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The Ten Best Non-Cheesesteak Sandwiches in Philadelphia
Honoring the hoagie highlights of the Delaware Valley
I love cheesesteaks. Over the eight years I Iived in South Philadelphia, I tried steaks from dozens of different delis and pizza shops and put meticulous thought into ranking them. The hype is justified: Try a cheesesteak from one of the top spots in the city and you’ll never look at a food-court chain’s imitation the same way again.
Yet while out-of-towners’ focus on cheesesteaks is merited, it’s unfair to the rest of the city’s hoagie diversity. Even without cheesesteaks, Philadelphia would still be the greatest sandwich city I’ve ever been to. Imagine being a Bruce Springsteen fan who never listens to an album besides Born to Run. Sure, it’s probably his best work, but there’s a lot of other great stuff you’re missing out on.
So here’s a paean to the less-sung heroes of Philadelphia’s sandwich scene — the ones featuring different animals with cheese on bread, or at least alternative preparations of beef. Some are (deservedly, unlike Pat’s and Geno’s) tourist attractions in their own right. Others are new or under-the-radar enough that perhaps even some locals have never heard of them. And all of them are genuinely terrific gastronomic experiences that you owe it to yourself to try, and that I now sorely miss.
A note on sandwich semantics
If you spend time on Twitter (or have a loved one who has unfortunately exposed you to these arguments secondhand), you might be familiar with the “Is [food item] a sandwich?” debate. (Hot dogs are the best-known example.) If you haven’t pondered a way to define sandwiches that encompasses all the foods you intuitively feel should be included, it’s harder than you would think. I realize most people are not as interested in sandwich taxonomy as I am, but given that there are some gray-area sandwiches forthcoming (including the alphabetical-first one on the list), I want to preempt the angry comments by presenting the basic tenets of my definition:
A sandwich must be surrounded on multiple sides by a bread-like outer layer, but the innards cannot be completely encompassed by the bread.
A sandwich must be a deliberate combination of flavors and textures, not merely a convenient handheld version of a fork-and-knife food item.
The foregoing criteria should be evaluated based on the intention of the chef and the initial presentation of the dish.
Got it? Great! Now let’s get into the meat of things.
Burrito Feliz: The Birria Burrito
I’m embarrassed to admit that until a few years ago I had never heard of birria. Then, within what felt like a couple weeks, the Jaliscan braised beef delicacy went from a rare find in Philadelphia to a standard offering at Mexican restaurants around the city. Burrito Feliz’ initial version of the popular quesabirria — a griddled taco served with melty cheese and rich consommé for dipping — was already the best birria I’d tried. Then they went a step further by turning it into a burrito, overstuffed with rice, beans, and guacamole in addition to the beef and cheese. They even slice it in half to facilitate dipping it in the consommé (hence why I classify it as a sandwich whereas most burritos are not).
Cosmi’s Deli: The Chicken Cutlet Lagasse
It takes guts to sell a chicken cutlet hoagie without sauce — there’s no way to hide the relatively unforgiving protein if it’s bland or overcooked. That’s not a problem at Cosmi’s, the nearly century-old South Philly institution where the fried-to-order cutlets are always juicy. The Lagasse then ups the ante on savoriness by adding not just the standard sharp provolone and tender broccoli rabe but also Parma prosciutto and long hots; sometimes I’ll balance out the heat with fresh mozzarella too. You can’t go wrong with anything on Cosmi’s huge menu, but there’s a reason why the Lagasse is one of their bestsellers.
Famous Fourth Street Delicatessen: The Franklin Avenue
I have so many favorite dishes at Famous Fourth Street: the breakfast platters the size of regulation footballs, the comforting kreplach, a legitimate top-three-in-the-city cheesesteak. But I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the Franklin Avenue, the sandwich that helped me process the hardest choice I’ve ever made. The double-decker behemoth features both corned beef and pastrami layered with Swiss cheese, cole slaw, and Russian dressing. Godspeed to anyone attempting to eat the whole thing in one sitting.
