Reading Terminal Market

So it’s the late 1800’s, and you’re a merchant along High Street, maybe a descendant of one of the many vendors who have been coming to this section of Philadelphia since 1680. You learn, much to your chagrin, that the Philadelphia & Reading company has purchased a swathe of land, the very same swathe where you sell your doodads and geegaws, to build a railroad. Well, you won’t have any of that, and eventually, you, the other merchants, and P&R work out a deal that relocates the merchants below the station, and thus, the Reading Terminal  / Market was born.

You probably won’t be vindicated in your lifetime, having died of blood-letting or something, but you might be gratified to know that the Market will outlive the Reading Terminal around it. Coal supplies ran low, and the uptick in prices drove away train riders, but farmers and merchants stuck around.  These days, in conjunction with the convention center just next door, the Reading Terminal Market (no slash, this time) is booming, boasting over 70 merchants offering everything from Amish specialities to roast duck to wine.

I have a soft spot for the Market. Almost anything I want, I can find there. Usually, what I want is fresh mozzarella from the Valley Shepherd Creamery and Meltkraft, but sometimes, I want some donuts from Beiler’s, or a sandwich from — well, almost anywhere. There’s no better microcosm of Philadelphian food than at the Market — Thai food next to a burger place next to an Amish diner and bakery. Always something new to taste, or to try, and if all else fails, you can always people watch, or listen to one of the musicians in the seating areas.

rtm

One of the busier thoroughfares (at a less-than-busy-time).

My recommendations: the Red, White, and Green sandwich (a hearty, delicious twits on the classic grilled cheese) from Meltkraft, as well as their fresh mozzarella. The milkshake-and-pretzel combo from Miller’s Twist (’cause the price-to-quality ratio can’t be beat, for five dollars). A half-dozen donuts from Beiler’s Donuts, if the line isn’t too long (do some laps while you wait to justify the calories you’ll eat!). Ice cream from Bassetts Ice Cream (ice cream!).  Hope’s Cookies from the Pennsylvania General Store (come near closing, and they’re a dollar each). Fresh juice from Lancaster County Dairy (try the blueberry lemonade). Fried chicken from Kevin Parker’s Soul Food Cafe (the next best thing to actual ambrosia from the gods). Cannoli from Termini Brothers Bakery… 

Honestly, I could name something that I like from almost every store at the Market. Try it sometime!

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Is a hot dog a sandwich?

It is a question that shall live in infamy. Countless wars have been fought over this simple, provocative question. How many more friends must be lost, how much more tears shed? Let me put the matter to rest.

To quote Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 3, Line 87:

No.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s Herr’s Is Mine

You’d be hard pressed to find a Philly corner store that didn’t stock Herr’s products side by side with national names. Standing toe-to-toe with the big names, Herr’s Snacks somehow continues to retain their independence against such industry giants as Con-Agra and Frito-Lay. As the company is based in Nottingham, PA, it makes sense that it retains such a strong presence in Philadelphia — hardly a food truck can be found without a stack of fun-sized bags of Herr’s potato chips, and a deli sandwich almost looks strange without a complementary bag of chips on the side.

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Eerie.

When I sat down to write this piece, I went to my kitchen cabinet to get a snack that might let me take on the task with vigor. What did I find looking back at me but a relentlessly bright green bag of potato chips emblazoned with the Herr’s logo — a bag that neither I, nor anyone else living at the Whizzard residence, can remember buying. I am of the opinion that they tend to just spontaneously appear in the pantries of those who live in the greater tri-state area in some sort of arcane, potato-based facilitated diffusion.

At the risk of sounding a bit obvious, they’re chips. Fine if you want a snack or are going to have a party, but nothing to write home about. I’m a baked Lays kinda guy, and most of the places that stock Herr’s also have Lays products, so there’s not much opportunity for the hometown heroes to shine. My friends like ‘em, I’m ambivalent to ‘em. Next!

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Soft Pretzels, Part One.

You’re heading into Veterans Stadium, maybe stopping here and there at friendly tailgates, bastions of red-and-white among the camps of foreign colors. Your goal, though, is the gates, old and proud. On the way, you pass by someone pushing a grocery cart (that you’re sure they must own) filled to bursting with golden-brown 8’s. Three of them for a dollar almost seems like stealing, They get slapped into a brown-bag, and it almost seems like you have something illegal. Reaching into the bag, they feel oddly wet, and salt falls off in your grip but there’s so much of it that it doesn’t matter. The taste is difficult to describe positively: like damp cardboard, but delicious.

The origins of pretzels, or so says hazy, fourth-grade memory, goes back to somewhere in Middle Ages Europe where a Christian monk wanted to reward the kids under his tutelage for knowing their prayers, so he shaped some dough into the shape of clasped hands and baked it.

Once more the workmanlike spectre of the Pennsylvania Dutch casts its shadow over this deeply informative blog, as in the late 18th century, southern German and Swiss German immigrants introduced the pretzel to North America. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the soft pretzel became popular — particularly, the S-shaped soft pretzel, often found hand-in-hand with spicy brown mustard. So often sold on the street, the big S became iconic in Philly.

