The Best Sandwich in America?Thursday, November 15, 2012
Today we have a guest post from Katie Miserany. I met Katie a few weeks ago at the half marathon, and as I tucked into my post-race caloric binge of bacon, biscuits, and mimosas, I learned that she was about to fly across the country for a sandwich. Literally, a 24-hour trip to Philadelphia, just to taste a famous sandwich. Respect.
When Katie isn’t traveling 2,900 miles in pursuit of the ultimate sandwich, she’s stalking food trucks, famous chefs, and restaurant openings here in SF. Thanks, Katie, for sharing your sandwich pilgrimage with us!
I don’t know about the rest of you, but there are a few “life experience” things I want to get out of the way before I turn 30. For instance, I’ve never gone skinny-dipping. That feels like something you should probably try before gravity takes over. Also, just off the top of my head, I’ve always wanted to take an art class and catch a firefly. (Growing up in San Diego, I thought fireflies were made-up creatures like unicorns or fairies. I was thrilled to discover they were real!) So in honor of my rapidly approaching 30th birthday, I made a “30 before 30” listâ€”a bucket list of sorts for my late twenties.
When I made the list, I was a big fan of the Travel Channel’s “Best Sandwich in America,” a show that pit three sandwiches against one another in 10 U.S. regions, then put the regional winners up against one another to find the ultimate sandwich based on host Adam Richman’s “BITE” scale, which stands for bread, interior, taste, and eating experience. Sandwiches are my favorite food group (a friend keeps trying to get me to tattoo a smiling sando somewhere on my body as a testament of my love), and so, thinking my bucket list needed more foodie entries, I threw “Eat the Best Sandwich in America” on the list before the show ever wrapped.
Turns out, according to Richman, the best sandwich in America is the Roast Pork, Provolone, and Broccoli Rabe Sandwich at Tommy DiNic’s inside the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. Le sigh. I live in San Francisco. Couldn’t he have picked a sandwich from Ike’s?
Anyway, that’s how I ended up with a harebrained scheme to make a 24-hour trip from San Francisco to Philly, all in the name of a sandwich.
After a quick stop at the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art to tackle the even-more-famous Rocky stairs, I skipped down Benjamin Franklin Parkway past the “LOVE” statue and on to the wondrous Reading Terminal Market. The market was just opening for the day, but already it was full of more gastronomic sights and smells than I could have imagined.
Fresh fish, hunks of ox tail, mountains of gleaming produce, shellfish on ice, gurgling pots of soup, and bakeries churning out everything from fresh baguettes to creative cookies, chocolate-dipped pretzels, and something wonderful called a “s’moreo” all were crammed stall-to-stall inside the market. Apparently two of the more than 80 vendors currently residing in the market are direct descendants of original stand-holders who sold their goods when the market opened more than a century ago. In short, everything about the Reading Terminal Market was gloriousâ€”the history, the people, the food.
After wandering around for close to an hour and buying some dark-chocolate-covered coconut macaroons from a bona fide Amish man (hat and round glasses and all!), my nose led me over to the Old City Coffee stand, where some rather hardworking craftsmen were roasting buckets and buckets of fresh coffee beans right on the spot.
The smell was intoxicating. I ordered a café au lait and settled in at the counter with Bob Spitz’s Dearie, a newish biography of “the remarkable life” of Julia Child. Before I knew it, 45 minutes had passed. It was definitely time for that famous Tommy DiNic’s sandwich.
I took a seat at Tommy’s next to a few other 10 a.m. sandwich connoisseurs and ordered Mr. Richman’s favorite, the roast pork sandwich with sharp provolone and sautéed broccoli rabe. It only took a few moments for the waitress, who rather endearingly kept calling me “babe,” to return with my sandwich. This was itâ€”the moment I’d been imagining since I first got on that plane. I picked up half of the heaping pile of meat and veggies and took a mighty bite worthy of the “Best Sandwich in America.”
It was interesting.
The pork itself seemed a little dry, but if you got a bite with pork, rabe, and provolone all together (which was difficult, given its heft), it was most certainly delicious. The provolone added a salty hint to the meat and bread, the rabe gave it a bitter veggie kick, and the addition of a heap of pepperoncini (which they kindly leave out by the bucket for you to add as you please) lent the sando a touch of acid that seemed to deepen all of the flavors as they mixed together. It was salty, it was meaty, it was interesting. But it was not the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten.
I didn’t even finish it, people. For me, that says quite a bit.
A little disappointed but full of high hopes for the rest of Philly, I walked a few blocks away from the market to find the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were written. While my tour group was poking around, frozen rain started to fall outside. A class of kids visiting from Ohio pushed their noses against the cold windows and proclaimed, “It’s ranowing! No… it’s snraining!” Either way, it didn’t look good out there.
