Survival of the Tastiest

Words by
Rachel Wisniewski
Images by
Gab Bonghi

The ongoing evolution of Philly’s classic sandwiches.

In middle school, Matt Cahn ate a hoagie once a week at Salumeria, his favorite deli in the historic Reading Terminal Market. When the deli shuttered in 2016, he was both devastated and inspired. “One of the main reasons for us opening was like: I need to eat this hoagie,” Cahn says of Middle Child, the beloved sandwich emporium he has run since 2017. Cahn’s passion for the hoagie—or, as other cities call it, a sub sandwich—is commonplace in Philadelphia, where the hoagie, along with the cheesesteak and roast pork sandwich, are not just meals but cultural totems deeply rooted in the city’s identity.

It’s theorized that Philly’s sandwich supremacy was born in the early 1900s, when Italian-American dockworkers first brought sandwiches called “hoggies” to work on Hog Island, today the site of the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Then, in 1930, Pat Olivieri innovated the cheesesteak from his hot dog cart in the South Philadelphia Italian Market, going on to own Pat’s King of Steaks, a shop that spawned countless others. The same year, and just a few blocks down the road, Domenico Bucci turned the roast pork sandwich, a mainstay of weddings and communions in his native Italy, into a local pillar with the opening of John’s Roast Pork.

While some view Philly’s classics as untouchable—and just about everyone has an opinion on who does which best—in actuality they’ve existed in a state of perpetual evolution for the past century. These seven spots offer a snapshot of how a new generation of chefs and restaurant owners are acting as both preservationists and reinventors.

John’s Roast Pork South Philadelphia

The Old School

John’s Roast Pork fulfills orders of up to 100 pounds of pork a week, and has been named an “American Classic” by the James Beard Foundation, for a reason. “You can get a cheesesteak anywhere,” says John Bucci, the third-generation owner of the luncheonette that invented the roast pork sandwich, “but you’re not going to find our pork anywhere else.” Making the pork (a shoulder cut) is a labor of love: it’s butterflied and seasoned before it roasts for eight hours, sits and holds for another five, and is then refrigerated for 24 more before it’s ready to be served. The pork bones are cooked down for the gravy. Over the years, the original John’s formula—pork plus sauteed spinach—has been tweaked with broccoli rabe by so many newer purveyors that many locals no longer realize that the original sandwich was and remains topped with spinach. “I think broccoli rabe is too bitter,” says Bucci. “Why would I hide my grandfather’s great recipe with something that’s so bitter?” The recipe has been so beloved over the years that, at one point, Bucci was approached by a patron who wanted to bury his recently deceased father with a John’s Roast Pork sandwich inside the casket. Bucci, not one to deny anyone his family recipe, was happy to oblige.

Jim’s West West Philadelphia

The New Old School

Cheesesteaks have been churned out at Jim’s West since 1939, though in 2023 the shop, long known as Jim’s Steaks, came under new ownership after sitting shuttered since 2017. The result is a restaurant committed to both longstanding tradition and modern innovation. Tradition can be seen in the staffing—“We got some cooks that have been here for the last 40 years,” says Smiley Jones West, a spokesperson for the restaurant—as well as the ingredients. The shop uses rolls from Amoroso’s because, as Jones West explains, “they’ve been with Jim’s forever.” The restaurant has held onto its secret recipe for “mud” (a homemade blend of hot peppers in oil) for just as long. “If it ain’t broke,” Jones West summarizes, “don’t fix it.” Still, the shop has made some changes in the last year. There are new cheese offerings—Cooper sharp and Swiss—as well as a homemade banana pudding for dessert. And, where other purveyors would suggest either cheese whiz or a sliced cheese, Jim’s West now encourages both, a glutinous combination that has led to critical fawning and lines snaking down the street.

Reggae Reggae Vibes Northern Liberties

The Remix

Reggae Reggae Vibes, as the name suggests, has made a business out of putting a Caribbean spin on the cheesesteak—a reference to owners’ Denise Moore and her late partner Brenton Walker’s respective Philadelphian and Jamaican roots. Opened since 2014, the restaurant serves jerk chicken and jerk steak cheesesteaks, both of which are smoked and marinated in their signature jerk sauce: an in-house concoction made from scotch bonnet peppers sourced from Jamaica as well as a farmer in upstate Pennsylvania. For those who aren’t used to the intense heat, the cheesesteaks include a pineapple salsa to neutralize the spice. The sandwich has been received so positively over the last decade that Moore has plans to take her reinvention beyond Philadelphia in 2024. “We are working on a project,” she says, “to ship the jerk chicken cheesesteak nationwide.”

