John's Roast Pork

Matt Curtis gets our juices flowing, with Philadelphia’s Best Cheesesteak

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“Home of the Ultimate Cheesesteak” and “James Beard Award Winner” are just two of the phrases strewn upon a multitude of signs, sitting atop an otherwise unassuming shack on Snyder Avenue. But there is absolutely nothing unassuming about John’s Roast Pork, home to the best sandwiches you will find anywhere in Philadelphia.

While most tourists will flock to the neon clad Geno’s, the adjacent Pat’s King of Steaks, or perhaps to one of the many spots inside Reading Terminal Market, those in the know will head straight to John’s. Established in 1930, it’s run by John Bucci Jr., the third generation of the Bucci family owners. The sandwich shack has received many plaudits over its lifetime, but it’s the James Beard award—perhaps the most prestigious food award in America—that is its greatest.

Unusually for me, my first experience of a sandwich from John’s was not in Philadelphia, but in the parking lot at Denver’s Mile High Stadium, home of the Denver Broncos. My partner, Dianne, had flown into Colorado that morning after visiting friends in Philly, and they had taken her to John’s for lunch before her flight. Knowing my propensity for a good sandwich (especially a Philly cheesesteak) she acquired me one, and stowed it, still warm, in her hand luggage. 

We were tailgating that afternoon, sinking cold cans of New Belgium Fat Tire and Odell IPA before watching a college Football match between the Colorado State Rams and the University of Colorado Buffs. We had discovered that no alcohol would be permitted for sale inside the stadium, so time was of the essence, but still I paused my reckless beer drinking to focus on my sandwich. 

Although now cold, it was somehow no less enticing. I tore open the silvery, greaseproof paper like Charlie in search of a golden ticket, only instead of chocolate I found slathers of thinly sliced, browned to perfection steak, glossy onions, and now congealed provolone cheese. Even in this state, 1700 miles from where it was assembled, it maintained its deliciousness to the point where even several hours after finishing it, the flavour was lodged in my brain. I had to, somehow, try one at the source.

As luck would have it, a year later I had the opportunity to visit Philadelphia. Newly freelance, I used a chunk of my savings to head to that year's Craft Brewers Conference; an opportunity to mingle with new peers, visit some special bars and breweries, and finally eat a fresh sandwich from John’s Roast Pork. After a busy week of beer, seminars, and feeling grossly out of my depth, my time here was almost at its end, and my friend Anita—at the time a resident of South Philly—was driving me to John’s Roast Pork.

PHOTO: DeAnna S (Tripadvisor)

If you didn’t know where you were going, you’d likely drive past John’s several times over, sandwiched as it is between the freeway and the Delaware river, opposite branches of IHOP and Chuck E Cheese. The building is functional, not glamorous, and although small, serves an intense volume of people during its typical opening hours of 6:45am to 3pm.

My time in the city afforded me plenty of time to try out other sandwich spots, including everything from the aforementioned tourist traps, to a midnight cheesesteak from a 7/11 after one too many IPAs. Such is the respect for the sandwich here that not a single bite was a disappointment. One takeaway from ordering sandwiches in Philly, though, was how intense the process is. For the most part, Philadelphia is a relaxed town, which takes things slowly—except when it comes to sandwiches. Orders need to be spoken sharply, and with authority: “cheesesteak, onions, wiz wit.”  

This will get you the standard steak, with gooey American cheese of questionable origin. After a few orders I soon learned that I preferred sharp provolone, and the addition of red peppers (which some locals actually frown upon). John’s was a different experience altogether though; orders were barked with alacrity, with zero time or opportunity for dallying, as the queue was in constant motion. 

During my 20 minute wait, I memorised my order, only to find that when I arrived at the counter and was barked at by the server, I froze. Suddenly, Anita appeared over my shoulder and delivered the order: one cheesesteak, onions, sharp provolone, one roast pork, arugula (broccoli leaves), more sharp provolone. She knew I’d panic, and was prepared. 

A few minutes later we perched on the seats outside with our freshly unwrapped sandwiches. Both were a foot long, sliced perfectly in half, with meat steaming in the early afternoon air. Although I didn’t plan to try the roast pork, Anita had insisted (“it’s called John’s Roast Pork, not John’s Cheesesteaks”). It was glorious, perfectly cooked and seasoned meat, with the tang of cheese and fresh, peppery greens giving it a bit of crunch. 

But the real star was the cheesesteak, which I finally had in its freshest, tastiest form. The hoagie roll gave way like a pillow when bitten into, but maintained its integrity throughout, despite the quantity of beef fat and melted cheese it was required to absorb. The steak was rich and savoury, with the sweet, translucent onions and cut of provolone adding to the waves of satisfaction each bite gave me. A pure moment, and one that is irrevocably Philadelphian. I love you, John’s Roast Pork.

Cover photo: Eric Kilby (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Header photo: Christine D (Tripadvisor)

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