8Pretz

In all of its salty glory.

It tastes pretty good, too. I don’t go to as many sporting events as I did when I was young, but I attended a recent Drexel basketball game in the hopes of scoring. Scoring a pretzel. That’s about the extent of my sports-related humor. Anything more will just be along the lines of…TOUCHDOWN! This pretzel is good!

Remember The Pretzels.

The Silver Pretzel Playbook.

A slam dunk, but with pretzels.

Anyway, my efforts were rewarded! There was indeed a vendor pulling around a shopping cart that I am positive he owned, filled to the top with milk crates bulging with figure-eight goodness. I handed over two bucks, and got four pretzels back for it.

Rose tinted glasses, for once, proved to be correct. I can’t exactly drill down on the exact flavors of the pretzel, but it is filling, it is salty, and it is gone before I realize it. Maybe I’m underselling it, because it’s not exactly world-changing flavor, but it was a pleasant thing to put in my mouth.

Now, in what may prove to be a first for We’re Off To See The Whizzard, I’ll need to come back around to review the other type of soft pretzel — the type more commonly seen in malls, sold by some absent, but ever-watching Auntie. There’s too much sodium in this post to continue, so tune in later for more on this Pennsylvania Dutch style of soft pretzels.

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Roast Pork Sandwiches

Pork is simple, I think. Never having been much for bacon, and as the previous special on scrapple might be interpreted as sort of a terrified screed against the pig, you could be forgiven for thinking I’m not too big on the other white meat. Not the case. I am a simple man! (A simple man with complicated tastes.) I am not too good for pork. A nice grilled tenderloin with green beans or broccoli was among one of the good family Whizzard’s dinner staples as I was growing up.

While my palate skewed toward the grilled, that’s not the point of today’s post. No, we’re talking about another way to prepare pork before putting it in between bread: roasting. Roast pork sandwiches are the other signature sandwich of Philadelphia, standing proud, if unassuming, next to their grandiose cheesesteak cousins.

Almost any dive bar worth its salt will have a roast pork offering. Whether on a Kaiser roll or traditional hoagie/sub/grinder roll, there’s usually some provolone going on, too. It isn’t always going to be beautiful — there might be a little juice left on the plate when you pick it up and the roll might be a little dry in your hands — but if all I ate was beautiful food, I would starve.

SIDEBAR: Grinding Subs

   There’s a reason I had to do that little slash/slash/slash thing, there. While most normal people are content to live and let live, there are those (as with those who contend that a hot dog is, somehow, a sandwich) that take offense to the improper terms utilized.   ‘Sub’ — a submarine sandwich, named for its resemblance to the long submersible boat. Traditionally, served cold. ‘Grinder’ — Either named for Italian-American slang for dockworkers, who were known to favor the sandwich form, or for the difficulty with which one could bite down on the girthy sandwich. And, lastly, ‘hoagie’ — a corruption of ‘hoggie,’ which is what one would have to be to eat one, according to a store proprietor’s opine.

Of course, there are other terms: hero, po’boys, bombers…but those are exceedingly unPhiladelphian.

(Gyros are excepted, and definitely not the same thing.)

There are those who like their sandwiches so dunked in au jus that it’s more of a platter than a one-handed mediated mission from plate to mouth. I have no qualm with them — they’re monsters, but live and let live. The 50/50 from Jake’s Sandwich Board is not that. It is a firm sandwich, with a strong enough hoagie roll to stand up to the amount of meat packed in.

I picked Jake’s, not only because they won the Best of Philly award in 2012 for their Best Pork Sandwich, the 50/50, but because I like their food.

5050

The 50/50, minutes away from being hastily consumed.

Jake’s, it must be noted, is a two-location operation. Not big enough to be considered a chain or franchise, so I can still feel good about supporting local businesses, and its location in Center City is on the usual route I take home from campus, so it couldn’t be more convenient. A casual, easygoing place painted in bold reds and blacks, the 13th Street Jake’s has a decent seating arrangement for those who want to eat there. Old timey pictures of Center City border the walls shoulder to shoulder with pictures of those who’ve tried (and sometimes failed) to take their silly ‘way too much food’ challenge. I usually do take out.

While my preference at Jake’s remains their Mensch (brisket, provolone, and caramelized onions with some good, properly nose-evacuating horseradish), I began my long relationship with the store with their offering, the 50/50, and so it will always retain a special place in my heart.

The store describes the 50/50 as “1/2 pulled and chopped slow-roasted pork, 1/2 bacon, Sriracha spread, and sharp provolone. The 50/50 won a Best of Philly award in 2012!” I already mentioned that last part, but I can forgive them for wanting to toot their own horn. It is a very good sandwich.

I know what you’re saying to yourself, cursor precipitously poised on the ‘close tab’ button. I began this one by professing my distaste for the crunchy pigskin (is bacon pig skin? I don’t actually know) but in the 50/50, it complements the savory roast pork, instead of overwhelming it. (Mini-sidebar: enough with the bacon obsession, internet. We ain’t in 2012 anymore.)

bacon

[Citation needed.]

