The scent of simmering blueberry jam kissed with masala curry hovered sweetly in the morning air at Middle Child, where Jefferson docs in white lab coats perched on their wooden stools and bantered with chefs behind the counter over house-cured lox and the surprisingly resurgent Phillies.
"Everything's good here. I'm probably here four days a week," said a distinguished fellow dining solo next to us on the banquette who chomped into a remarkably fluffy egg breakfast sandwich that he caught me staring at. Of course, Chuck Cahn, who also happens to be the mayor of Cherry Hill, admits he's a little biased.
"That's my son," he said, gesturing across the narrow room to co-owner Matthew Cahn, hustling between the induction burners and cast-iron sandwich press in his chef's whites. "But I told him: 'No friends and family discount for me. Everybody pays.' "
Not that anyone's a big spender at Middle Child: The menu is almost entirely under $10. But the "everybody" at this cozy 18-seater in Washington Square West is diverse, with a friendly, familiar quality that reminds me how much Center City sometimes can feel a village.
If you sit there long enough, you'll see veterans recount their war stories while hung-over millennials sip their way back to life through cups of Elixr coffee beside med students in short coats. Investors hash out big-money deals at the counter as though no one else can hear them while construction workers make sure there's plenty of arugula on their breakfast sandwiches and an artist who's a regular tells the chefs — Cahn and Keith Krajewski — about his latest fetish sculpture. I've run into doctors, neighbors, jewelers, lawyers, and writers I know in just a few visits. Some are drawn by the gluten-free, nut-free, and vegan options on the blackboard menu of this updated diner, where the corned beef is also made from scratch and cheffy little flourishes — a pho-flavored mayo for the eggplant "Phoagie," a soft-boiled egg for the Cobb — remind you it's 2018.
But there's also a timeless magnetism to the genuine diner vibe that's grown up quickly around this quirky seven-month-old daytime haunt, with its hard-to-snag seats (once you order at the cashier), occasionally retro soundtrack, and touches of old Philly memorabilia, like the vintage Hall and Oates album (Abandoned Luncheonette, of course) and People cover of Princess Di wearing an Eagles jacket that hang in the corner. It speaks to the sandwich-size nostalgia void that's grown in the heart of this city's fast-forward dining scene since the wrecking ball took down Little Pete's.
Of course, Little Pete's was just one of the latest old-school greasy spoons to bite the dust of gentrification, succumb to changing tastes (or cheaper chain options nearby), or simply slide into the mediocrity of an indifferent new owner. But Middle Child, which arrives on the same resurgent luncheonette spirit evident at Rooster Soup Co., is evidence that there's hope for an energetic new generation of diner-counter artisans. There are physical constraints to the former Petit Roti space on South 11th Street, including the lack of a real stove or griddle (Cahn makes do with induction burners). But Cahn's efficient crew, including kitchen collaborator Krajewski, who spent years in fine dining at Marigold Kitchen, shows admirable focus and particular dedication to rekindling the art of the sandwich through quality ingredients, thoughtful constructions, and the kind of labor-intensive prep work that can make those finished plates look deceptively simple.
"I've always been a sandwich boy — a sandwich boy for life," says Matthew Cahn, 28, a Penn Charter grad who dropped a budding advertising career to cook in Colorado and Brooklyn (Court Street Grocers; Superiority Burger) before returning to pay homage to the many sandwiches that have inspired him. "I love that beautiful combo of high brow and low brow you can achieve with a sandwich."
That corned beef is a 10-day labor of love, from the long brine in a pickling brew aromatic with cinnamon, garlic, and clove to the 15-hour ride in a steam oven that makes it tender and moist. The lox is a sashimi-grade side of salmon cured for nearly a week with lemon, coriander, and dill before it's sliced into translucent orange ribbons and paired with pickled red onions and avocado on everything bagels from South Street Philly Bagels. Krajewski's blueberry curry jam? Its exotic whisper of garam masala, balanced by the berry's sweetness and a tart squirt of lemon, is the magic touch that lifts a simple fresh-roasted turkey sandwich to something special. That, and good chewy ciabatta from Philly Bread. The hoagies are made on seeded rolls from Sarcone's, of course. ("Accept no imitations!" Krajewski crows in his thickest Philly accent. "Gotta be Sar-cow-ans!")
