Eli Kulp, the new head chef at Old City’s Fork, is no stranger to sandwiches. Before moving to Philadelphia, he was at Torrisi Italian Specialities in New York City, a spot that serves up reimagined Italian-American tasting menus by night and sandwich offerings by day. The house-roasted turkey and meaty Italian combos proved so popular that they eventually necessitated the opening of their own storefront, Parm.
But after two months in the city of roast pork, cheesesteaks and fish-cake combos, Kulp still needed a proper introduction to the glorious world of Philadelphia sandwich eating.
On a recent sunny Friday afternoon, I rounded up a crew of sandwich enthusiasts and experts to embark on a tour of the best of South Philly’s offerings. On board for the day was self-proclaimed sandwich artist Scott Schroeder, chef at the South Philly Tap Room and American Sardine Bar; Siltbreeze Records founder Tom Lax, who wrote about the out-of-the-way Schmitter sandwich for David Chang’s Lucky Peach magazine; and Hawk Krall, a local illustrator whose recent work includes a massive mural at Pizza Brain and who has an upcoming show of sandwich paintings at American Sardine Bar. Catching a theme here?
We kicked off the tour at George’s in the Italian Market (900 S. Ninth St.) with a meatball sandwich — recommended by none other than scooter-riding longtime Philadelphia food blogger Holly Moore — and the TNT, a drippy combination of long-stewed tongue and tripe.
Back in the car en route to P & S Ravoli Company (1722 West Oregon Ave.), the discussion turned to cheesesteaks.
“What’s the local consenus on Pat’s and Geno’s?” asked Kulp.
Lax responded with a knowing “They’re the kind of places that you go at 4 o’clock in the morning. Cosmi’s has good cheesesteaks — for years no one knew about it unless you lived down there.”
And Tony Luke’s? “Meh,” according to Schroeder and Krall.
“Chink’s is my favorite cheesesteak,” said Schroeder. “One of the their cheesesteaks and a black-and-white milkshake and it’s the most perfect stomachache ever. After that, you have to go take a nap and let all of that crap absorb into your body.”
Over the summer, Schroeder had a $25 cheesesteak on the menu at American Sardine Bar that was made with Pat LaFrieda beef, Vidalia onions, royal trumpet mushrooms and Cacio di Bosco, a semi-soft truffled pecorino. Since we are currently in the midst of truffle season, Kulp suggested bringing back the upmarket steak and topping it off with fresh-shaved white truffles, a high-low method of enticing folks into the sometimes-dicey Point Breeze ’hood.
At P & S, a corner store with a wall of fridges stocked with fresh pasta and pepper shooters, the tour group tackled a crisp cutlet sandwich topped with broccoli rabe and provolone and the Godfather, a variation on the Italian hoagie filled with dry capicolla, sharp provolone and sweet sopressata.
Afterward, the subject veered from cheesesteaks to perhaps the most bizarre of Philadelphia sandwich traditions: the combo, a hot dog wrapped in a deep-fried fish cake.
“I consider the combo more Philadelphia than the cheesesteak, personally,” said Schroeder of the so-called Philly surf-’n’-turf. “I’ve never seen that anywhere else. The steak-and-cheese sandwich has existed forever.”
Krall admitted to a soft spot for the combo, saying, “It’s the kind of stuff my grandparents used to eat.”
At the next stop, Philip’s (2234 W. Passyunk Ave.), we attempted to supplement our classic yellow-orange-glowing cheesesteak with a combo — but at the no-nonsense Philip’s, it was a no-go. A plain old fish-cake sandwich had to suffice, but the potato-y specimen didn’t get high marks. Lax dubbed it “the Waterloo of fish cakes.”
The steak, on the other hand, was a winner. “Sometimes I like a utilitarian cheesesteak,” said Krall. “Cosmi’s is like a commitment.”
“You need a nap afterwards. You can’t do anything,” said Schroeder. “You can eat a Philip’s steak and keep on going.”
Seven sandwiches down, we headed to our final stop, Nick’s Old Original Roast Beef (2149 S. 20th St.), a corner bar that features a limited menu of truly stellar sandwiches. Roast beef, pork, turkey and ham are on offer here, sliced thin and served on kaiser rolls with optional provolone and broccoli rabe and plenty of pan juice. And aside from its awesome untouched South Philly-bar vibes, this place gets points for having dirt-cheap beer.
“Finally we get a drink,” said Schroeder. “I was wondering how long this was going to take. I’ve got to get all of this salt and fat to pass through my system. A nice, crisp Budweiser? It’s like a health decision.”
A roast beef, a pork and a turkey hit the table, along with a glass pitcher of Bud and an order of gravy fries, which Kulp described as basically pot roast with fries thrown in.
And then the inevitable challenge was posed: Name your all-time favorite Philly sandwich; only one, please.
Groans all around the table.
Lax compared the query to “trying to pick the best guitar player of all time.”
Schroeder said, “I probably can’t pick one of my own sandwiches ’cause that would be egotistical,” before opting for pastrami on rye with mustard and onions from the Famous Fourth Street Delicatessen.
After careful consideration and some back and forth, Lax settled on George’s for having offal on the menu way before it was hip and for the truthfulness of their tagline: “Sandwiches that you will like.”
Finding it impossible to narrow it down to one, Krall got back to me later with a top three: the roast pork from DiNic’s in the Navy Yard, the Italian from Jack’s Place in the Northeast and anything from John’s Roast Pork.
And Kulp? Well, he’s got some more exploring to do before answering the desert-island sandwich question.
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