Pros: If you take the exact same route that I do from Philadelphia to a New Jersey suburb, Jake’s is just on the way home! Additionally, the sandwich is very good.

Cons: 1) If you do not take that route, I cannot guarantee your safety, but on the other hand, if you follow that route, you may see me and that is a fate I do not wish on anyone.

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Cheez Whiz

If you’ve chosen to ignore my advice and patronize Pat’s or Geno’s: one, I told you so. Two, you may have had to be under the gun of a hot neon yellow paste vaguely resembling nacho cheese. This is Cheez Whiz, a cheese-adjacent product that has somehow wiggled its way into the cracks of Philadelphian food culture.

I’ve danced around it long enough: what in the world is whiz?

the whiz

“Made with real cheese.” But not enough to be called cheese.

We can trace it back to the mid 1900’s, to a man named James L. Kraft who developed a US patent for the process of sterilizing cheese and an improved product produced by such process. Yes, the same Kraft who would later cast a pall over all American cheesemongering by creating Kraft Singles is also responsible for the long national nightmare that is Cheez Whiz. Popularized for their ability to send relatively cheese-tasting cheese across the pond to support Allied troops in World War Two, Kraft quickly gained a sizable chunk of the market. Capitalizing on the American TV dinner fad of the 1950’s, and the Welsh rarebit fad of Britain (essentially an open-faced grilled cheese) they created the Kraft Single and Cheez Whiz, respectively.

It’s hard to figure out when cheesesteak became married to the vaguely yellow semisolid. At Pat’s King of Steaks, it’s been served for decades, and Tony Luke’s serves it proud, too. So for the sake of fairness, I bought a cheesesteak with Whiz, just to be sure. From previous We’re Off To See The Whizzard favorite, Sonny’s, I hoped to at least hide the flavor beneath beef-and-bread.

I won’t lie. It tastes like licking a dumpster. (The Whizzard has never licked a dumpster, or at least will never admit to it. –Ed.) The flavor is bad — and even calling it flavor is a stretch. It melts decently and that’s about the only good thing I can say about it. That nice melting makes it percolate throughout the sandwich, which means every bite will have some Cheez Whiz in it. This is not a good thing. The beefsteak is worsened for it.

Pros: I bet the British enjoy it with their Welsh rarebit.

Cons: The British also eat sandwiches that are made of french fries.

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My Favorite Cheesesteak

It’s fitting that the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia can be found on Market Street, the arterial vein of the city. Insofar as you can say ‘one cheesesteak, please,’ and hand over money to a cashier, you can’t do much better than Sonny’s Famous Cheesesteaks on Market, near 3rd Street.

Saddled next to Mac’s Tavern and Happily Ever After Cafe, Sonny’s Famous Cheesesteaks draws stark comparison to its neighbor, three to the left: “Big Ass Slices,” a venue that prides itself not only on the size of their food but the picture of a pretty lady that adorns their storefront. I don’t mean to besmirch the good name of Big Ass, since I’ve never actually had their product, but seeing as Sonny’s business facade offers no such base titillation to draw in customers, I feel much less dirty going in there.

Sonnysexterior

Maybe the ‘beat our meat’ slogan is a little much, but let’s pretend I don’t know what they’re saying.

Unlike Pat and Geno, it seems that the eponymous Sonny exists ‘only in our hearts,’ according to the store website’s FAQ. Sonny’s also goes on to assure their customers that they may order in any way they like, perhaps sensing my brutal takedown of Geno’s in a previous post on this blog. It’s a small thing and doesn’t change the taste of the food, but it does ease the bad taste in my mouth that the ‘Philly’s Good Ol’ Boys’ culture engenders.

I ordered both a regular ol’ cheesesteak (worded just like that) and a loaded chicken cheesesteak, then moved on to wait. Though the lines can get long and the staff was clearly busy — it was the lunch rush, after all — I didn’t wait much more than ten minutes. Tourists surge through this part of town, filling all of the provided seats, so I left to perform my professional sandwich reviewing.

sonnyssandwich

The unassuming, yet handsomely tasty Sonny’s offering.

It’s a nice, unassuming roll — not seeded. I can usually go either way but I know some people are pretty anti-seed, so that’s a plus. The meat is clearly beef (or chicken, if you prefer), not meat-colored discs freeze-dried for convenience. While the grilled onions are a little chunky for my preference, they’re well cooked, as are the fresh mushrooms smoothly mixed into the sandwich.

With a choice of five or so cheeses, including the classic American / Provolone / Whiz trifecta, I opted to indulge myself with mozzarella cheese. I was rewarded with a well-blended mix of cheese, meat, mushrooms, and onions in every bite. For my money, Sonny’s does both the classic and twists on the formula better than anyone else. While it’s difficult to have a bad cheesesteak…once you’ve had the rest, it’s time for the best.

Also, it’s not mentioned anywhere on site, but if you show your SEPTA pass before ordering, you get 5% off. Which isn’t much, I’m not going to pretend otherwise, but any discount is a good discount for the discerning gourmand on a collegiate budget.

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