Given the unusually cold weather this year, it's been hard to believe that spring was ever going to arrive. But now that warmer weather has moved in, a cruise up Delaware Avenue and a stop at Johnny's Hots is in order.
Johnny's has a history. It started in the '50s as a lunch truck along the waterfront with owner Nunzio "John" Danze at the griddle. When customers started blocking Delaware Avenue traffic, the business moved into a shack on the pier, where it flourished for more than 40 years catering to the longshoremen and construction workers. Now 79, John Sr. still comes into work to slice the rolls and chop the onions.
John Danze Jr. has taken over the business and the griddle. When waterfront development took over four years ago, he moved up the street to Johnny's Hots' present location across from Penn Treaty Park. The neighborhood is in transition, but Danze bridges the gap between his loyal blue-collar clientele and the residents moving into upscale real estate. When the city cleaned up the park, it also provided families a place to picnic - a boon to Johnny's because the stand has no seating.
Danze still serves the iconic fish-cake-and-hot-dog combo that the old Levis stand made legendary before it closed. He also knows that the secret to a great sandwich is the bread. Danze recently searched out a bakery in New Jersey that provides him with a consistent product with characteristic "chew" and soft texture of a great roll.
This is the place for breakfast when you are watching the sun come up. You'll be sharing the dawn with construction workers loading up on carbs for a busy day and shift workers on either end of the morning or night. Order the Hot Sausage, Egg, and Cheese ($4) and it will keep you going until noon. The sausage has a firm yet juicy texture and just the right amount of spice kick. But, if you are like me and prefer breakfast at the crack of 10 a.m., that works, too.
For lunch, try the Hot Dog and Fish Cake ($4.25) which is oddly quite tasty as long as you have plenty of tartar sauce on it. Skip the Roast Turkey ($4.75), however; plenty of other offerings on the menu are much better.
For the most part, I think the obsession with cheesesteaks is really misplaced. This is a sandwich generally consisting of inferior meat with fake cheese and substandard bread. At Johnny's, I guess I have to eat my words because his Cheesesteak ($5.50) is made from top round specially butchered for him. Instead of chopping the meat to disguise it, here you are served actual slices. Surprisingly, I liked it.
As admirable as Johnny's Cheesesteak can be, I remain a loyal fan of the Roast Pork with Rabe and Provolone ($5.75) sandwich. However, while Johnny's rabe has the requisite garlic overkill and you can order sharp provolone, the pork itself could use a little more South Philly influence. It just didn't have the succulent "pig thing" going on.
Sandwich toppings include Pepper Hash, a vinegary mix of finely chopped cabbage and peppers. Pepper Hash has its roots in Pennsylvania Dutch cuisine and I've also seen it referred to as Philadelphia Relish - probably a better name because it has much more cabbage than pepper.
White Chili ($2.75) is offered in the colder weather. There's a certain zeitgeist going around with this dish as it seems to be cropping up around town. You'll have to wait until next winter, though, to try Johnny's blend of white beans, chicken, and spices.
Johnny lost a half-fork with his Hot Fries ($2.25), which turned out to be soggy, krinkle-cut fries doused in Old Bay seasoning.
You gotta have the fries, Johnny! Freshly cut potatoes fried to order, with a rich caramel color. Then you'd be close to perfect eats, no matter what the forecast.