Farina di Vita: The Bucking Bronco
I may be biased since I named this sandwich, but I loved this secret menu item even before I dubbed it. It starts with the Bronco, Farina di Vita’s twist on the classic chicken parm featuring basil blush sauce, white-gold burrata, and sautéed spinach on a Sarcone’s seeded roll. I suggested that adding some heat would take the sandwich from great to exceptional, so owner Jason put a generous schmear of Calabrian chiles on my next order. Just one bite and my taste buds were off to the races! I coined the name and now you can ask them to make your Bronco buck.
Gilda Café and Market: The Antonio
Ever since we got back from our honeymoon in Portugal, we’ve been on the lookout for our favorite Portuguese foods stateside. The newly opened Gilda is the closest we’ve found in the Delaware Valley. The custardy pastéis de nata and the bittersweet bica are excellent, and the spicy bifana that I’d put up against the best ones we had in Lisbon. Yet the true highlight is the Antonio, a surefire hangover cure of fried egg and in-house linguiça with cheese and a zesty sauce on a Portuguese roll. It’s the best breakfast sandwich in Philly and one of the best sandwiches, period.
John’s Roast Pork: The Roast Pork Italiano
This is the free space on your bingo card, the sandwich even tourists probably know about. For almost a century, the James Beard Award-winning shack on Snyder Avenue has been serving up one of the true wonders of the culinary world. The tastiest roast pork you’ve ever eaten is layered with sharp provolone and garlicky spinach, folded into a hearty seeded roll, and served sopping wet with pork jus. Some people swear by their cheesesteaks or breakfast sandwiches, and they’re good too, but I’ve long held that going to John’s Roast Pork and eschewing their eponymous offering is like going to the Sistine Chapel and not looking up.
Lucky’s Last Chance: The Breakfast Burger
If Lucky’s isn’t the restaurant I’ve been to the most over my years in Philly, then it at least has to be in the top three. The staff are friendly, the atmosphere is fun, and there’s always a good selection of beers on tap. Oh, and they also serve the best burgers in the city, combining perfectly executed basics with Wonka-esque whimsical toppings. The Joocey Lucy, the Mak Attack, and the Pickle Monster would all be valid inclusions on this list, let alone specials like the Pepperoni Cheesesteak Burger, the Salisbury Steak Burger, and the Passion of the Cheese (with grilled cheese sandwiches in lieu of a bun). But nothing tops the Breakfast Burger. It starts with two thick slices of French toast, immaculately browned to feature lots of just-shy-of-burnt bits. Then they layer on their signature beef patty, sausage (though I usually sub in bacon for a better flavor contrast), melted American cheese, and a runny fried egg. It’s an unbelievable combination that you have to taste to believe (and I say counts as a sandwich even if a plain burger might not).
Paesano’s: The Paesano
As with Lucky’s, you might see the eccentric menu and wonder if Paesano’s is a gimmick place where shock value is a substitute for quality. Then you take a bite. My favorite sandwich from their long-closed old location, the eponymous Paesano, remains my go-to after they reopened in the Italian Market a few years later. The combination of brisket, fried eggs, and tomatoes sounds unorthodox even before it’s topped with provolone, peppers, and spicy mayo. Yet despite seeming like they were picked out of a hat, the ingredients coalesce into an incredible amalgam of contrasts: heavy and bright, creamy and spicy, savory and acidic. Bring some extra napkins.
Pastificio: The Parma Special
You may have inferred by now that I gravitate more towards hot hoagies than cold ones. That the opposite is true at Pastificio is not a slight against their cutlets and parms but a testament to the elegant simplicity of the Parma Special. Salty, sweet imported Parma prosciutto. Rich, creamy fresh mozzarella. The touch of acid from the roasted peppers. Need I say more?
Rocco's Italian Sausage: Sweet Sausage Sandwich
I’m not the first to note the correlation between how unassuming a South Philly storefront is and how good its food is. (See John’s Roast Pork above, or how my favorite cheesesteak joint sits under a highway overpass.) Rocco’s keeps with that tradition by serving the best sausage sandwiches I’ve ever eaten from an outpost in the Home Depot parking lot. I like the flavor of their sweet sausage better than their spicy sausage, so I recommend getting your heat from the hot peppers (the inclusions of which as genuine complementary ingredients and not mere condiments qualify this as a sandwich where a typical hot dog does not) rather than the meat.
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