Stepping away from coffee for just a minute…..
If I told you the world’s finest sandwich can be found in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, you may not be completely surprised.
But it’s not what you think.
Let me explain. This may take us a little while, so please bear with me.
Our family lived overseas for quite a while, and our television viewing was a mishmash, mostly comedy and drama from the UK, some Australian stuff (oh, Master Chef Australia, how I miss thee), international sports, and from the US often reality tv of various stripes. One show we latched onto for a while was Man v. Food.
If you’re not familiar with the show, in each episode foodie Adam Richman visits a city to explore unique local restaurants, culminating in a go at an eatery’s competitive eating challenge (typically eat x number of item y within time z without throwing up). When we would come back to visit the US, we sometimes tracked down a restaurant we saw on the show, not the belly-busting sites but the distinctive places that looked appealing. The first example was L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which I visited on my own and then with my kids. Highly recommend it, particularly in the summer.
One segment that really caught our attention was during an episode featuring Philadelphia, when Richman visited Reading Terminal Market. Reading Terminal is a huge warren of food stalls and market stands jammed into a beautiful old building in Center City, and has been in operation since 1893. The current food hall craze gathering steam in the US has a long way to go to catch up.
On his visit Richman went to Tommy DiNic’s, a family-owned stand that has been in the Market since 1980 and traces its lineage to a butcher shop opened in 1918 in South Philly. The menu is limited, but far and away the star attraction is the roast pork sandwich with broccoli rabe and sharp provolone. Richman liked it so much that on a later spin-off series he named it America’s best sandwich. Since I either visit or pass by Philadelphia often, I had to try it.
I’m not sure exactly when I first got to DiNic’s, probably five or six years ago, and I was hooked from the start. Not that I’m obsessed or anything, but when driving up and down the East Coast I will build extra time to drive out of my way into the middle of Philly, park in the garage across the street, get a sandwich, and then get back on the road. It’s often crowded and finding an empty seat at DiNic’s counter or in the Market’s seating areas can be tough. I would guess I have been there 10-15 times. I’ve even bought myself a DiNic’s t-shirt.
A few months ago my wife was in Philly on business, and she brought home a couple sandwiches which the folks at DiNic’s helpfully packed in its separate constituent parts to stand up to travel. They weren’t 100% as good as eating at the Market, probably around 87% (or put another way, a multiple of how good your favorite regular sandwich tastes).
I went to DiNic’s for lunch today, not as a detour but because I was going to a basketball game in Philadelphia. However, I hadn’t known it was day four of the Philadelphia Flower Show, a huge annual event taking place across the street in the Convention Center. So I spent half an hour traversing the 8 levels of the parking garage until I could find a spot (a special place in hell awaits the two people whose respective vehicles straddled two spaces). Did I think at any point during that half hour of giving up? Oh hell no. This is DiNic’s we’re talking about.
The Market, crowded on most weekday lunch hours with a mix of tourists and local office drones, was particularly jammed today. The line at DiNic’s wrapped all the way around the counter. The sandwich gods were looking out for me, though, as after only a few minutes in line a stool in front of me opened up. I sat down, placed my order, and within minutes, sandwich nirvana arrived in front of me.
And, as always, it was just plain spectacular. Four elements combining together so very well, each of very high quality. The roll has a nice thin crust but is soft inside, with just the right yield to the bite. The provolone is indeed sharp as advertised, hidden at the bottom of the sandwich. This placement pays off as its shards soak up the heat and juices from the meat and greens to find that magical place between solid and melted.
The big star of the sandwich is the broccoli rabe. Crisp, exploding with flavor from the bitter greens, red pepper flakes, garlic and olive oil. In fact, a very good argument could be made that the sandwich would still be spectacular without the pork, which is pretty bland by comparison to the strong greens and cheese, but that would throw the balance out of whack. The proportions are perfect. Everything seasoned just so, no need to reach for any condiment. I suppose the only thing you might try differently would be to ask them to load on more of the pork gravy/drippings if you want it to be particularly moist.
I did have to bite my tongue a couple times, as some of the people around me ordered their sandwich with roasted peppers instead of the broccoli rabe. Ohhhhhh no no no noooooo, you’re missing the best part!
A good friend who knows well the legend of DiNic’s visited once, but he says he ordered the ‘wrong’ sandwich and regrets it to this day. For those of you who get the chance to visit and don’t want to make the same mistake, here as a public service is a helpful edit of the menu:
Best $11.50 you’ll ever spend.
So yes, the best sandwich in the world (Richman limited himself too much by sticking only to America) is found in Philadelphia, at Reading Terminal. But it’s not a cheesesteak, and it’s not a hoagie. It’s so much better.
And to close back on brand, Philadelphia is also a great city for independent coffee shops. We’ll touch on those another time.