Between now living in an area where a significant chunk of American colonial history went down and my time volunteering at the nearby Jay Heritage Center, I am officially a history junkie (and also leaning towards archaeology as a hobby - anyone have a spare metal detector to lend?). So when I first got wind that a new museum (the Museum of the American Revolution) was opening in Philadelphia (a mere 2 hour and 15 minute drive from the Chuck Wagon), I had to check it out on behalf of the Jay Center. Sadly, our famous local Founding Father John Jay receives merely a scant mention in one museum exhibit that details the Federalist Papers, but I managed to console myself by sampling some of the more well-known local Philly grub (namely cheesesteaks).
Up first, though, was an appetizer of Southern fried chicken. What?!?, you say, Philadelphia is most definitely not part of the South, and you'd be 100% correct on that. If you'll indulge me momentarily, I'll explain. Back in March, Garden and Gun Magazine came out with its state-by-state list to bucket list fried chicken in the South, and I was so enthralled, I made a pledge to proceed directly to my nearest former Confederacy state (in this case, Maryland, which technically was a border state not affiliated with either side in the Civil War) as expeditiously as possible to get some G&G highlighted chicken. As it turns out, the convenience store franchise that is one representative of Maryland on the list (Royal Farms) has its northernmost location near Philadelphia just south of the airport among some industrial parks along the Delaware. The beautiful thing is that you can pull into this Royal Farms at nearly any time of day (10 am, for example) and obtain some bangin'-good fried chicken, the likes of which have no business coming from what's essentially a large gas station.
This gigantic breast (and I don't even normally gravitate towards white meat) was juicy, hot, perfectly breaded, and not a greasy mess - if you go, skip the potato wedges and roll (which were mediocre at best) that come with the combo meal and stick with the bird.
One can't come to Philadelphia and not get a cheesesteak, but my sources tell me that the famous local purveyors Pat's and Geno's (which are catty-corner from each other) are mainly for the tourists and there are other cheesesteak slingers worth seeking out instead; for example, John's Roast Pork in South Philly.
The good folks at John's have been in business since 1930 and, although they're most known for their roast pork sandwich (hence the name), they offer one of the better cheesesteaks in town. The line moves fast and you'd be well advised to know what you want before getting up front (there's a touch of Soup Nazi going on here); however, you'll have a plus-size hoagie filled with beefy goodness in your paws in no time (what you see below is only half).
The cooks at John's chop up the beef slices and grilled onions into a pile of small bits before placing on the Italian roll with cheese - I went with the sharp provolone, which I found to be a tad skunky. Still, this was a fine snack after a mid-morning breakfast of fried chicken and I'm intrigued enough to return sometime for the famous roast pork.
After a few hours at the museum, I had one more stop before heading back to New York. Anthony Bourdain swears by the cheesesteaks coming out of a dive bar called Donkey's Place in the down-on-its-luck metropolis of Camden, New Jersey (across the river from Philly); in fact, M. Bourdain liked Donkey's so much that he featured them in a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown, giving the depressed neighborhood a much needed infusion of business and positive attention.
I can now tell you from my own experience that if you look up the definition of "dive bar" in a dictionary, you should see a picture of Donkey's on the page. Packed with day drinkers at 3 pm on a Thursday, Donkey's (named after the original owner Leon Lucas and his boxing moniker) has been around since the 1940s and is a mecca for cheesesteak, eschewing the chopped beef and onion format like that at John's in lieu of grilled piles of sliced beef topped with white cheddar and a mound of caramelized onions cooked off somewhere in the back kitchen (I watched a server dump out a large white bucket of them on the grill). They use a poppyseed-studded kaiser roll (baked at Del Buono's Bakery in Haddon Heights, NJ) here that I decided I much prefer to the usual hoagie roll.
Donkey's cheesesteak pretty much put to shame just about every other version I'd ever had (granted, I've not had many), with the mythical whole being clearly greater than the sum of its parts. There are little bottles and pots of homemade pepper oil at every table to drizzle on your sandwich for some added kick and the fries aren't bad, either (were they dusted with Old Bay seasoning?), but you need to get your ass (er, donkey) over here pronto for the cheesesteak and a cold draft...