The rolls may be classic. But Middle Child's best hoagie – the Phoagie – is very much a sign of the times, a vegan masterpiece of hoisin-roasted eggplant rounds layered with chili paste, crispy onions, cilantro, Thai basil, and a schmear of vegan mayo scented with five spice and the singe of burnt onions and ginger. Essentially a bowl of vegetarian pho on a bun. "So Long Sal" is a more traditional Italian hoagie, and, with its artichoke spread and balsamic mayo, is a heartfelt tribute to the Reading Terminal's bygone Salumeria. With little produce to garnish and leaven its dense core of Italian meats and cheese, though, this was one of the few sandwiches that didn't charm me. Maybe this summer, when Cahn deems the tomatoes ripe enough ("Hey, I'm from Jersey") to add them as a $1 supplement.
It's nice to see respect for seasonality at a diner. (I'm a little sad that I just missed the soup days of winter, when they sold hot bowls of creamy tomato and a mole-dark chili made with scraps of corned beef.) But produce is always presented thoughtfully here, whether it's fried caulilflower for a torta sandwich special or refreshing salads like El Salador, a nest of greens laced with crushed tortillas, radishes, and a bright lime-oregano vinaigrette. Middle Child's take on the Cobb, which blends peppery arugula with toothsome kale, is notable for its balance of textures, soft-cooked egg, and good Lancaster bacon.
Smart updates of old-school comforts are this luncheonette's biggest draw — like the oozy "Ham I Am" grilled cheese with five-spice apple butter and fancy Italian prosciutto cotto. The Hershel Waker, meanwhile, is my favorite new breakfast indulgence in the city. It's a nod to Hershel's East Side Deli in the Reading Terminal (and Cahn's South Jersey upbringing at the Kibitz Room), and the key is that fresh-cured corned beef, stacked high over toasted rye, a cloud of fluffy eggs, and Cooper cheese that turns molten inside the hand-pumped steamer that finishes hot sandwiches on the line. The Reuben at lunch could have used a few more steamer pumps, because the meat wasn't quite hot enough for my taste. But its manageable size and careful construction was, indeed, a proper ode to Little Pete's, with spicy house Russian made from chili sauce and good Duke's mayo in a recipe Cahn credits to his days at Court Street.
The blueberry masala jam makes another worthy cameo smeared over the creamy whipped farmer's cheese that tops the "blintz toast," which logically says "breakfast" but which, in my mind, is actually Middle Child's best dessert. That's because Middle Child really doesn't have any desserts, unless you count the occasional mini-loaves of blueberry muffins or Jewish apple cake baked by friends and family that are sporadically offered at the counter beside the pickles.
It's a detail that points both to the limitations of Middle Child's tiny, maxed-out staff and to its promise if it manages to grow. This diner counter is simply begging to become a shrine to pies (not unlike the whipped banana cream lovely with chocolate graham crust I just devoured at Rooster Soup). And I can't help but wonder what other ambitions could be indulged if the little kitchen behind this six-seat counter also had a griddle or working stove.
For now, expanded hours for the occasional evening special event are the only options, like a hypothetical burger night that Cahn hopes will take over his panini press and steam oven sometime this summer, or a pop-up with a friend who just returned from Lebanon who's promised lamb-leg hoagies.
It's encouraging, though, to see how this humble little lunch counter has taken root. In an era when all the old standbys of diner culture are sliding beneath the tides of change, Middle Child is proof that the luncheonette is getting a creative burst of fresh life.