I mentioned in a previous cheesesteak post a month or so back that I attempted to go to John’s Roast Pork (JRP) in South Philadelphia late one morning, but their long line prompted me to keep driving and grab lunch at Avenue Steaks instead. I vowed to return to JRP earlier one upcoming day to hopefully beat the line for a mid-morning steak. It happened today.
John’s is a third-generation business that goes back to the early days of the Great Depression. They are also one of the best-known sandwich shops in town, and the line turned out to be a little longer than I expected at 10:15 a.m. – 15 minutes after opening. I should have known better.
I had the impression that some of the people in line were tourists, which is an indication of the type of reputation JRP has. They’ve won multiple local “Best Cheesesteak” awards and polls. Their ever-present lines are also impressive when you consider that they are not in a downtown spot with a lot of foot traffic. While it is probably possible to get there via public transportation – a bus – I’m sure the overwhelming majority of their customers drive to get to JRP, as did I. There isn’t that much street parking, but there are a couple shopping centers with lots across the street that are handy for that.
The view while waiting in line on the sidewalk – other than John’s itself – is not pretty. There is what appears to be a very old refinery behind it and an IHOP across the street.
JRP’s fame is grounded in two sandwiches: cheesesteaks and their namesake roast pork sandwich, which normally comes dressed with sharp Provolone cheese and spinach. I tried a half of each close to a decade ago, when my wife dropped them off at my office. But as my regular readers know, it’s better to eat a long-roll sandwich as soon as you get it, rather than leaving it wrapped for a while – especially when it’s wrapped in foil, as is the case at JRP. The foil steams the sandwich and makes the roll soggy. So I needed to go to the stand and eat a steak on location if I was going to be able to determine its rating. The memory of that sandwich from years ago wasn’t going to get the job done.
John’s has altered its ordering system at least a couple times since Covid hit, which has ultimately resulted in a simpler set-up than they had before the pandemic. Customers used to order grill items, including cheesesteaks, at one counter and hot sandwiches – roast pork and beef – at another. Now, you order and pay for everything at the same window, then wait on the sidewalk for your number to be called out at a separate window that is just for receiving your food.
While the line wasn’t really that bad, it moved slowly because John’s makes every sandwich from scratch after it’s ordered. There are no big piles of onions and meat sitting on the grill waiting to be shoved onto a roll – assembly line style. So it probably took close to a half hour for me to place my order and then another 20 minutes to wait for it. But I didn’t mind. It was a very pleasant day.
John himself popped out a couple times and was extremely gracious to everyone waiting.
When my order arrived, I was thankfully able to grab one of their outdoor tables.
My anticipation was running high as I unwrapped this very hefty cheesesteak – and my wait was rewarded. JRP’s cheesesteak fully lived up to it reputation – arguably even exceeding it.
While I didn’t see any boxes, I’ve read that John’s gets its rolls from South Philly’s Carangi Bakery. The seeded roll wasn’t quite up there with the best I’ve tried, but it was still very good – and extremely sturdy.
The meat-cheese blend was fantastic. JRP doesn’t offer Cooper Sharp or Whiz, but they use a lot of good American cheese on every steak and mix it in beautifully with the meat. That meat is also full of moisture and flavor. The fried onions were the perfect finishing touch.
This cheesesteak is actually making me rethink whether Cooper Sharp works better on a steak than good American cheese. With the latter, more can be used without the flavor overshadowing the meat. Something to ponder. As always, it’s a matter of taste.
I also picked up a small roast pork sandwich with mild Provolone cheese and spinach to take home to my wife.
JRP uses unseeded rolls for their small roast pork and beef sandwiches. This one was fairly soggy by the time we unwrapped it. But I had a taste and that was all I needed to instantly understand why people also travel from far and wide for John’s pork. In fact, there is a loyal and somewhat large contingent that swears Philly should be known for roast pork sandwiches rather than cheesesteaks. I don’t happen to be part of that group. But the roast pork at John’s is amazingly good. My advice is to go there with a partner and split one of each sandwich. Decide for yourself which is better.