The quickest way to make enemies with someone from Philadelphia is to ask “which is the better cheesesteak? Pat’s or Geno’s?” We hate this question, because neither cheesesteak reigns supreme. And frankly, we don’t care to keep up with who has the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia anymore, because that sandwich crossed the line from local delicacy to tourist trap a long time ago. Besides, we have more exciting sandwiches to concentrate on, and it’s a hard list to maintain because the sandwich scene in this town gets more and more absurd every year.
1. Paesano’s: Paesano Sandwich
152 W Girard Avenue or 1017 S 9th Street
Sandwiches from Paesano’s aren’t cold deli meats thrown between two wimpy slices of white bread. They’re built carefully — assembled by gritty Philadelphians who treat each ingredient like it’s the star of the show. They spend their time sautéing broccoli rabe, caramelizing peppers and onions, roasting and grilling all of their meats, all before constructing each masterpiece on a lightly toasted roll.
The centerpiece of the menu is a sandwich so vain that it bares the same name as the shop. Paesano’s “Paesano” is a beef brisket with horseradish mayo, roasted tomatoes, pepperoncino, and sharp provolone, all joined together by the runny yolk of a fried egg placed delicately on top.
Clean eaters beware: This sandwich is so messy you’ll need to excuse yourself for looking like a savage.
2. John’s Roast Pork: Hot Roast Pork Sandwich
14 E Snyder Ave
In 1930, a guy referred to as “Pop Pop” served cops, firefighters, cab drivers, and dockworkers hot roast pork sandwiches out of a little shack next to the B&O Railroad. Three generations later, Pop Pop’s roast pork legacy lives on and has become so popular that locals believe it has dethroned the cheesesteak as the official sandwich of Philadelphia.
The Hot Roast Pork Sandwich begins every morning with a fresh delivery of rolls from Carangi Bakery, the only bread within a 50 mile radius worthy of such craftsmanship. Next, juicy strips of spicy roast pork hit the grill and just before it’s done cooking, a pile of either American or Provolone cheese is added to the top. The roll is then placed onto this meaty mountain, and with a single 180-flip of the spatula, a Hot Roast Pork Sandwich is brought into existence.
It’s a sandwich worth crossing the train tracks for (literally).
Pro Tip: I recommend the sharp provolone. Paired with the spicy roast pork it’s a sandwich so fierce it’ll bite you back.
3. Rocco’s Italian Sausage: Italian Sausage
1601 S Columbus Blvd (At Tasker Street)
Some sandwich joints try to jazz up their food with fancy garnishes and other gourmet accoutrements to distract from how plain they truly are. But at Rocco’s Italian Sausage there are no frills and no extras. They excel at the basics. This place is so low key that it’s located in the parking lot of a Home Depot in South Philly.
Rocco’s has plenty of sandwiches to choose from, but your best bet is to order the sandwich for which this modest hut is named: The Italian Sausage, which is a sandwich experience unique to the Greater Philadelphia region.
Ordering an Italian Sausage from Rocco’s is an emotional rollercoaster. First shame and grief because you’re ordering a sandwich from a dubious looking shack attached to a Home Depot. That’s followed by what is disbelief at the size of the foil cocoon they hand you, quickly followed by the doubt in your own abilities to finish the damn thing. Upon unveiling the Italian Sausage, a sudden jolt of shock at the sight of your sandwich suffocating under what appears to be an entire caramelized onion. But all of this will be swallowed with that first bite of spicy sausage as your mouth experiences bliss.
Pro Tip for the early birds: They have the audacity to serve breakfast versions of their Italian Sausage sandwiches.
4. Johnny’s Hots: Hot Dog Fish Cake Combo
1234 N Delaware Ave
Philadelphia’s version of a surf and turf has resulted in a questionable combination that might be responsible for the closure of several hot dog stands over the years. But the tradition has been kept alive and has reemerged in Fishtown at Johnny’s Hots. Listed on the menu as “Hot Dog Fish Cake Combo” it is exactly as it sounds, but not as gross as you might imagine.
The fish cake, a potpourri of seafood in patty form, is grilled, diced, and mashed inside of a split hot dog, all encased within a torpedo roll. Land and sea come together in a smoky salty symphony deserving of a standing ovation. If your body can handle the decadence, treat yourself to an encore.
Pro Tip: Your Fishtown feast is not complete without washing this delicacy down with an Arctic Splash, an ice tea served out of one of those cartons that milk at your school’s cafeteria came in. Add a shot or three of vodka and you’ve got a Fishtown Ice Tea. You’re drinking like a local now!
5. Stogie Joe’s: Meatball Sandwich
1801 E. Passyunk Ave. (Pronounced locally “Pashee-yunk” Ave)
For a relatively new restaurant (they opened in 2008), the food that comes out of Stogie Joe’s kitchen will have you thinking that this place has been open for generations. That’s because many of these recipes are Leuzzi family favorites. Italian American family recipes are rampant around the East Passyunk (pronounced locally as “Pashee-yunk”) neighborhood, but the food at Stogie Joe’s is unique and homey.
Their signature sandwich is the meatball sandwich, made with home-made meatballs conceived of the holy trinity of Italian meats: the veal, the pork and heavenly beef.
They’re cooked slow in marinara and topped with sharp provolone that melts from the heat of the meatballs. Everything about it is soft — the kaiser roll, the juicy meatballs, the gooey cheese. It’s Italian American comfort food.
Pro Tip: For a smoother taste, switch out the tangier sharp provolone cheese for a more subtle parmigiano.
6. George’s Sandwich Shop: Tripe Sandwich
900 S 9th St, Philadelphia
Tripe is one of the weirdest ingredients. It’s chewy and has almost no flavor but when done right, you’ll forget that you’re consuming the muscular wall of a cow’s stomach. George’s Sandwich Shop’s Tripe Sandwich is one of the few who have conquered this seemingly gross ingredient. It’s worth a try, even for the most conservative and cautious eaters.
Honeycomb tripe is slowly stewed in a spicy tomato based sauce until it is tender, a hard feat considering how springy tripe is by nature. Then it’s served on a roll with provolone cheese. Seems simple, but what’s most impressive about this sandwich is the roll, freshly baked each day by family-run Sarcone’s Bakery. It defies the laws of bread by being absorbent and non-absorbent simultaneously. The roll’s sponge-like insides sop up the flavorful juices, while its outer layer acts as a fortress, preventing the tomato sauce from penetrating its crusty wall. Every bite as juicy as the next without the mess of a soggy, disintegrating piece of bread.
Pro Tip: For more zing, get it with long hot peppers!
7. Famous 4th Street Deli’s: Mile-High Pastrami
700 S 4th St
Portion control is relative at the Famous 4th Street Deli. It’s your traditional Jewish Deli, but order your sandwich “Zaftig” and you’ll be served with a leaning tower of meat held together by a toothpick struggling between the forces of weight and gravity to keep this monstrosity together. All deli meat sandwiches are out of control, but the talk of the town is what locals call the “Mile-High Pastrami”.
This meal begins like every meal at Famous 4th Street Deli — with a complimentary plate of pickles and slaw for you to eat on while the chef tries to balance four pounds of pastrami onto rye bread. To add insult to injury, the pastrami is “specially” ordered from the butcher to be extra fatty, as if eating a sandwich that is nearly one foot in height isn’t fattening enough. It is a guaranteed meat coma waiting to happen.
Pro Tip: On your way out, grab a black and white cookie for the road. You might not be hungry now, but your future self, who now has a cookie, will thank you.