Middle Child Center City & Fishtown

The Homage

Middle Child’s Italian hoagie is an ode to owner Matt Cahn’s favorite childhood sandwich—its name, “So Long Sal,” a hat tip to his beloved Salumeria—that bucks tradition in almost every way. Rather than wedged, the hoagie roll is sliced all the way through. “I wanted it to be a more even experience, easier to eat,” explains Cahn, who opts for shredded rather than sliced provolone for the same reason. While many Philadelphians see mayonnaise on a hoagie as sacrilegious, Cahn makes liberal use of balsamic mayo, and adds a zesty relish of artichoke and roasted peppers. “A lot of people are just like, ‘Mayo doesn’t belong on the sandwich, or artichokes don’t go on a classic hoagie,’” Cahn says of his critics. “I’m like: Well, they do.” Finally, the hoagie’s traditional iceberg lettuce is subbed out for an arugula salad. (For the #IYKYK crowd, there’s a secret version of the sandwich which can be ordered: “We call it a Dirty Sal,” Cahn says, “It’s like the Sal, but with our house-made pickled long hots on it.”)

Martha East Kensington

The Meatless

Martha’s vegan hoagie isn’t a replacement of the original sandwich, but “a parallel to it,” says Andrew Magee, the executive chef at the Kensington restaurant, in business since 2015. A vegan hoagie has been on Martha’s menu since it opened, though it’s gone through quite a few changes over the years. The “meat” in Magee’s recent iteration of the sandwich is comprised of watermelon radish (fermented with paprika and chili flakes), fresh cut zucchini strips (dusted with salt, pepper, and fennel pollen), eggplant (sliced thin and marinated in miso and tamari), and beets (roasted and dusted with mushroom powder and cumin). Slathered atop all that is their house-made vegan mayo (a blend of garbanzo beans, apple cider vinegar, white pepper and Dijon mustard), a giardiniera (made with roasted red peppers, long hots, Italian seasoning, and oil), and a creamy balsamic house dressing. Keeping it anchored to its origins, the hoagie is finished off with the traditional shredded lettuce, white onion, oregano, salt and pepper, and olive oil. “It opens the door to people that may have grown up with it,” says Magee of its genesis, “but made different dietary decisions in their life.”

Angelo’s South Philadelphia

The Outsider

The much-heralded cheesesteak at Angelo’s, which opened in 2019, instantly separated itself from others by focusing not on what’s between the bread, but the bread itself, which is homemade daily. “We are a bakery first and foremost before we are a sandwich shop,” says owner Danny DiGiampietro. “I’ve said it a million times: I like making sandwiches, but I love making bread.” The seeded rolls, used in both their cheesesteaks and hoagies, are baked all day long, a departure from just about every other shop in town. “When you get a sandwich, the loaf of bread ain’t older than two hours a lot of times,” DiGiampietro explains, which gives his rolls more crunch than the shelf-stable varieties put out by commercial bakeries. “Anybody can buy the same meat. But the thing that really sets sandwiches apart is the bread.”

Cheu Fishtown Fishtown

The Mashup

Cheu Fishtown, in business since 2017, makes one of the boldest refigures of the classic sandwich in the city: a hoagie eggroll. Christian Kinsey, the chef who created the dish in 2021, makes it by casing the traditional hoagie meats and cheeses in an eggroll wrapper, dipping the creation in egg wash, coating it with sesame seeds, and dropping it into the deep fryer. Served sliced open, to mimic a traditional hoagie, it’s topped with mayonnaise, shredded lettuce, and a vinaigrette. “It’s nothing different from a hoagie—just in a different vessel,” Kinsey says. While he admits that some customers have given him pushback for calling the dish a hoagie, his coworkers beg to differ: “My boss was like, ‘This is the best thing you’ve done in eight years here.’”

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