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Sandwiches: The other masterpiece from Philly

Taylor Gourmet's roast pork sandwich, made Philadelphia style, is a product of the owner's long and laborious experimentation.
Taylor Gourmet's roast pork sandwich, made Philadelphia style, is a product of the owner's long and laborious experimentation. (James M. Thresher For The Washington Post)
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By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Taylor Gourmet was an instant hit when it opened in November 2008. Locals and curious tourists waited in lines down H Street NE for made-to-order Italian cold-cut, turkey and chicken cutlet hoagies. But for co-founder Casey Patten, one sandwich was missing: a roast pork sub.

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Most Americans think of the cheesesteak as Philly's signature sandwich. But there has been a slow realization around the country that the City of Brotherly Love also deserves praise for a sandwich that would never include Cheez Whiz. The roast pork hoagie taps into Philadelphia's Italian American roots. From Italy comes the thinly sliced meat, the shards of aged provolone and the broccoli rabe. From America comes the super-sized portion and the everything-is-better-on-a-bun portability. The result transcends either place: It's a balance of meaty richness, sharp cheese and spicy, bitter greens that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The roast pork hoagie didn't make it onto Taylor's debut menu because Patten never had time to get the recipe just right. In the lead-up to, and indeed the aftermath of, Taylor's opening, Patten and partner David Mazza were working 18 hours a day, seven days a week. By the time the pair got things under control at the first store, they were opening a second at Fifth and K streets NW. Only in November, when other cooks were focused on turkey, did Patten's thoughts return to roast pork.

Patten, 29, is a Philadelphia native who looks like a young John Travolta. When not eating huge spreads of antipasti and Grandma's meatballs as a kid, he was likely to be digging into a roast pork hoagie at one of the city's famous shops: DiNic's at the Reading Terminal Market or John's Roast Pork in South Philadelphia.

There are no hard and fast rules about how to make an authentic roast pork sandwich. Each deli has its own secrets: DiNic's reportedly simmers its meat in red wine, while Tony Luke's, also in South Philly, is said to never let the roast rest in its own juices. The greens are usually broccoli rabe, but many cooks offer sauteed spinach for finicky customers who object to a bitter flavor. Most joints use aged provolone, though some use fresher cheese because it melts more evenly.

Patten wanted a sandwich that was true to the ones he'd grown up eating. But he was determined to give it his own twist. In his first tests, Patten used pork loin, a leaner, more elegant cut than the usual ham or pork shoulder. The loin "tasted awesome," Patten reported, but it wasn't practical because "if it didn't sell in the first 15 minutes, it was all dried out."

Other cuts also disappointed. Picnic shoulder was tough and dry. Butt roast had to be cooked on very low heat for hours, which would tie up the cafe's ovens for too much of the day. Finally, he tried the Boston butt, the shoulder cut that many Philly joints use. "I had to admit they were on to something. The cut has a nice fat cap on it, and there's marbling," Patten said. "So when you roast it slowly, the fat drips down and keeps the whole thing juicy."

Patten seasons his pork with salt, thyme, rosemary and garlic and lets it sit overnight. Then he roasts it at 325 degrees, covered for about an hour and uncovered for another three to let a crust develop.

Patten considered using the pan juices to keep the hoagie moist. But with the big, crusty rolls delivered daily from famed Philadelphia bakery Sarcone's, the sandwich demanded more. And so Patten concocted a broth with vegetables, pig necks, ham hocks, rosemary, garlic and the pork butt trimmings. After straining, he reduces it by at least half to a rich, porky concentrate.

After that, it was easy. The broccoli rabe, sauteed with garlic, chili flakes and a splash of lemon juice, was already on Taylor's vegetarian sandwich, the Spring Garden. The aged provolone, imported from Italy, shows up on almost every sandwich on the menu. They pile it up high and hand the customer plenty of napkins.

Before the sandwich went on the menu, there was one more test to be done. Patten headed up to Philadelphia and staked out DiNic's. For five hours, he watched from afar as cooks cut the meat, cooked up greens and stacked the sandwiches. As far as he could tell, nothing had been lost in translation.

Still, Patten can't, or won't, say his hoagie beats John's or DiNic's -- yet. "Those guys have been doing this for decades upon decades," he said. "Let's see how I feel in 10 years."

The Pattison Avenue is $7.20 for six-inch and $9.50 for a 12-inch sub at Taylor Gourmet, 1116 H St. NE, 202-684-7001 and 485 K St. NW, 202-289-8001, http://www.taylorgourmet.com.

Other great sandwiches

Brisket that's a cut above at Wagshal's

A veggie sandwich with bite at Cork Market


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