Shit. They were out. The gaunt woman behind the counter informed me that they didn’t have broccoli rabe that day and that spinach was its dialed down substitute. OK, fine. I’ll take it. John’s Roast Pork, housed in a hovel barely bigger than a trailer, was no place for whining. There just wasn’t any room.
Not that I don’t love spinach, but broccoli rabe is really spinach’s more surly and mischievous older brother. While spinach was going around patriotically strengthening sailors, broccoli rabe was running all over the kitchen causing trouble. It’s bitter leaves were responsible for that last minute twist you discerned on your palette just when you thought you were ready for the next bite. Teaming up with its old pals lemon and garlic, broccoli rabe would run roughshod over Italian and Greek meals like they owned the plate.
But on one of the famed roast pork sandwiches at John’s, broccoli rabe is kept slightly at bay. In opposition is an extra sharp strain of provolone with an equal tendency to bamboozle taste buds on the way down. Of course, the bedrock beneath both of them is layers of John’s excruciatingly slow-roasted pork; a fatty, flavorful foil to the bitterness above. All that tension comes wrapped in a sub roll that is apparently only tasty because it’s made with local water. (This is an initially dubious claim made by anyone from Philly as to why the cheese steaks from there taste better than anywhere else. However, after indulging in a few of them, you may be inclined to agree.)
After I was handed the less than sublime version of one of my favorite sandwiches by a man who over the years had clearly had his (and my) fair share, I took three steps to the picnic tables outside. Situated near a factory or plant of some sort, my two siblings and I sat near burly, oil-stained guys and cops on a lunch break. The lack of rabe had me a bit apprehensive, I’ll admit. However, once the foil wrapper was impatiently peeled away and the aromatic steam and heat escaped, I knew that it was going to be OK. Without the rabe, the sharp provolone predictably held sway but, hey, there are certainly far worse things.
For some reason of which I’m unaware, broccoli rabe is deliriously abundant in Philadelphia. You can find it on most restaurant menus as a garnish, a side dish or a main attraction. It’s as ubiquitous to a Philly restaurant menu as the neon yellow banana pepper is to a Buffalo one. But, maybe it does make sense. A tough, bitter green, unafraid to assert itself when present, rabe will eventually embrace you in its warmth. Much the same could, and has, been said about native residents of the City of Brotherly Love. Just not during an Eagles game.
WHAT: an atypical specimen of John’s fabulous roast pork sandwich
WHEN: December 21, 2011
WHERE: John’s Roast Pork, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States