As something of a coda to last week’s post on the vegetarian bánh mì, I present to you the tofu hoagie. On my last trip to Philadelphia I found myself in an unfamiliar neighborhood, waiting upon the arrival of an associate. Luckily, they had told me beforehand that there was a fine sandwich to be had at the Fuh Wah Mini Market, the tofu hoagie. Imagine my surprise when I found not a generic sandwich starring tofu, but a bánh mì. While it’s true that this bánh mì is a tofu hoagie, in the same sense that a croque-monsieur is a ham sandwich, it doesn’t really properly express what’s going on. The first time I spoke about Philly cheese steaks on this blog, I criticized an establishment for a “misguided but strong provincialism [that seemed] exactly Philadelphian.” I thought back to that phrase as I ate my sandwich, having a good laugh. I imagined an enterprising sandwich shop nearly going broke trying to sell bánh mìs, watching Philadelphian after Philadelphian walk by, glance at their shop with a confused look, and move on to lunch somewhere else. Finally, realizing their mistake, they re-categorize their wares under the familiar “hoagie,” and the business is saved. To say “only in Philadelphia” would be trite, but imagining that situation in any other city I know of seems absurd. In Philadelphia, it seems vaguely reasonable. You can find a lot of people who will say a lot of things about Philadelphia, friends, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who will say it isn’t special.
The sandwich itself was tasty, with considerably more pepper than you find in most bánh mìs. To tofu had a fairly firm texture, having (presumably) been drained and well cooked. The baguette was crisp, and the veggies fresh and crisp. Everything I previously said about vegetarian bánh mìs applies here, but that doesn’t mean that the sandwich didn’t hit the spot on a warm afternoon in the city that loves you back.
Don’t serve me a sandwich with a fork in it. This has happened to me a number of times recently, and sooner or later I’m about to start demanding that it be served with an apology as well. Serving a sandwich with a fork in it is a naked concession of defeat. It is openly admitting that the sandwich you have served me will fall apart in my hands. “This is gonna be a mess,” it says, “you clean it up.” It’s an insult, and I’m tired of it. There are plenty of sandwiches that lose a bit or two as you eat them, but including a fork almost makes it seem like you think it’s a feature. Don’t give me a fork. Put a little effort into putting forth the best construction you can.I’m going to leave aside the curious fact that the Hatville Deli, staffed by the Pennsylvania Dutch, felt the need to label the corned beef as Jewish. It’s something that doesn’t strike you at first, but a split second later earns a full “Wait, what?” I’m not sure what’s going on there, so I’ll focus on the fact that they mince it practically to dust. A big hunk of corned beef can easily be sliced into strips fit for a sandwich. In fact, it works like nearly every other meat. But not so at the Hatville Deli! There they prefer to completely obliterate the cut of meat, shredding it to a completely irresponsible degree and leaving you on cleanup duty. There wasn’t really anything special about the sandwich beyond that. Minced beef, Russian dressing and coleslaw all came together in a sloppy construction it somehow became my responsibility to remedy.
Some time ago, I dined on a po’ boy and considered the role of the outpost. If a sandwich is attempting to represent an entire region, I reasoned, being univentive is no great crime. And the folks at the Cheese Steak Shop make it very clear that their sandwich is intended to be just what you might get in Philadelphia. A Bay Area chain, they really stress the authenticity of their food. They go to some lengths in this pursuit, importing the rolls and peppers from Philadelphia. I do not wish to sully sandwich discussion with my own personal thoughts about America’s varied cities, but it seems to me that this kind of misguided but strong provincialism seems exactly Philadelphian. Think about the fact that the rolls are shipped across the country. The roll, while serviceable, was unspectacular. Surely there is a Bay Area bakery capable of producing an acceptable hoagie roll. Sourced locally, it would be bright and fresh when it gets to me. What makes this roll so special? Why is it good? I can imagine the reply: Because it’s from Philadelphia. If aiming to convince me of your quality, this is ultimately a losing strategy. If you’re only going to put one thing on your resume, make it something other than your address.
Enough. The sandwich hit the spot on a rainy Saturday. I enjoyed it. But something about it was bothered me, and it wasn’t until I was back out on the street that I figured it out. The Cheese Steak Shop understands what a Philly Cheese Steak is: Beef loin is minced beyond recognition, piled in with provolone, onions, and hot & sweet peppers. Grease dripped out as I lifted the sandwich, and the cheese was, at times, a bit much. That is not a complaint, those are hallmarks of the Philly Cheese Steak. In fact, what I came to realize is that it isn’t that the sandwich is needlessly authentic, it’s that it isn’t authentic enough.
For all of the boasting of imported rolls, the sandwich is missing something some essence of Philadelphia. It isn’t aggressive. The cheese is only overwhelming at the occasional bite. Grease may leak out, but the sandwich itself holds together nicely, the portions are sensible and easily managed. Upon finishing the sandwich I was satisfied, but I did not sit back and let loose one big sigh and two or three cusses. And that, as you might imagine, is a far cry from Philadelphia. This sandwich may be enough to impress someone who has never been to the city of brotherly love, but that isn’t me. I’ve been to Philadelphia, and “sensible” isn’t a word you would use to describe a cheese steak.
An associate of mine has very strong opinions about cheese on sandwiches, which is to say that he doesn’t approve. It is a virtual categorical prohibition with him, not due to lactose intolerance or any other allergy but simply because he sees it as unnecessary. It is a dominating ingredient, drowning out more subtle notes and far too often the cheeses used in the sandwich world are fairly common in flavor. I sympathized with him but had long held that cheese, like any other bold ingredient, had its place. Cheese, I thought, simply needed a skilled hand.
This sandwich caused me to revisit everything I thought I knew about cheese. A grilled chicken breast and sauteed mushrooms drowned in American cheese between two pieces of toasted white bread. “Well there’s your problem,” I can hear you saying, “try something a little less pedestrian next time and you’ll find yourself doing all right.” I will give you that point but I have to wonder about the larger issues, especially as found in restaurants. Sure, while at home you can carefully incorporate just the right amount of fine goat cheese but what about when out in the world? There are ingredients in sandwiches that one should stay away from in most shops, such as fried foods, but cheese can hardly be avoided. It is ever present in restaurant sandwiches from the lowest franchise ‘eatery’ to the most rarefied sandwich shops and I fear the day where America’s love for plenty overwhelms its good sense.