, but I did find it to be a little chewy and tough. It came with some onions that were grilled but not heavily caramelized and a little lacking in sweetness because of that.
Most disappointing of all was the cheese. The sharp provolone cheese was melted on top of the steak while on the grill but felt a little lacking in the whole context of the sandwich. Maybe it is a bastardization for Cheez Whiz style cheese to be used for cheesesteaks, but I wouldn’t have minded that because it would have added some creamy mouthfeel to the otherwise one-dimensional steak layer. Compared to the provolone at Paesano’s this was less sharp and hence didn’t do as much to the sandwich.
The bread was most likely an Amoroso roll, known in Philadelphia as one of the top hearth bakeries that is a “must” for authentic cheesesteaks. I can see why this bread is always chosen over all others! It had a good crust and was quite moist to soak up all those meat and cheese juices with a hearty meat to bread ratio.
Roast Pork Sandwich – 5.5/6 (Excellent – Must Try!), $8 (L) or $6 (S), extra $0.75 for sharp provolone
- Roast pork with sharp provolone
Don’t judge this sandwich by its appearance. This might just be one of the ugliest and bland-looking sandwiches I have but the magic that comes out of these pale slices of pork is incredible.
Overall this sandwich is not as complete as the Arista from Paesano’s: the provolone is not as sharp, the balance from broccoli rabe is lacking and the sweet spice of long hots is missing. For the pork to stand alone and match, if not eclipse, the heights reached by the Arista requires something truly extraordinary, and this sandwich is just that!
These pork slices didn’t soak up pork juices quite as easily as the shredded pork earlier. Instead, the deliciousness relied on bold supercharged flavours of fennel seed and rosemary that were complemented by hints of black pepper, cilantro and dill.
Compared to the pork in the Arista sandwich, I found this to be less pork-forward due to less pork jus but the synergy between the aromatics was more pronounced and straight-forward which made for very different experiences.
The meat was set on yet another Italian seeded roll that retained a bit of a chew. It seemed a little bread-heavy for me but that might also be to counter the strong flavours of the pork.
All this made for a taste explosion that came totally unexpected given the boring appearance! The roast pork at John’s is definitely not to be missed, and to be honest I’m having a hard time imagining how the roast pork at DiNic’s can be even better!
I arrived in Philadelphia expecting to try out some authentic cheesesteaks. Thanks to Paesano’s and John’s Roast Pork, I now know what the real name of Philly sandwich bliss is: roast pork sandwiches!
Date visited: Apr. 20, 2013
Price range: $0 – $10