Over the course of many east coast trips, a true Philadelphia cheesesteak always eluded my gastronomic grasp. Philly was always along the way to my usual visits in NYC or Boston rather than a destination. And given its dense neighorhoods, I found the City of Brotherly Love tough to navigate. But over the past year or so, I’ve put in the effort to knock the classic Italian-American sandwich off my foodie list and I’m happy to say, it’s been done! I was finally able to make it over to John’s Roast Pork to try an official Philly cheesesteak and here’s what the experience was like!
First of all, why would you pick a place named “John’s Roast Pork” for your first Philly cheesesteak visit?! Why not a famous cheesesteak spot like Pat’s or Geno’s? Or how about a local favorite like Tony Luke’s or Dallesandro’s? Well, given I was driving through the area, access off of I-95 was important and John’s Roast Pork is right off the highway in a busy retail area in S. Philadelphia. Plus John’s Roast Pork is known for making a great cheesesteak and is often on the Best of Philadelphia lists for locals. And finally, they were awarded a James Beard Foundation Award for Culinary Excellence in 2006 for their roast pork sandwich! You didn’t think I was going to travel to Philadelphia and only get ONE sandwich, did you?!
For my visit, it took about 5 minutes to find John’s Roast Pork, the area is rife with shoppers and long streets that you can get turned around on if unfamiliar. Located right next to some railroad track, John’s is located in a small brick building with blue awnings, you could easily miss it except for the crowd of folks lined up outside. At 2pm on a chilly, December afternoon, there were about 20 people inside and another 15 outside when I pulled up. But don’t worry, the line moves pretty quickly. The big hold-up is on steak sandwiches, if you only wanted pork, beef or meatballs, they would short-cut you inside to the counter. Next to the small restaurant is a covered patio area where you can down your meal if you don’t take it to go. There is a basic menu out front (no prices) so you can plan your order ahead of time.
Once you step inside, there’s a double-wrapped line of people who are patiently waiting to order. Refrigerated case of drinks to the left along with some options for chips, I order my cheesesteak in that corner by the grill (give them your name). Once you’re past that spot, I ordered my roast pork sandwich at the center counter area where another two people are putting together those sandwiches. Then you pay at the end of the counter, note that there are no prices on the menu. My two large sandwiches were $20.35 all together. For my meal, I did the pizza steak with marinara and white American cheese (no cheese wiz) while for the pork you can add provolone, sharp provolone or spinach (versus the typical broccoli di rabe). While the roast pork sandwiches are assembled pretty quickly, the cheesesteaks are cooked to order and take some time.
Even though the place is packed and it’s a bit chaotic, the staff is very patient and professional and all the customers were super polite in line. There are a lot of newbies ordering here so do your best in getting an idea of what you want before hitting the counter. Up front you can see piles of steak sizzling over onions on the flat-top along with the roast pork marinating in its juices. It all looks and smells fantastico! It takes maybe 10 minutes to get my sandwiches and I’m off, quick like a bunny to the car.
Given that I ate my sandwiches on the road, I couldn’t get very good pics of the food which are nicely wrapped in foil. Both sandwiches are big, maybe 13″ long and loaded with meat. John’s uses a lovely Carangi sesame seed roll that shows off a nice crust and tender insides. It’s a great foil for the meat and a twist from the usual Amoroso roll. The steak sandwich is just that, rather than finely chopping the meat, the tender and thin slices of beef provide some chew to your sandwich. Topped with a bit of savory marinara sauce makes for a great meal.
And while the cheesesteak at John’s Roast Pork is excellent, the namesake sandwich is exquisite. Pork can be a pretty plain meat but John’s must use some rosemary, pepper, wine, black pepper and garlic in their rendition. The pork is sliced thinly but not wafer-thin, deli meat fashion and the sharp provolone is a wonderful counterpoint to the savory meat. I really wished I remembered to order the spinach but I forgot given the excitement in my first visit. There’s enough moisture in the sandwich without making it too wet. All in all it’s a great sandwich and a step up from the Dinic’s roast pork I tried last year.
When I first stopped in at John’s Roast Pork and saw the line, I nearly bailed out but I’m really glad I didn’t. While you’ll likely find a line (I had maybe a 50 minute wait), it moves quickly and the sandwiches are wonderful here! Thick, fully stuffed and delicious, you could pretty much split one for lunch and be satisfied. If I do get back to John’s Roast Pork, you bet I’m going to add the spinach to my next sandwich and do it properly. Their cheesesteak is also pretty awesome. And maybe I’ll try the meatball too! Given John’s Roast Pork has been in business 80 years, they must be doing a LOT of things right…
14 Snyder Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19148