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Friday, March 14, 2008

The Philly Sandwich Lexicon

A recent article in the Washington Post spurred some interesting discussion about terminology over on eGullet. The writer used the term "sub" to refer to both cheesesteaks and roast pork sandwiches. To Philadelphians, this sounds very odd, and I began to wonder why.

The writer was probably correct to start his article using "sub" if that's the local term for any sandwich on a long roll. I grew up in a "sub"urb in another state, and had had no idea what hoagies, grinders or cheesesteaks were before coming to Philly. They were all "subs" to me. But the Washington Post writer would have done his readers a favor if he explained the local customs a bit, and detailed the accepted local jargon.

So, as a public service to visitors or the newly-arrived, let's try to catalog some of the quirks of Philly sandwich slang. I'm sure I don't know all the vocabulary, so please feel free to add your comments, and I'll compile them into this guide to sandwich terminology for visitors and new Philadelphians!

Keep in mind, this vocabulary is used IN Philly, the slang may change pretty quickly with distance in any direction. It's probably different in the various neighborhoods, but we'll do our best.

The Philly Sandwich Lexicon:

A "Hoagie" is a sandwich on a long Italian roll, by default dressed with lettuce, tomato, onion, salt, pepper oregano and a drizzle of oil. Sweet or hot marinated peppers are usually offered. The exact array of toppings can be customized, and usually is, but if you don't specify, it will probably include all the above. These items are most often placed on top of the meat as the last step, but some places make the sandwich with more meat or cheese piled on top, which tends to keep everything together a little better.

The term "hoagie" has more to do with the specific dressings than with the roll, yet the roll is a necessary component. If you put the identical fillings on a kaiser roll, it's not a hoagie any more. Plain turkey and mayo on a long roll might be called a turkey hoagie, but it would almost be easier to call it a turkey sandwich on a hoagie roll, because it's going to take a lot of explaining to get a turkey hoagie with no cheese, no lettuce, no tomato, no onions, no oil, no peppers, no spices... it would start sounding like that scene in 5 Easy Pieces in which Jack Nicholson is trying to get some wheat toast by ordering a chicken salad sandwich.

A "Grinder" is a hoagie toasted in the oven, usually with some cheese on top.

A "Cheesesteak" is a hot sandwich made with thin-sliced beef, cooked on a flat-top grill. It may be chopped into small shreds while on the grill, or left in slices. Discussing which of these is correct, or more authentic, is guaranteed to start a fistfight. A cheesesteak is always served on a long Italian roll, which may vary from soft to firm to crusty depending on the place. Discussing who has the best roll is guaranteed to start a fistfight. Given the vast number of places making them, there are bound to be deviations from the long-roll: Donkey's Place in Camden uses a kaiser roll, as does McNally's for their famous Schmitter, but those are rare exceptions.

As you might guess from the name, the sandwich usually includes cheese. It could be Cheez Whiz, American cheese or provolone. Discussing which of these is best, or the original, is guaranteed to start a fistfight. Simply ordering a cheesesteak without specifying the type of cheese will get you whiz at most of the old-school stands, American cheese at a sidewalk cart or food truck. There are some exceptions to this, so if you have a preference, indicate it as part of the order. One can of course get a steak without cheese, but it might take a few repeats of "no cheese" to make sure it won't be slathered with whiz. If you order provolone, a few places will ask: "sharp?" indicating the more flavorful aged cheese. The correct answer is "yes."

A cheesesteak is not referred-to as a hoagie, although it's the same shape. You can have a "cheesesteak hoagie" but that indicates a cheesesteak dressed like a hoagie, with lettuce, tomato, onion, etc. It usually implies mayo on the roll and provolone cheese as well.

"wit" at an old-school cheesesteak stand indicates "with fried onions." If you're not from South Philly, it is acceptable to say "with fried onions." This might actually be preferable, until you can get the exact pronunciation of "wit" down. It's somewhere between "wit" and "wid." Listen carefully while you're in line. Because "wit" sounds a lot like "whiz," it is often misunderstood to mean "with cheez whiz." But the most common cheesesteak order at a place like Pat's is "whiz wit" which would be redundant if wit meant whiz. Cheesesteak customization is indicated in a specific sequence: (non-onion) vegetables, then type of cheese, then onions or not. E.g., Pepper Whiz wit. Mushrooom Provolone witout.

"wit" is only used for cheesesteaks, asking for an Italian hoagie wit, or a Roast Pork sandwich wit, will probably elicit "wit what?" Do not ask for "con las cebollas fritas" or "con" for short, at Geno's. You might get away with "con le cipolle fritte" but I wouldn't risk it.

"pizzasteak" indicates a cheesesteak with tomato sauce poured on the meat. It usually also means provolone cheese by default. It occasionally means provolone or mozzarella on top, with the whole thing toasted in the oven.

There is no such thing as a cheesesteak "with everything." That phrase may work when ordering a hot dog or hamburger, but is nonsensical at a cheesesteak joint. The New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni famously asked for that at John's, and there was great confusion and consternation all around.

Cheesesteaks must be eaten immediately. Do not get them to go, don't let them get wrapped, don't wait, don't go stand in the Pat's french fry and beverage line. Eat the thing! It's getting significantly worse by the second.

A "chickensteak" is an abomination in the eyes of the culinary Gods. Please stop talking about them. I don't care if they're good. You can't get a chickensteak at any of the iconic cheesesteak places. There is a reason for that.

