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Eater Elements: John's Roast Pork Cheesesteak in Philly

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Welcome to Eater Elements, a series that explores the ideas and ingredients of noteworthy dishes.

Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

Open for more than fifty years, John's Roast Pork in Philadelphia has earned a reputation for its namesake sandwiches and its city's most iconic dish, the cheesesteak. The family-owned and operated business began serving cheesesteak sometime in the early 1960's, though they weren't the main focus. When current owner John Bucci, Jr. took over cheesesteak duties from his father in the early 1970s, he upped their cheesesteak game, choosing higher quality meat, using tastier ketchup, and cooking the steaks to order. Bucci thinks that with cheesesteaks, less is almost always more. "I follow my mom's golden rule: Anything with more than five ingredients is too many. Keep it simple."

Located in a relatively untrafficked area of Philadelphia, John's Roast Pork has long served the area's dock and warehouse workers but it's only been in the last 10 years that the shop has gotten attention from tourists and the media. After critic Craig LaBan declared John's Roast Pork the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2002, the restaurant's star has continued to rise, and their cheesesteak has helped land John's Roast Pork a spot on the Eater Philly 38.

Eater Philly editor Collin Flatt explains the phenomenon: "With so many tourist traps promoting themselves as 'the' cheesesteak place in Philly, like Jim's on South Street and Geno's on 9th Street, John's Roast Pork represents best-of-breed in a shop that's just a little off the beaten path ... And, if the droves and droves of cheesesteak aficionados and critics can't convince you, maybe their big ol' James Beard Award hanging on the wall will do the trick." Says Bucci, "It's a simple sandwich, but people can really screw it up." Here are the elements of a John's Roast Pork cheesesteak:

1. The Roll

The freshly baked Carangi Bakery Company sesame seeded roll the cheesesteak is served on is a point of pride for Bucci. Around 1990, the bakery John's had been buying from went out of business, and finding a new supplier was one of the first major decision Bucci's father let him make on his own. ("It was a big deal," Bucci says.) After tasting "so many" samples, Bucci went with local baker Lou Carangi's bread which is baked near the restaurant. Bucci chose Carangi's rolls for their structure and texture: Though extremely crusty, the roll is very soft inside and has a lightness that Bucci thinks all sandwich breads need to have. Bucci buys the handmade loaves whole, then cuts them in half. The rolls are then cut lengthwise ("on the hinge") before being "gutted." "Gutting," or removing the insides of the bread, allows Bucci to place more meat on the sandwich while also maintaining an even distribution of meat throughout the sandwich and the proper bread to meat ratio. A big sandwich requires a big roll, so Bucci uses an entire half-loaf for every cheesesteak.

2. The Steak

One of the standout features of a John's Roast Pork cheesesteak is the steak itself which, unlike many cheesesteaks, is cooked to order. Bucci thinks cooking his cheesesteaks to order is the major reason his sandwich stands out in a city that prides itself on combining cheese and steak the right way. While many cheesesteaks are made with ribeye, Bucci prefers to use loin tails because they are well-marbled and don't have as much gristle. The restaurant has been buying their meat for the past 30 years from New Jersey butcher Nick Papanier of Nellie's Provisions. Bucci serves a generous 12 oz portion of steak (as opposed to the more usual 4-5 oz serving) and seasons it simply with salt and pepper before cooking it on the flat top with Spanish onions. After 2-3 minutes of cooking the meat on one side to get a sear, Bucci flips the meat and begins separating it before introducing the cheese. Because he slices the meat "paper thin," Bucci says he doesn't need to "chop it to death." He also adds that diners should be wary of a cheesesteak that's been too chopped, because the chopping might be a way of hiding poor meat quality. Because the meat isn't precooked, the sandwiches are made at a slower pace than new customers might expect, resulting in the long lines John's has also become known for.

3. The Cheese

Though it might be "classic," Bucci says he will never use Cheez Whiz in the John's Roast Pork cheesesteak. Bucci's reasoning for bucking tradition is convincing and blunt: "It's fake, it's not cheese ... It's just gross and it's very expensive." Instead, Bucci offers customers a choice of American, mild provolone, and sharp provolone. He offers customers a choice both because he believes everyone has a distinct taste when it comes to sandwiches and also because he has a variety of cheeses in house for his other sandwiches anyway. While he says both the domestic mild provolone and the imported sharp provolone make for a great cheesesteak, Bucci prefers American because it is "so creamy" and adds five slices to his sandwich. In order to get the cheese perfectly melted, Bucci uses a unique cooking method that basically steams the cheese. While it's on the flat top, Bucci adds the cheese on top of the steak and then folds the corners of the steak to create a "pocket." This pockets acts like a "steam trap," and then he continues to fold, incorporating the melting cheese with the steak until the two are well bonded. Bucci cites the pocket and folding technique as a distinguishing feature of his cheesesteak methodology. This pocket technique also ensures that there is cheese in every bite of the cheesesteak.

4. The Vegetables

In the most basic version of his cheesesteak, Bucci only uses Spanish onions. The onions are placed raw on the flat top with a squirt of vegetable oil. As they start to cook, Bucci adds the steak so the two ingredients cook together. Bucci uses Spanish onion because he finds that other varieties can be too bitter, where Spanish onions are very sweet after cooking. Though onions are the only vegetable that come standard with the cheesesteak, Bucci says many customers now choose to add hot peppers since that's how Adam Richman ate his cheesesteak on Best Sandwich in America (the cheesesteak earned a wild card win). John's uses Italian long hot peppers, which Bucci's wife fries.

5. The Condiments

Though the sandwich is served plain, Bucci finds that ketchup enhances the cheesesteak's flavor. For guests who want ketchup, Bucci will add the ketchup to the roll before adding the meat so that it doesn't fall off the sandwich. Bucci uses Heinz ketchup, an upgrade he convinced his ketchup-wary father to spring for many years ago, despite the expense. Bucci has also noticed condiments playing a larger role in the way customers order their sandwiches. Things got so unwieldy on the line that Bucci actually added condiment trays outside so that customers can add their own pickles, hot sauce, and peppers.

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