I don't pass on opportunities to try great sandwiches, so when I was on a recent trip to the East Coast, I gladly incorporated "hoagies" or "submarines" — the preferred nomenclature in New Jersey for what we often just call sandwiches — into my journey. In fact, I tried a bunch of them along the south Jersey Shore. And let's be honest, if we can't enjoy sandwiches all over the
country world, then the terrorists truly have won.
First, a note on geography. The south Jersey Shore is the coastline from Atlantic City south to Cape May, the southernmost point of the state at the mouth of Delaware Bay. Unlike the Jersey Shore of television spray-tan fame, it is mostly family vacation homes and rentals for residents of Philadelphia and portions of New Jersey. The northern part of the coast is mostly New Yorkers, particularly from Long Island.
Some of these little towns like Avalon, Stone Harbor, Ocean City, Wildwood (home to the well-known theme park) and Cape May are separated sometimes by literally nothing more than a sign announcing you've entered a new municipality with little discernible transition between the two. During the summer, they are teeming with families on vacation and teens roaming the streets on bicycles, occasionally a celebrity (it is rumored that Oprah summered here in the past). In winter, most of them are ghost towns as families head home and stores close up shop for the cold months.
All throughout the area, there are mom and pop shops of all varieties, but particularly little restaurants, ice cream parlors (don't get me started) and pizza joints, many of which have great sandwiches.
The two staples of this part of the Shore are the Italian hoagie and the cheesesteak, the latter owed undoubtedly to nearby Philly, which essentially invented it. The Italian comes with a variety of sliced and cured deli meats like ham, salami and capicola, along with provolone, lettuce, Jersey tomatoes (an important distinction), olive oil and oregano. Cheesesteaks, on the other hand, are quite simple. Ordering one as it comes will get you chopped meat and cheese. That's it, though hot or sweet peppers and onions are popular add-ons. Ask for a cheesesteak hoagie and you'll get lettuce, tomato and onions.
It's also worth noting that sub/hoagie bread is different in New Jersey than what we have in Houston. It's a soft roll all the way through, no crusty outside like a baguette, with a slight chew and semolina sprinkled on the bottom as if it were baked in a pizza oven, which makes sense given many pizza joints have great sandwiches here. And the tomatoes are insanely good — gigantic (the big ones the size of a softball), sweet and juicy — like no other tomato I'd ever eaten. I'm not a huge raw tomato fan and I ate these like candy. Oh, and did I mention a "regular" is 12 inches and the whole or full size is 22 inches? And they say everything is bigger in Texas.
My five stops along the way — described below from south to north on the map — featured some of the best of both popular subs and more. It certainly doesn't cover it all. Gotta save some for next time.
Westside Market - Cape May
Down at the tip end of the Jersey Shore is Cape May, a popular vacation destination and, according to my wife's family who have been going "down the Shore" for their entire lives, the place where more residents reside year-round than just about anywhere else along this stretch of NJ coastline. Traffic in town is busy even on a weekday and shops are filled with tourists.
Westside Market is a little off the beaten path and very popular with locals, partly because it remains open all year. The former feed store that looks a bit like an old barn is now primarily a butcher and sandwich shop. By noon, there is a line about five people deep in the cramped storefront ordering sandwiches and getting orders of fresh meat.
There are an assortment of what I'm told are very northeastern snacks on the shelves including chips flavored with Old Bay seasoning and sweets made by Tastykake, which specializes in cheap but remarkably good hand pies.
But the important business here is the sandwich and, in this case, the Italian. Like all Italian hoagies in these parts, it has the standard (ham, salami, capicola, provolone, veggies, olive oil, oregano). Let me get this out of the way by saying this was my favorite Italian of the trip. With in-house sliced meats and tomatoes that tasted like someone pulled them out of the garden that morning, the sandwich was just incredibly fresh and delicious.
With several of these big boys eaten during the week, I typically shared with others. Not this one. Not one bite.
Russo's Market - North Wildwood
"They don't waste time." My niece was describing her counter encounter with the staff at Russo's Market in North Wildwood. "They don't mess around," she said. This is Jersey after all, but as quickly as they may have moved, the folks behind the counter were far more courteous than curt at this charming 40-year-old corner market.
Part quick-stop market, part to-go food counter, the shelves are stocked full of New Jersey staples and the refrigerated section has everything from pre-made meals to marinated everything. Like most of the sandwich places, it has an assortment of different options including some unique offerings like the Italian Gobbler (Italian turkey with roasted red peppers on a Kaiser roll) and the Giardino (a veggie sandwich on whole grain with roasted red pepper pesto and avocado among other things).
Here, however, the best was the Chicken Cheesesteak. We ordered it as is — you can get it hoagie style as well with veggies and oregano — and it was beautiful. Despite some of the other interesting sandwiches we tried, this was the one that my wife, niece and I kept biting into over and over while we sat on a bench outside (a stranger informed us politely that there were tables on the other side of the building, but on this side, we got to pet a sweet pit bull named Angie who liked the sandwich as much as we did).
