Philadelphia is a city that loves to eat. Whether it’s the 500-foot cheesesteak that graced South Ninth Street last month or the 10 tons of free hoagies given out around July 4th, sandwiches are one of the city’s staples. But which sandwich best defines this city? Are hoagies the meal that best represents Philadelphia, or are cheesesteaks our signature sandwich? The Inquirer turned to two sandwich experts to debate.
Hoagies: More variations, and unique to the city.
By Hawk Krall
Cheesesteaks are an undeniable reality of Philadelphia life. Whiz and provolone literally flow in the streets — see last month’s “500-foot cheesesteak” event on Ninth Street. Yes, cheesesteaks are delicious. But it’s 2021, and it’s time for a new signature sandwich, something new and classic at the same time: the not-so-humble hoagie.
For years, Philadelphia has been searching for a new signature sandwich. We tried really hard with roast pork. I love a roast pork sandwich with broccoli rabe and shaved provolone, but can count on one hand how many places consistently make a spectacular one.
Other hidden gem contenders — the Schmitter, or my beloved hot dog-fish cake combo — are a bit too obscure for mass appeal. What sandwich is unique to our region, widely available, rooted in Philadelphia culinary DNA, and adaptable to both classic and high-end expressions? The answer couldn’t be more obvious.
Hoagies have been a staple of Philadelphia cuisine for almost a century, possibly predating the cheesesteak, and they are everywhere. I’ve been eating, writing about, and drawing hoagies for over a decade, and haven’t even cracked the surface. If you asked me for my top five cheesesteaks, I’d have a list in two minutes. But top five hoagies? I couldn’t narrow it down. I could maybe do top five of every neighborhood.
“One of the hoagie’s strong suits is its sheer diversity.”
Every section of the city, every block, every county — plus South Jersey, and all the way up to NEPA — has its own hoagie style and multiple places that do them well. There must be hundreds, thousands of delis, corner stores, pop-ups, and more across the region making hoagies at a high level. You could spend your entire life doing this (I’ve tried!), and by then there’d be 100 new hoagies that are even better.
One of the hoagie’s strong suits is its sheer diversity. There’s the original South Philly Italian, but also baloney and pink ham “American” hoagies, Jewish hoagies (think corned beef special on a long roll), chicken salad hoagies with bacon. There are zeps in Norristown, Vietnamese hoagies, Mexican hoagies, vegetarian hoagies, roast beef and Old Bay hoagies from Wawa at 3 a.m. And that’s not even counting the growing list of artisanal hoagies that are getting better and better. There’s a hoagie out there for everyone.
» READ MORE: Best hoagies in Philly to eat right now
You can’t take a cheesesteak too far from its base form before it becomes … not a cheesesteak. Wagyu beef on ciabatta?! Get out of my city!
But variations on the hoagie are infinite. As long as you’ve got two or three authentic foundation elements — fresh local bread, shredded iceberg glistening with olive oil, thinly shaved meats rolled like sushi — you can kind of go crazy with the rest.
Another point for the hoagie is that it’s unique to Philadelphia. You can’t get a real Philadelphia hoagie outside of the Delaware Valley. Sure, they try — but they just aren’t built right. The bread is cut wrong or the balance of ingredients is off. Sure, you can find delicious Italian subs (heroes?) in North Jersey or New York, but you have to seek out some secret place halfway to Coney Island for the real deal. In Philadelphia, the real deal is everywhere.
Plus, our bread is just better. It’s not the water — it’s the two dozen-plus bakeries making crusty Italian long rolls, delivered fresh daily to every hoagie shop in the city. That infrastructure just doesn’t exist in other places.
It’s 2021, and the hoagie is ready for its time in the limelight. It’s as simple or fancy as you want it to be. It’s rooted in Philadelphia’s food history. But hoagies are also poised toward the future, a sandwich for all Philadelphians.
Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia artist and illustrator with a focus on food. You might know his work locally from the late great Hot Diggity on South Street, Pizza Brain in Kensington, or various publications such as Saveur, Serious Eats, and Philadelphia Magazine. hawkkrall.net
Cheesesteak: Consistently delicious, no matter where you get one.
By Reuben Harley
After Rocky, is there anything more representative of Philly than a cheesesteak? Absolutely not. It’s beloved. It’s our signature sandwich. And it’s everywhere.
There’s always a heated debate of who makes “da best” cheesesteaks — from the standard, heavily commercialized Pat’s and Geno’s on Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue in South Philly to independent shops around the region. Pat’s and Geno’s are the go-to for tourists who visit from all over the world to order their steaks “whiz wit,” but real Philadelphians know that good cheesesteaks can be found in every corner of this region.
This sammich has had me traveling all over to grub on it. Some of my favorite cheesesteaks are from Donkey’s in Camden, Goombas in Colmar, up Route 309, Pesto Pizzeria on South Broad Street, and John’s Roast Pork in Pennsport, where they use the best artisan bread from Carangi Baking Co. on 13th Street and Oregon Avenue.
The cheesesteak is our city’s representative sandwich because wherever you travel — like I’ve done a lot in the last 20-plus years — many restaurants have a “Philly Steak” on the menu. I’m not usually impressed after I grub on it, but I always give it a chance because it tastes like home. No other sandwich is as well-known for its association with Philadelphia than the cheesesteak.
“Cheesesteaks, even when you add toppings, are, at their core, the same sandwich.”
Some will say that a hoagie is a better signature sandwich for Philadelphia. But I disagree.
The hoagie doesn’t scream Philadelphia like the cheesesteak does, because deli meats are so different. Each hoagie is different, whereas cheesesteaks, even when you add toppings, are, at their core, the same sandwich, with bread, ribeye or sirloin steak, grilled onions, and cheese. My favorite cheese on a steak is Cooper sharp. I prefer that over the more traditional Cheez Whiz or American cheese. Some folks say my choice is snobby because it’s a more expensive cheese, but it’s delicious and I serve it on all the cheesesteaks.
Still, no matter where you go, a cheesesteak is called a cheesesteak. But different regions have varying (and let’s be clear: incorrect) names for hoagies. Depending on where you are, they might be called subs, heroes, or po’ boys, and locals there will be loyal to those as cultural staples.
» READ MORE: The best cheesesteaks to eat in Philly right now
I’m in a Facebook group called Cheesesteak Gurus. I love to go there to read the amazing banter over who has the best steaks and what’s sacrilegious to top them with. It gets really heated! When my cheesesteak topped with fried shrimp was featured on Cheesesteak Gurus, I loved reading the reviews. It was hilarious to see who thought it was good or bad.
There may be debate over what’s acceptable topping experimentation. But the Philly cheesesteak is the staple of the town over the hoagie because it’s ultimately not that complex a mix of components, and folks will hop on a plane, train, or automobile for some good beef grilled right.
Reuben Harley is a lifelong Philadelphian and a former Daily News columnist. After launching Chef Big Rube’s Kitchen as a ghost kitchen during the pandemic, he is now working on a brick-and-mortar shop.