On the Side: Best Philly sandwiches since sliced chain bread

Posted: February 26, 2009

If you'd kept a sharp eye out driving down the easternmost stretch of Girard Avenue last week, you might not have missed the unprepossessing, six-stool lunch counter just past Second that's called Paesano's.

Used to be a breakfast joint called Senka's. But Paesano's is a good fit now, the new owner - Peter McAndrews, who runs Modo Mio across the street - having recast it as an homage to "Philly Style sandwiches with Italian inspiration."

Just in time, you could say, the genuine item having been co-opted and roundly abused.

Inside the shoebox space, some intense cooking was going on: Deanna Sanders was frying sopressata and spicy hot dogs (together) in a skillet, and crisping the wrappers for Sicilian chickpea pancakes.

But the piece de resistance was the suckling pig behind the counter, already marinated in vinegar and sugar, garlic, fennel, and anise, and roasted slow and long: That's where the Arista sandwich ($8) was coming from; it is whole-roasted suckling pig (they do two or three 20-pounders a week), with broccoli rabe, and Italian long hots and natural juices.

For my taste, they could have eased up on the peppers; let that succulent pig shine. But it is a serious sandwich - and so is, at the other end of the spectrum, the Tuscan Tony ($4), a riff on the Texas Tommy that involves a slice of fried salami cradling a juicy, pan-charred all-beef hot dog and sharp provolone, sauced with (can you stand it?) a dense Bolognese sauce.

It is up to you and your cardiologist, of course, to decide whether it is reasonable to actually consume one of these babies more than once every six months. But maybe that's all you need. The chewy dog, playing against the salty salami, drenched in the sweet Bolognese on a decent roll: calories that are not wasted.

Paesano's is playing a particularly valuable service as the earth is scraped for yet another Northern Liberties condo project nearby, and generations of kids are being led to believe that those are, in fact, sandwiches that Subway is selling, or Jimmy John's, or Wawa or Starbucks, or let's throw in Quiznos.

They are not, except in name. Paesano's sandwiches are sandwiches. (Who else is roasting suckling pigs? Actually, Tommy DiNic's in the Reading Terminal Market does the next best thing with its spicy, slow-roasted Italian pulled pork.)

It is a depressing thing to consider the current state of the Philadelphia sandwich, squeezed (sandwiched?) between its fading cheesesteak past, and the new breed of prewrapped, bad-lunchmeat, terrible-bread impostors.

Which is why if you had ventured beyond Paesano's, other guerrillas were out there fighting. One of the best is the tiny, take-out Q.T. Vietnamese Sandwich shop that Annie Tran and Karen Thai have opened near the Chinatown Gate at 10th and Arch. (The ladies you see making the sandwiches? Their mothers.)

This spot marks the migration of the house-special Vietnamese hoagie (banh mi) from its South Philly stomping ground. And the rendition is a pure joy: The crucial rolls are perfect, crisp-crusted and heated to help infuse the smear of mayonnaise and pate. The meat (a white Vietnamese ham, a barbecued pork, and phi nguoi, which involves pig's ears) is applied more sparingly than in some meat-bomb Italian hoagies. And the fresh filling of cucumber, marinated carrot, cilantro, and chile pepper is bright and sprightly and alive.

I could go on, congratulating another place for keeping it real: That would be Cafe Estelle, on Fourth and Wood, just up from Spring Garden. They do a superior take on the buffalo-chicken panini, in this case using tender Giannone air-chilled chicken breast roasted, as a colleague of mine has noted, "in aleppo pepper-spiced buffalo sauce, then topped with celery-root slaw in Gorgonzola dolce remoulade."

But I'll save Cafe Estelle for later. It's their breakfasts, really, that they're known for.


Paesano's

152 W. Girard Ave.; 267-886-9556

Q.T. Vietnamese Sandwich

48 N. 10th St.; 267-639-4520

Cafe Estelle

444 N. Fourth St.; 215-925-5080; www.cafeestelle.com


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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