What made it, at least for me, was the cheese. Cheesesteaks are often offered with either provolone or American cheese — some in Philly with Cheese Whiz. And in some places, the cheese gets put on top, so parts of the sandwich can end up a bit dry. The American cheese on this was thoroughly blended into the chopped chicken on the grill. As a result, every bite was creamy and practically melted upon impact with my tongue.
Undoubtedly, there are phenomenal cheesesteaks all over Jersey and certainly in nearby Philly, but this was one of the best I've had anywhere and definitely the best on this trip.
Brady's Hoagie Dock - Avalon
I knew going in I was going to hit some sandwich shops on this trip. It was a given because of who I am. It's ironic that I pine away for New York-style pizza, which is readily available on the Shore but I never had a slice the entire trip thanks to my sandwich bonanza. It all started here at Brady's in Avalon, home to my wife's uncle's beach house since the early '80s and our home base for the week.
My wife's family had never heard of Brady's even though it had been there since the '80s like them. It's no wonder. Unlike so many of the adorable ice cream spots, quaint shops (including the coolest little cheese shop called The Mouse Trap you'll ever visit) and restaurants along Dune, the main drag in Avalon, Brady's is well south of all the hubbub on a quiet corner almost to Stone Harbor, which actually starts at 80th Street — like I said, these towns are close together, man. Let's just say they know now.
It was pretty quiet when I went in around 11 a.m., but there were a few locals hanging outside noshing on the "humungous hoagies" Brady's is allegedly home to. My wife and I went for regular size because, quite frankly, I can't imagine how anyone takes on a full size by themselves. The Italian I got was a classic Shore hoagie with all the fixins you come to expect including those killer Jersey tomatoes. It will be a go-to for sure next time we are in town.
Voltaco's Italian Foods - Ocean City
No, this isn't a taco place. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find many of those on the Shore. There were a couple in Avalon and I'm sure a few scattered around, but what they consider Tex-Mex is likely about what we consider a cheesesteak (the exception being Pappa Geno's). So, Voltaco's is not what it sounds to folks from Texas. What it is instead is a killer Italian take out spot in Ocean City that's been serving up food since 1954.
In addition to the fresh made sandwiches, pizza and other traditional Italian dishes, they have multiple refrigerators full of pre-made meals like manicotti, lasagna and even in-house bottled Caesar dressing. A steady stream of people flowed through the door, mostly picking up call-in orders.
With plenty of interesting signature hot subs on the menu — including the Gringo Bandito with jalapeños, taco seasoning (bless their hearts) and Sriracha (?) — Johnny's Special stood out. A classic hoagie filled with house-made roast beef, sliced thin and grilled with onions, it is topped with provolone and dressed with lettuce and horseradish cream.
Simply put, this was my favorite sandwich of the week and the consensus favorite among all of the friends and family who tried it. The steak is thin and tender, the onions caramelized to a golden brown sweetness. But, what sets this thing apart is that horseradish cream. It was tangier than mayo but didn't have that over-the-top intensity of horseradish that can clear your sinuses. It was rich, zesty and an absolute perfect foil to the hearty beef.
That should be in a bottle next to that Caesar's dressing. If it had been, I would have had some shipped FedEx back to Houston maybe to drink straight out of the damn jar.
And bonus points to the folks at Voltaco's for wrapping this not only in the traditional butcher paper, but in loose plastic wrap inside, which provided a little more insulation, keeping it warm longer. Since they do all to-go foods, it makes sense they would know how to send a sandwich away and keep it fresh.
If you are ever anywhere near Ocean City, you gotta try this place.
White House Sub Shop - Atlantic City
It seemed almost cliché that a girl would be sitting inside a booth inside the historic Atlantic City sandwich spot White House wearing a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt, but maybe she was meeting someone tonight...ahem.
In two years, White House — Home of Submarines — will celebrate its 75th anniversary. Situated a couple blocks from Caesar's in a city I came to call "seedy Las Vegas," this tiny little spot was crammed full with people waiting to get one of the handful of booths inside. A line formed along the other side of the narrow restaurant for to-go orders. According to staff, there was a two-hour wait for phone orders. Fortunately, I walked in to order mine.
Once in line, you grab a ticket from a machine that is likely older than me and wait to be called by the person who will take your order and be responsible for making your sandwiches while you watch. Staff buzzed around behind the counter, prepping dozens of orders and setting out to-go orders on racks already full of them. They were polite and lightning quick.
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Though I ordered nine sandwiches for a group awaiting me, I zeroed in on two: the White House Special and the Pepper Steak. The Special is, in fact, an Italian hoagie with double meat and cheese. It was as expected, stuffed with stuff. Like most of the shops, it was fresh and loaded with flavor. But the consensus winner among the 12 people trying nine different subs was the Pepper Steak.
Loaded with sliced steak, provolone, peppers and onions, it was different from a standard cheesesteak (I tried that here too). It was sweet, a little spicy and hearty as hell. Plus, like the Johnny's Special at Voltaco's, this steak was sliced rather than chopped making it tender and juicy off the flattop.
Honestly, I was probably as in love with the atmosphere of people and autographed "celebrities" on the wall of White House as I was the sandwiches. But, I go for the sandwiches, ultimately, and the Pepper Steak lived up to the hype of this Atlantic City institution.