Anywhere else in the country, if I started talking about Sloppy Joes, you'd figure I was referring to ground meat, a can of Manwich and a cheap white bun. But not in North Jersey, where a Sloppy Joe sandwich has come to mean something significantly different and monstrously tastier. Here in our neck of the woods, a Sloppy Joe is a large, layered sandwich generally containing three slices of rye bread (with one in the middle), one or two varieties of sliced meat, cheese and piles of coleslaw, all slathered with Russian dressing. It might not sound incredibly appealing on paper (I don't even like Russian dressing very much), but made well, this sandwich is nothing less than a party in your mouth, a perfect medley of flavors, a sinful delight of the senses.
The Sloppy Joe sandwich is very uniquely this area. In fact, it is commonly accepted that South Orange's own Town Hall Deli is where the sandwich first came to be in the U.S. They also have the best recorded history of the Joe.
Essentially, Town Hall Deli says, the Sloppy Joe was named after a sandwich found in Havana, Cuba, at Joe's Bar & Eatery (frequented by Ernest Hemingway and others), discovered on a 1934 trip by Robert Sweeney, a former Mayor of Maplewood. The Mayor adored this sandwich so much that, when he came back, he asked the folks at Town Hall Deli to replicate it for him, featuring cow tongue and Swiss cheese along with what has become the typical foundation ingredients of the sandwich. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I found three delis in the area boasting about the offering of the famous Sloppy Joe—one in Millburn, one in Maplewood and, of course, the original in South Orange. And by now, you know me well; I couldn't possibly not take a trip to all three in order to taste them side-by-side, getting a year's worth dosage of Russian dressing. Oh, the things I do for you...
I wasn't quite sure what to get at each place. The offerings were different and I really couldn't resist "The Original" at Town Hall, which included cow tongue (a Sloppy Joe I didn't find at the other two places). So, I decided to play it by ear, and order a different Joe at each place. I ended up with three different sandwiches, but each very distinctively a Sloppy Joe.
THE MILLBURN DELICATESSEN
I was impressed by the amount of staff teeming behind the counter at The Millburn Delicatessen. There were so many back there, it was as if they were preparing their own sandwich-making army! One of the guys recommended the corned beef Joe, which I happily ordered and, my oh my, am I glad I did. That was some amazing corned beef. Pitch perfect and delicious.
Unfortunately, the Sloppy Joe itself didn't stand up to the meat. The sandwich was far too segregated, with the cheese and coleslaw between the top and middle piece of bread, and the meat between the middle and bottom piece. The other two shops had six layers; the ingredients just didn't integrate well with Millburn's mere three layer approach. This was the thinnest sandwich of the bunch, being offered at a $7.95. I'll give them a B-, even though the Joe was lackluster... That corned beef was just so darned delicious, I need to go back and try some other sandwiches!
Don't recognize the name? I didn't at first either, since Nat's Deli was the place that was recommended to me. But no worries. This is the place—Scott bought it 17 months ago and changed the name. The signs in and out of the shop still boast the place as the purveyor of the famous Sloppy Joe. Scott's Deli is a bit of a hole in the wall in a slightly odd location (Elmwood Avenue, away from both of Maplewood's business districts). Scott himself made me my sandwich. He's a just a tad surly and not so interested in chatter, though I imagine that's part of the charm. But, oh man, is he lightning fast at assembling a sandwich. He whipped that puppy together significantly faster than the competition. I couldn't believe it and wouldn't be shocked to hear that he has sandwich-making super powers. (Hm... Maybe we should talk to some of our local comic book artists about a new idea!?)
I like trying to get what a place considers their specialty, but when I asked Scott which one he recommended or was the most popular, he answered gruffly, “They all sell well.” So I settled on roast beef, one of my faves. I probably should have gotten two different kinds of meat, because the roast beef didn't have much flavor, which really stood out since there was so much of it. Seriously, this was one honking sandwich, an amazing deal for $6. But the Joe was a bit bland and not as succulent as the others, though it wasn't at all bad. The bread was thicker than at the two other places, which struck me as not being quite authentic. But it was an amazing bargain for the price, probably the best lunch deal around. And by lunch, I do not mean dinner. Don't make the same mistake I did the first time around and try to go in the evening—Scott's closes at 4 p.m. And make sure you have cash as they're the only place of the three that don't take credit cards.
Scott's Deli was an interesting find. I very much want to try some other sandwiches and see how the various meats stand up, as you just don't get better prices for such a huge sandwich.
Scott's Deli gets a C+ for its Sloppy Joe.
TOWN HALL DELICATESSEN
The best menu, by far, is Town Hall Deli's. It offers the most creative varieties with great names, including "The Gourmet," "The Newstead Joe," "The Montrose Joe," "The Brooklyn Joe" and "The Smokin' Joe." The shop also happens to be the only one of the three that currently offers printed menus.
Now, this is a Sloppy Joe. It was moist, not too dry, and the Russian dressing (apparently a carefully guarded secret recipe) was the best I had. I enjoyed "The Original," featuring ham, cow tongue and Swiss, which was amazingly delightful. I was concerned the sandwich would be too dry, being so large, but it was quite moist. The meat, coleslaw and dressing mixture gave off a tangy sweetness that was quite swallowable. It was more mellow than I expected; subtle in a good way. This is one incredibly balanced medley of flavors and ingredients that I didn't expect to work so well together.
Town Hall Deli definitely proffers the most attractive sandwich; uniquely shaped and perfectly executed. But be warned, perfection doesn't happen at super sonic speed. It usually takes the staff a bit of time to put the sandwich together. Calling ahead may not be a bad idea, especially if you're looking to snag several Joes. The typical Sloppy Joe here is large and serves two to three people, costing between $15.99 and $17.99. You can get half of one which, which may yield some leftovers for one person (or not!), for $8.99. Have an evening craving? As I learned the hard way, Town Hall Deli is the only one open for dinner, closing the latest, at 8 p.m. (four hours after Scott's and two hours after Millburn).
I give Town Hall an A+. Certainly not the cheapest sandwich, but so worth it. The Town Hall Delicatessen is our Sloppy Joe Champion!
Celebrate Joes at Celebrate South Orange tomorrow
And speaking of Sloppy Joes, this is the weekend to come out and cheer for them. "Celebrate South Orange" is tomorrow, Saturday, June 13, featuring a Sloppy Joe Eating Contest at 5:30 p.m. The six contestants will be challenged to take in as many Joes as they can in three minutes to the tune of Cotton Eye Joe. There's a $100 gift certificate to Town Hall Deli in it for the winner and what I'm told is a very special trophy. This is a Sloppy Joe spectacle not to be missed! That said, I'd recommend you don't try this at home, kids. Sloppy Joes are meant to be enjoyed nice and slow and easy, not three at a time like I did for all of you this week. Yikes, this column is going to make me add on the pounds!
Ben Salmon is a former literary agent and the owner of Kitchen a la Mode: Accessories for Cooking & Entertaining in the heart of downtown South Orange. Each week, his local food column at Patch explores the food and drink scene in South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn.
Have an idea for something you'd like me to explore? Email me. I'd love to hear from you.