Philadelphia has a long tradition of great fried seafood sandwiches, especially in North Philly, where standbys like the Muslim fish hoagie at Sister Muhammad’s Kitchen in Germantown rank among the city’s most popular sandwiches. But when Joshua Coston decided to leave his career as an Amtrak conductor to open Gilben’s Bakery in East Mount Airy with family partners, the self-taught chef says their menu of seafood po’boys drew inspiration from New Orleans.
Hoagie? Po’boy? We’re talking regional sandwich semantics as the two are cross-country cousins from the same long-roll family tree, with the po’boy’s lighter, more delicate crust serving as the clearest distinction between the two. Yes, Coston layers a Cajun-spiced rémoulade into his sandwiches for that Louisiana spice, and the cornmeal-fried shrimp-and-whiting combo was properly dressed, with a cushion of shredded lettuce and tomatoes. But Coston has, indeed, created something unique with a couple notable touches.
First, he slices off the house-baked roll’s exterior sides and toasts it like garlic bread — a zesty riff, he says, on New England’s lobster roll. Another twist is an unusual combo I’ve never seen: fried salmon with onions and cheese. I was skeptical (fried salmon? fish with cheese?) But the cornmeal crunch on those meaty chunks of wild Alaskan salmon lent extra texture. And the drizzle of molten white cheese sauce with sautéed onions — a Philly move if there ever was one — brought extra richness and moisture to this messy, tasty handful, giving the sandwich a saucy flow of “can’t-put-it-down” momentum.
Daintier diners should try the seafood sliders, which bring scoops of fresh crab and shrimp salad in light mayo with a whiff of Old Bay on soft house buns that get their own garlic-butter crisp.
My only complaint is that Gilben’s — whose cheerful space is always packed with customers waiting patiently for sandwiches, cakes, and sweet potato pies to go (figure 20 minutes on hot food, at least) — currently has nowhere to sit and dig in. That may change soon. The partners are expanding next door, where a salad and smoothie bar (“something healthy,” says Coston) and a smokehouse for barbecue (Gilben’s Smokehouse!) are slated to open with limited seating this spring.
Fried salmon po’boy, $14.04, Gilben’s Bakery, 7405 Stenton Ave., 215-298-0879; facebook.com/cakes7405.