The world of New Jersey sandwiches remains a constant and delightful land of discovery to this western PA ex-pat. As if the phenomenon of Taylor ham-slash-pork roll wasn’t intriguing enough, the state lays claim to a Sloppy Joe that’s unlike any other I’ve tasted.
No, to answer the obvious question. It’s not the usual mess of ground beef bound by sweet and spicy tomato-based sauce that’s piled between two halves of a soft round roll. Even generations of Tri-Staters who grew up in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or Cape May don’t know of this (far superior, in my opinion) Sloppy Joe sandwich. It’s a particularly North Jersey item, but it’s got a worldly backstory.
In South Orange, the Town Hall Deli is the originator and pre-eminent purveyor of a sandwich that on first glance, is akin to a cold Reuben sandwich. Composed of two deli meats and cheese with coleslaw (the original combination being ham, tongue, and Swiss, its version of a Sloppy Joe is layered Club-style between three soft, wafer-thin slices of rye bread that have been slathered with thick Russian dressing, so thick it’s more of a spread than a loose, pourable dip).
According to legend, a Havana bar owned by a messy Spaniard named José Garcia provided the namesake for not only the ground beef sandwich (according to one source, itself inspired by the Cuban ropa vieja sandwiches served there) but this delicatessen sensation as well. With recollections of the “inch-thick ham-and-cheese sandwiches on rye” he ate at Sloppy Joe’s dancing through his head, the mayor of Maplewood, NJ asked the two owners of the nearby Town Hall Deli to recreate for him in the 1930s. The story’s almost as messy as the sandwiches themselves, but we’ll go with it.
The Cuban Revolution and a devastating fire did in the original Sloppy Joe’s by the mid-’60s, but the building remained as a relic and reopened in 2013 after an extensive restoration. And though South Orange’s Town Hall Deli has moved a few times from its original location, the sandwiches remain the same.
Unlike the mile-high heaps of meat served between bread at renowned New York delis like Katz’s and Carnegie, the Town Hall Sloppy Joe is a finely calibrated stack of ingredients. Like a cross-section of an archaeological dig, a sideways look at the sandwich reveals the balance of flavors between the slender slices of bread. The pattern of meat, coleslaw, dressing, and cheese repeats itself as the sandwich rises, so you’ll always get a perfect amount of each element in your bite.
While Swiss remains the preferred cheese on a Sloppy Joe, you can choose from a roster of meat combinations: roast beef and corned beef, ham and turkey, even nova lox and egg salad if you want to go nuts, or ask for your own duo or trio… or quadruple? However you want it, the meat is hand-sliced to order for each sandwich and assembled with precision.
The menu states “each Joe usually feeds 2 to 3 people,” and they aren’t kidding. For a sandwich hovering around $20 a pop, you better believe you’re getting your money’s worth. Eight square stacks of sandwich ring a large oval platter; ask for a half-sour or full sour pickle and they’ll slice that up for you too. If you can’t find a generous soul to split a Joe with you (I turn to my father-in-law, conveniently named Joe, to do the honors with me), you can always order a Half Joe and get your fill on your own.
Beyond the Town Hall Deli, you can find this surprising version of a Sloppy Joe throughout North Jersey—I discovered this variation at a take-out spot in Englewood Cliffs, but the Millburn Deli (which opened in 1946) does an almost-as-famous take on the sandwich. The difference is that most other NJ delis and sandwich shops simply do single—though still manageably sized—layers of each component between bread, whereas the Town Hall’s singularly styled stacks rise high above the competition.
The rest of the country can keep its hot mess of a Manwich. I’ll take my Sloppy Joe cold with lots of coleslaw, please—that’s the Joe to know around here.
Town Hall Deli, 74 1st Street, South Orange, NJ. 973-762-4900.