Philadelphia is a city that loves its sandwiches. While the Philly Cheesesteak may get all the glory and attention from tourists, locals know it’s not the official sandwich of Philadelphia. That honor goes to the Philadelphia Roast Pork Sandwich, a fresh-baked Italian roll overflowing with savory slices or chunks of pork and topped with all sorts of ingredients that differ from spot to spot. Bryan Roof is executive food editor for Cook's Country magazine and on-screen test cook for Cook's Country from America’s Test Kitchen. He joined Managing Producer Sally Swift to pick apart this wonderfully messy sandwich. Roof tells us where to find the best versions in Philly and how to make them at home -- and eat them without ruining your shirt -- with a recipe for Philadelphia Roast Pork Sandwiches.
Sally Swift: We are just back from a trip to Philly where I had three people come up to me to tell me that the real sandwich of Philadelphia is not the Philly cheesesteak, but it is the roast pork sandwich. Are you in agreement about that?
Bryan Roof: That's a very true. My whole time there I only had one cheesesteak and the rest of the time it was roast pork sandwiches.
SS: Can you describe it for us?
BR: Yes. It's heavily spiced, usually with thyme, rosemary, garlic, oregano, black and red peppers. The pork is shaved very thinly. It's a bit wet from the braising liquid that they cook the pork in. With a sharp provolone that really knocks it out of the park. There's a little bit of greenery in the form of broccoli rabe or some places do braised spinach. And it's all encased in this crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside roll. It’s quite enjoyable.
Photo: America's Test Kitchen
SS: They have such good bread in Philly; no wonder sandwiches got so popular there. There are two premier places to get this sandwich in Philly, right?
BR: Right. The first that we visited was DiNic’s Roast Pork over in Reading Terminal Market. When you first walk into Reading Terminal Market – it’s a massive expanse of market that's been there for over 120 years – immediately you assume that it's a tourist destination and there's no sandwich worth its weight to be found in there. But after talking to everybody and getting recommendations from the locals you realize that this market is as much ingrained in local culture as it is in the tourism culture. DiNic’s has an incredible sandwich, and they top it with broccoli rabe that is a little bit spicy and kind of bitter. It has a nice crunch to it that sets a sandwich apart.
SS: Which I thought was wonderful.
BR: The second place is over in South Philly at John's Roast Pork. It's a completely different environment, completely different vibe. We walked in around lunchtime on a weekday, and the place was a noisy and vibrant. A lot of the yelling and the noise was actually coming from the crew that worked there. The kitchen crew and the cashier are yelling back and forth as they move everybody through. Their sandwich is very similar in terms of pork, bread and the cheese, but they topped it with a braised spinach that was much more tender and blended in with the sandwich. Still very good.
Recipe: Philadelphia Roast Pork Sandwiches from Cook's Country
SS: America’s Test Kitchen has taken on making the sandwich at home. Can you talk us through the recipe?
BR: We decided early on that we like the broccoli rabe, so that's the direction we went. That's just a simple sauté of broccoli with an ample amount of garlic and a little bit of chili flake. The pork was a bit more of a challenge. We braised it after rubbing it with a combination of fennel, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and, again, black and red pepper. We threw a bunch of garlic into that braising liquid and cooked it for about three hours. The real challenge after cooking it is being able to slice it very thinly. We don't have a deli slicer at home, so we had to chill the pork. This sets it up and makes it firm. Once it's firm, you're able to slice it very thin with a slicing knife.
SS: It’s a great idea because the meat being sliced that thinly makes it tender and absolutely delicious. Do you have any advice on how to actually eat one of those sandwiches. Because, truth be told, Francis and Erika – our assistant producer – and I went straight there when we got into Philadelphia. Erika and I got seats at DiNic’s; Francis stood behind me and we split the sandwich. All of a sudden, I start feeling juice right down my back. He is eating behind me and he's spilling juice all running all the way down my back. He apologizes, but with a mouthful of sandwich – he didn't even stop eating! Is there a way to deal with these sandwiches?
BR: Well, Francis is a rookie. There's a maneuver in Philadelphia called The South Philly Dip. You want to spread your legs about two feet apart, bend about 30 degrees at the hips, extend your arms outwards your elbows outwards – so as not getting the drip running down your arm. You lean over and bite the sandwich. Preferably you're eating over a trash can or a kitchen sink.
SS: We really needed your expertise on that trip, Brian!