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Secrets of the City: Philly

Revealing all the untold stories of Philly. From all the best local spots to our love for a good parade, check out the stories that make the City of Brotherly Love unique!

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A Local’s Guide to Philly’s Signature Sandwiches

You’ll surely work up an appetite while touring Philly’s many historic sites, and the best way to satisfy your craving for something delicious is with one of our classic sandwiches. And while you’ve heard of the cheesesteak, that’s just one of three meaty masterpieces that make the City of Brotherly Love a sandwich Shangri-la.

While the cheesesteak, the hoagie, and the roast pork sandwich are each unique, they share some similarities. Like any good sandwich, all three are sloppy and flavorsome and will more than fill you up. But what makes them classic Philly is the hearty long roll. Please note that we are talking about rolls here – not “buns!” In Philly, a bun is the bread used to transport a hotdog to your mouth. While it might stand up to a flimsy frank, a bun can’t handle the heftier sandwiches below.

A proper long roll is crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside, and so, so tasty. Luckily for everyone, these rolls have structural integrity. You can recognize a poorly made roll by the pile of meat on your lap at the end of your meal.

a close up of a sandwich sitting on top of a piece of paper

The Philly Cheesesteak 
Once you have the right bread, it’s time to decide which sandwich to order. The cheesesteak, America’s most famous sandwich, is a mountain of thinly cut ribeye steak that we grill, smother with melted cheese, top with fried onions, and pile into one of our legendary rolls. And while you can technically request any number of additional toppings, from green onions to mushrooms to bacon, locals will spot you as an outsider from a mile away. The only ingredients found on a cheesesteak in its natural habitat are steak, cheese, fried onions, and a roll.

Here’s your cheat sheet to order your steak like a native Philadelphian:
1.     State the cheese you want. Options usually include Cooper Sharp, provolone, and cheesewiz.
2.     Indicate whether you want your sandwich with or without onions by saying “wit” or “wit out” in your best Philly accent.
3.     Request optional toppings.

So, if you’re craving a steak with Cooper Sharp (our personal favorite) and onions, you’d say, “Cooper Sharp wit.” If you want a different cheese and no onions, you would say, “Provolone wit out.” Easy.

Many cheesesteak shops offer complementary sweet or hot cherry peppers, dried peppers, or “long hots” (spicy banana peppers) to add to your steak. You can ask for them to be cooked into your sandwich or just get them on the side. If you’re so inclined, you can add ketchup or mayo to your steak. Some folks get crazy and add sriracha or mustard. Whatever you do, for the love of all that is good and holy, do NOT order a steak with cheese wiz. Trust us.

The Hoagie
A cousin of the hero, the grinder, and the sub, the Philadelphia hoagie is distinguished by its outstanding bread and top-quality fillings. A variety of hoagies are available, but the most popular is the Italian. Every sandwich shop features its own special combination of ingredients in its Italian, but you can expect meats like capicola (gabagool), salami, soppressata, mortadella, and prosciutto. Common cheeses are provolone, mozzarella, and asiago, and toppings often include roasted red peppers or cherry peppers. All this goodness is finished off with lettuce, onion, and tomato before it’s dressed with salt, pepper, oregano, and oil or mayo. A classic hoagie is served cold, and it never comes with vinegar or mustard. When any of these variations are included, you simply have a different sandwich.

The Roast Pork 
Last but not least is the mouthwatering sandwich that Philly locals claim is their favorite: the roast pork. A classic roast pork consists of one of our awesome rolls stuffed with razor-thin pork that has been roasted for hours in its juices along with a plethora of herbs and spices. The pork is topped with tender broccoli rabe (rapini) and super sharp provolone. A proper roast pork is as messy as it is scrumptious, so experienced locals prepare for action by rolling up their sleeves and assuming the “hunch” posture by bending their waist at about 45-degree angle.

So which sandwich should you pick? Our recommendation is to bring a friend (or two) and try all three! For maximum convenience and guaranteed deliciousness, head over to Reading Terminal Market at 12th Street between Filbert and Arch Streets in Center City. It’s the nation’s oldest public market, and it features all three of Philly’s signature sandwiches in one spot.

Pro Tip: To endear yourself to your not-so-friendly Philly sandwich-maker, greet them with a loud and proud, “Go BIRDS!”

Written by Jenna, a local expert guide for Philly Crawling. A recent escapee from the corporate world, she enjoys volunteering and spending time with family. She’s a pet lover, self-proclaimed beer geek, travel enthusiast, and aspiring foodie. Join Jenna for history and beer on Philly Crawling’s Liberty Pub Crawl.