Rating and ranking cheesesteak joints is a local obsession, and one that, you guessed it, is guaranteed to start a fistfight. There's never going to be a definitive list, there are just too many places making them, so making a truly thorough study, with multiple visits to the same places, is just too daunting. That said, folks can't resist, and lists are made. A pretty good one came from a surprising source: Glen Macnow from WIP sports radio came up with a strong list, with credible explanations for his findings. The Philadelphia Inquirer's Craig Laban undertook The Cheesesteak Project several years back, with the help of some local high school kids. I can't find the list any more, they may have taken it down, thinking it was out of date? The top spot in that survey went to John's Roast Pork, and many agree. I might agree, but I find it very hard to order a cheesesteak there, when they make an excellent roast pork sandwich as well.

Roast Pork Sandwiches

Despite the cheesesteak's fame, the roast pork sandwich is actually Philly's best sandwich, and just as unique. Thin-sliced herby roasted pork, piled on a long roll, moistened with some garlicky jus, it's much more complex and rewarding than a cheesesteak. These sandwiches are often served with sautéed greens, either spinach or broccoli rabe. Some believe that the slightly bitter rabe overwhelms the flavor of the pork, others say it balances the fattiness. Discussing which of these positions is correct is guaranteed to start a fistfight. Pork sandwiches are usually accompanied by provolone cheese, often aged, sharp provolone. When offered the option, get the sharp, it contrasts well with the rich meat. Do not order whiz on your pork sandwich. It's oddly delicious on a cheesesteak, but perversely wrong on pork. I'm not sure if anyplace would even give it to you. Let's hope not.

Roast Pork Italian is a roast pork sandwich with greens and sharp provolone. You may be asked to choose between spinach and rabe, and between sharp and mild cheese. Be ready.

There are three iconic roast pork stands: John's, DiNic's and Tony Luke's. A good case could be made for adding George's on 9th street to that list. At John's they only have spinach, so don't ask for rabe. DiNic's used to be spinach-only, but have added rabe, so it's your choice. Tony Luke's has both. George's has rabe. DiNic's also offers roasted peppers. When at John's always get the large pork sandwich, even if you're not all that hungry. The small comes on an undistinguished kaiser roll, and is therefore a much less interesting sandwich. The large comes on one of the best rolls on earth, so go ahead and splurge. Even if you only eat half of it, it will be much tastier.

In November of 2006, Philadelphia Magazine restaurant critic Maria Gallagher compiled a list of the best roast pork sandwiches. It still looks pretty good to me, and includes some great details about the origins of the rolls, which is a pretty important component of a pork sandwich. Interestingly, a roll that's good for a cheesesteak may not be good for roast pork, and many places use bread from different bakeries for the different sandwiches.

Other Sandwiches
Places such as Tony Luke's and Shank and Evelyn's have chicken cutlet and veal cutlet sandwiches that are worth checking out, but I don't know any special ordering tricks. Some of the best sandwiches in town can be gotten in little Vietnamese places around Washington Avenue. Those Bahn Mi (sometimes called Vietnamese hoagies) are inexpensive and delicious, served on good crusty French bread with picked vegetables. Anyone have any good ordering techniques?

Any other good tips from Philly residents on unintuitive terminology or ordering quirks? Thanks!


  1. Anonymous11:10 PM

    other facts:

    1. geno's offers a roast pork. it's uninteresting

    2. george's in the italian market makes a nice roast pork as well. i don't know about the greens. but they also will sell you a tripe sandwich, which is rarer. and good, if you like that sort of thing.

  2. Good point about Geno's, and I just remembered that Pat's offers Roast Pork too. A couple of years ago, Maria Gallagher included it in a list of best pork sandwiches. It was last, but still, on the list... I might need to add this link into the post...

    And thanks for reminding me about George's, I haven't been there in a million years, but I remember it being good. In the afore mentioned list, Maria Gallagher says George's had rabe.

  3. I'm a bit late on this one but I love your blog and Philly sandwiches, so...

    A Chicken Cheesesteak is not an abomination; it is just a different beast altogether. Things that would be heretical on a cheesesteak can be pretty interested on a chicken cheesesteak (buffafo sauce, hoagie condinments, etc.).

    The reason the "iconic" places (by which I assume you mean Pat's & Geno's) don't offer them is that they take too long to cook and they need to keep the line moving. John's Roast Pork, Tony Luke's, and Steve's Prince of Steaks all have chicken cheesesteaks on the menu.

    What is true is that most places are either good at one or the other. It is a rare sandwich shop that can excel at both.

  4. ...and to address the original point of this post.

    Another good term is a "grinder"--a modifier which means whatever sandwich on a long roll you get with cheese placed on top then melted in a pizza oven. Some sandwiches are created like this by default (at least at places with a pizza oven), like a pizza steak, eggplant parm, chicken parm, veal parm, etc. BTW you should add eggplant parm to "other sandwiches," it is a killer vegetarian sandwich and nearly every pizza shop makes one.

    Bahn Mi ordering is pretty straightforward in my experience. You get whatever meat/filling you want and all the accoutrement come by default. You may want to specify with or without chili peppers and with or without pate depending on your tastes. Vegetarian bahn mi usually can be made with or without tofu and is less standardized, so it is worth asking.