By Tim Warren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008
I may never eat another Philly cheesesteak -- not, at least, when I can have a roast pork sandwich.
For years I've made food runs to Philadelphia from my home in Silver Spring. I love street fare and simple, filling grub you eat with your hands, be it New England lobster rolls, New Orleans oyster po' boys, North Carolina barbecue sandwiches, sausage-and-peppers subs at the Jersey Shore or corn dogs on a stick at the Santa Monica Pier. That's why Philly is so appealing, with its Italian Market, the Reading Terminal Market and, of course, all those great subs -- especially cheesesteaks.
Then one day at a sub place, I decided to go with a roast pork sandwich. People I knew from the city had insisted that although cheesesteaks got all the publicity, roast pork sandwiches were really the essence of South Philly subs. Several times I'd driven by Tony Luke's, famous for its roast pork sandwiches, and wondered what I was missing. So this time I ordered a roast pork sub. And another.
What a concept! You have roast pork piled inside a sub roll, of course, but it is leavened with sharp provolone cheese and, wonder of wonders, broccoli rabe or spinach. The whole mixture is usually topped with pork juices, making for a delightful combination of varying tastes. It's filling and tasty, like a cheesesteak, but the subtle interplay between the pork and the tart greens, between the provolone and the spices in the juices, is heaven compared with the sledgehammer-like cheesesteak. (Sharp provolone vs. Cheez Whiz? Please.) And you don't go away feeling as if you've ingested a grease bomb.
For years, I had accepted the conventional wisdom that the cheesesteak is the quintessential Philadelphia sub. I consumed probably hundreds of those gloppy, heart-attack-in-a-wrapper concoctions. Of course I participated in the Pat's-vs.-Geno's debate: I became a resolute fan of Pat's King of Steaks at Ninth and Passyunk in South Philadelphia, often standing in line in freezing weather for the privilege of tasting something that could double your cholesterol count in one sitting. Sometimes, I'd discover that I wasn't the only idiot who had driven 100 miles for a $7 sandwich.
Upon reaching the order window, I knew how to bark out authoritatively, "Two Whiz wit'." (For the uninitiated, that's two cheesesteaks with onions and Cheez Whiz. Pat's doesn't like indecisive customers.) When John Kerry committed a grievous, perhaps fatal, error in his presidential run by requesting Swiss cheese on his order at Pat's, I thought: Isn't that what campaign advisers are for?
But when the transformative moment came for me, when the broccoli rabe mingled with the provolone and pork and juices in my mouth, it was easy to move on. Going from cheesesteaks to roast pork sandwiches was like listening to whatever pop music was on the radio, and one day discovering a station that played Sinatra and Duke Ellington.
My experience was hardly unique, Tony Luke (he was born Anthony Lucidonio Jr. but is universally known by this moniker) assured me in an interview after a recent two-day trip to Philadelphia, in which I had sampled pork sandwiches from three places. An aspiring actor as well as a restaurateur, Tony had a bit part in a movie being filmed a few years ago in Pittsburgh. One day he brought an assortment of subs from his place to the movie set. The reaction?
"People said, 'Tony, I like your cheesesteaks a lot, but these roast pork sandwiches are off the hook,' " he said with a chuckle.
The sandwiches at Tony Luke's are a bit spicier than the ones I've had at John's Roast Pork in South Philly and at DiNic's in the Reading Terminal Market. Tony says his version is a direct descendant of the roast pork sandwiches his father used to serve at their South Philadelphia home. Today's version has exacting standards.
The meat is a ham that has been slow-roasted for eight hours. Once cooked, it doesn't rest in its juices; "that makes it dry and stringy," Tony says. The provolone is not your usual fare: "We're talking about a very hard, sharp cheese, with some snap." As for the greens, broccoli rabe gives bite, as it were, to the sandwich; spinach is milder. You can order pork sandwiches without greens at sub places, but I can't imagine why you wouldn't want that interplay of ingredients.
And the bread, so important in any Philly sub, must be soft on the inside but crispy on the outside, to hold the cup of juices that is added when the sub is made.
The sandwich at Tony Luke's was my favorite, but DiNic's was a close second. DiNic's gives you the option of roasted peppers; I declined so as to concentrate on the rabe and the provolone.
It was lunchtime and the place was packed, mainly with beefy guys thoughtfully chewing their sandwiches. (Philadelphia must lead the nation in the number of beefy guys per capita.) At one point, a fellow walked past me, pointed to my sub and told his companion, "Hey, I think I'll have one of those."
She grabbed his arm and said sharply, "No, you won't. You'll just throw up."
Once again, a case of genius denied.
John's, also in South Philly, was a bit of a letdown. Its roast pork sandwich, which has been rated No. 1 in the city in some media polls, was a trifle dry, and I couldn't accept the sandwich's being served on a kaiser roll. But it was still a fine sub, and I loved the unpretentious atmosphere in this classic lunchroom, with regulars being greeted by their first names as they picked up their subs. Were this place near my house, I'd request a lifetime pass.
On the way home, I swung by Pat's, which is nearby, to get a cheesesteak for my still unconverted 18-year-old son (his order: "Whiz, wit'out"). Out of curiosity, I took a couple of bites.
Not even close.