On the resolutely prosaic, two-story corner of 20th and Jackson in South Philadelphia, one encounters Nick's Roast Beef (est. 1938), which is not to be confused with other Nick's Roast Beefs operating in Old City and the Northeast, vestiges of an aborted franchise effort, about which the less said the better.
The South Philadelphia outpost has appended "Old Original" to its name to signal its authenticity, though the granddaughter of founder Nick DiSipio does own one other official Nick's, an upstart in Springfield, Delaware County.
Suffice to say, the original Nick's - "Nick's Cafe," the sign still says - looks the part, its red-and-green neon muted with age, its bay window upstairs evoking a cinematic Little Italy.
And its signature, old-timers attest, tastes very close to the same. At the end of the bar is the carving station, two massive wheels of beef standing by, average poundage 38 to 50 apiece.
It is a corner tappie, dark-paneled, a Yuengling clock marking time. When the Navy Yard and naval aviation depot were full steam, this was maybe the biggest beer drop in the city, measured by keg count. And three times a day - because the joint was so small - the supplier hauled in boneless rounds, up to 150 of the monsters a week.
The roll bakers got bombed at the bar. Hoods sat two stools down from detectives. Nick's sandwiches were legal tender; locals paid their barber with them. Now and then, a limo pulled in from Atlantic City, sent to South Philly to scratch an itch.
Those were the days. Business isn't as big. But it's handing steady. Show up for Wednesday lunch, you might wait for a table. Come Saturday, or a game day, Nick's goes through 300 pounds of beef in a single shift.
It would be overstating things to suggest that the hand-carved roast beef sandwich is without honor in this city. (Buffalo pays it proper homage with its juicy beef on weck, which is to say on an estimable German-style roll flecked with pretzel salt and caraway seed.) But let's face it, this is a cheesesteak town, or so you would think if you had not had the considerably greater pleasure of roast pork with broccoli rabe at John's Roast Pork, or a Vietnamese hoagie on Eighth Street, or carved roast beef - not a lunchmeat wannabe - at Nick's, 20th and Jackson.
Old Original Nick's is a serious-minded sandwich, the beef well-done, toothsome, but tender. On a roll dripping with the "gravy" of meat juices (mixed with pureed vegetables), the beefy mess is as substantial, but not overstuffed, as meaningful a sandwich as you can hope for as the Eagles wing into the sunset.
It is not merely roast beef, it is particularly roast beef - 90-pound, USDA Prime steamship rounds (which include the top and bottom round) that Kissin Fresh, the meat supplier, picks up from New York and whittles down to Nick's specs, deboning them, cutting out the nerves, leaving a thin layer of fat on the top.
The giant rounds are hand-tied and slow-cooked for eight hours in old ovens in the basement. Then Chris Murray or other carvers (who go through 40 knives a week while another 40 are being sharpened) slice the meat to order - following the grain - taking off the seasoned crust called the "outs," setting it aside for those who want it (like I do!) added to their sandwich. (How does one order that? "A beef combo on the outs" gets you beef with aged provolone and some crust. "Overboard" gets you extra juices. "Operation" gets your roll's insides gutted out.
The old, original Tallyann rolls are gone, by the way, replaced by oversize Amoroso kaisers baked longer to withstand the wetness. But the roasting hasn't changed, nor the perennial shortfall of outs: