Aspiring to pork royalty
Jake's Sandwich Board has the pig, and the right idea, but will it measure up to Philly's best?
On 12th Street, just south of Sansom, and just north - notably - of Glatt Delight, the kosher noshery, a new sandwich joint called Jake's Sandwich Board has debuted, prominently featuring whole roasted pig.
No missing the point: The pig can be found typically all but smiling behind the sneeze guard, snout, ears, and all, ripe for the picking.
So, young Jake's (it's going on three weeks now) has joined an old tradition - the Italian roast-pork royalty of South Philly, its ranks now swollen by a flurry of wannabe Southern barbecue boys (and at Percy Street BBQ, girl).
It has made common cause, as well, in the revolt against the plague of chains that have, with rare exception, debased the local sandwich scene with gummy bread (Wawa), dreary cold cuts (Jimmy Johns), and tasteless sandwiches (Subway and Quizno's).
So three hearty cheers to Jake's for casting its lot with the non-franchise players (just a block from one more Cosi and Potbelly's). For execution, on the other hand, for nailing the soul, the flavor of its slow-cooked pork and brisket, its ground veal and greens, you might want to respectfully hold the applause. For the moment, at least. The day is still young.
When you're an upstart, but clearly paying homage to the old-timers and the heavy-hitters, there's no avoiding comparison. So when you bite into Jake's hand-carved, "20-hour-roasted" pork what comes to mind is this: Where's the juiciness of John's Roast Pork, the shrine near Front and Snyder? Where's the garlicky brawn of the pulled pork at Tommy DiNic's in the Reading Terminal Market?
This need not be a fatal flaw, by any means. You start up, you tweak, you learn, you correct. But what it does illustrate is this: The apparent simplicity of great street food - the noble, roasted suckling (or larger) pig, at the top of the heap - is, in fact, the province of skilled cooks who have the deceptive ability, as was said of Joltin' Joe DiMaggio, to make the difficult look easy.
Peter McAndrews has that talent at his Paesano's eateries, the original shoe box near Second and Girard, and the larger room at Ninth and Christian, getting genuine personality into his roast pork, amped up by shavings of aged provolone. DiNic manages his with a slow braise in red wine, herbs, and garlic.
But it doesn't just happen. You have to play with time and temperature, and the intricate complexities of the seasoning.
At Jake's, the cookery generally falls to Gary Dorfman, the partner who recently closed his cheesesteak stand in the second-level food court in Liberty Place.
It was cheesesteak, cheesesteak, cheesesteak - but Dorfman's grandfather was a butcher (in Feltonville and, later, at his Leon's in Glenside). And he got the "itch," he said, to occasionally offer brisket or meatballs, which customers don't really covet at a steak stand.
His partner, Sean Stein, also has a bit of old Philly hospitality business in his DNA: His grandfather ran a bar at Front and Arch. His own experience has been operating pan-Asian fine-dining rooms - lastly the short-lived but well-regarded Pearl, at 19th and Chestnut.
So the foundation is there for Jake's, a straightforward sandwich shop with nice local touches - a milk shake flavored with Goldenberg's Peanut Chews, fresh-baked rolls from Carangi's Bakery, and downright awesome onion rings (or strips) that manage to be both nubby-crunchy and flyaway light at once.
But the sandwich finesse is a ways off: The other day the pork had gone a little mushy and a bit dry from overcooking; there had been garlic at its birth, but it left home in the end.
The broccoli rabe had been stripped of its bitter. The provolone barely whispered. (It'd be better shaved, instead of grated.) The brisket was decent, but could have benefited from a little more fat; same for the house-made corned beef, which was salty and overbrined.
Jake's has the stylistics down. It has posted a hip YouTube video of shopping for a pig at Hollywood Meats in the Italian market. It's posting an off-menu, "secret sandwich" (corned beef on rye) on Facebook. The walls feature photos of the old family businesses.
But public relations isn't a substitute for practice: Serious pig requires serious attention, especially if you're aiming to be the un-Subway, the anti-Potbelly, or the not-Quizno's.
Jake's Sandwich Board
122 S. 12th Street (near Sansom)