The Colonial-garbed tour guides quite forcefully ushered us back out into the snrain. At this point, most of the boys in the class seemed to be hungry, but most of the girls wanted to go see the Liberty Bell. “You can’t go to Philadelphia and not see the Liberty Bell!” a mittened little girl exclaimed. “You can’t go to Philly and not eat a cheesesteak!” her hungry male counterpart snapped back.
I had to admit, the boy had a point.
When you ask Philly locals who makes the best cheesesteak in town, it’s almost as touchy as asking who they voted for in the election or who they think is going to make it on next week’s X-Factor. Everyone has a favorite, and they’d sooner die than admit that another provider might be able to compete. Of course there was one common showdown that kept cropping up in all of my research: Pat’s vs. Geno’s, the city’s greatest rivalry.
Located kitty-corner to one another at the intersection of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue in South Philly, Pat’s and Geno’s face off against one another 24 hours a dayâ€”even in nasty snrain like the kind I was experiencing. Being a totally clueless West Coast girl, I figured I could walk 1.5 miles through Philadelphia in the middle of a Nor’easter to try both and settle the matter for myself.
By the time I was halfway there, my boots were soaked through and I was cursing the tiny travel-sized umbrella my office had given me. It’s stupid logo was flapping wildly in the wind and probably would have been a red flag to anyone watching that I had absolutely no right to be in South Philly at all, much less in the middle of a storm. The adorable colonial architecture near Chestnut Street was replaced with a surprising number of auto body shops the longer I walked, and I stopped seeing cute kids running around in snowsuits. Actually, I stopped seeing anyone at all. I was the only person out in the frozen messâ€”and on a cheesesteak quest, no less. Brilliant.
When I finally saw Geno’s red picnic tables, I was so relieved I wanted to hug the steak-slingers I could see through the window. But they looked a little angry. In fact, they didn’t even have the window open. They just stared at me through the glass, no doubt thinking about how stupid my umbrella looked. The weird thing was, Geno’s was totally empty (possibly due to the workers’ unfriendly glares?). I looked across the street. Pat’s was packed, so I decided to start there.
I nervously squeaked out my orderâ€”a cheesesteak “wit” onions and whizâ€”and handed my cash to the adorably grumpy man working the register. He handed me my sandwich and change, and I headed to the condiment bar for hot peppers. I squeezed the juice out of a plump red pepper, settled in on a dry bench, and dug in.
I like gooey faux cheese. I do! It’s a guilty pleasure I sometimes get at the movies with pretzel nibs. And I like steak. And I like bread, obviously, and hot peppers. It was good, really, but I couldn’t help feeling underwhelmed. Sandwiches have evolved since the days of meat and cheese on bread. What about the pickled veg on a bahn mi? What about the hot pepper relish they use in the Midwest, or the layered flavors of a Mexican torta? All of these unique sandwiches elevate portable, bread-based meals into an art form, I think, and so the Philly cheesesteak made me feel like I was missing something. Also, why are the hot peppers whole? I gave up on my pile after the first one. Someone needs to explain to me how you are supposed to eat those suckers.
As I traipsed through the nasty snrain back over to Geno’s, I was just starting to wonder how the hell I was supposed to get back to the airport when a cab pulled up directly in front of me. I had a choiceâ€”I could stand my ground and try another meaty-cheesy ’wich in the snow, or I could hop in this cab and head back to the land of sunshine and vegetables.
An hour later I was eating a chocolate Dunkin’ Donuts munchkin with a glass of Malbec at the Philly airport’s wine bar, and I couldn’t have been happier with my decision. Maybe I’m spoiled living in San Francisco, a town that’s full of vibrant cultures, mixed cuisines, and food adventurers. Maybe I should have stayed longer and seen more of the city. Maybe no one should try to eat three sandwiches in one day. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. All I know is that it’s easy to love a city you visit on a beautiful dayâ€”and yet despite the double-sandwich letdown and the storm, I really did love my day in Philadelphia. It’s a charming city, with true fall colors and some of the friendliest people I’ve met in a while. The coffee is great, the Reading Terminal Market is a true gem, and I hear the Italian and Vietnamese restaurant scenes are worth a second visit. And, perhaps most of all, I really love thinking that Ben Franklin himself wandered around this same town looking for a good meal, too.
So here’s to you, Philadelphiaâ€”land of our forefathers, land of champions, land of classic American sandwiches. Now can someone please get me a bahn mi from the OmiNinja truck in San Jose?