I may never eat another Philly cheesesteak - not, at least, when I can have a roast-pork sandwich.
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 Philadelphia 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 while 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.
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 in Center City. 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 exact 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 grocery-store 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. 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. Out of curiosity, I took a couple of bites.
Not even close.
IF YOU GO
I focused on South Philadelphia, the home turf of Tony Luke's and John's Roast Pork - and, for that matter, Pat's and Geno's, both of which offer a perfectly serviceable roast-pork sandwich. I complemented my sub-buying with visits to the Italian Market, just up the street from Pat's on Ninth Street. Center City, home to the wonderful Reading Terminal Market, is a short drive north of the Italian Market.
WHERE TO EAT. Tony Luke's, 39 E. Oregon Ave., 215-551-5725, right off Exit 19 of Interstate 95, is a good place to start. A roast-pork sandwich without rabe or provolone runs $5.75, but you want the roast pork Italian, which has both ingredients and is a steal at $7.25. The lines can be long and the decor is drab, but who cares?
John's Roast Pork, at 14 E. Snyder Ave., 215-463- 1951, is housed in equally humble digs, but it won a James Beard Foundation Award in 2006 in the Classics category. Go with the large roast-pork sandwich ($6.50): The bread is better than with the small sandwich, and there's enough meat, cheese and greens inside the roll to fill you up for a week. DiNic's (1136 Arch St., 215-923-6175) could be the best of several good eating places in the Reading Terminal Market, despite having a limited menu. You'll be tempted to try the roast-beef sandwich, which is another favorite of Philly foodies, but stick with the roast pork. Don't worry about this sub ($7.50, with rabe and provolone) being juicy enough: You may need to clean up with a beach towel. But it's worth it.
ONE GREAT MARKET. The Italian Market, Ninth Street, from Wharton to Federal streets, isn't what it used to be, but it's still a cool place to shop for Italian food. Although the produce stands are pretty ordinary, the butcher shops and cheese stores are first-rate.
One of my favorite stores is Talutto's (944 S. Ninth St., 215-627-4967), which sells a number of homemade pastas (the lobster ravioli is fabulous) as well as imported cheeses and olive oils.
INFO. Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp., 215-599-0776, gophila.com.
Reading Terminal Market, 215-922-2317, reading terminalmarket.org.