While some can argue that a New Jersey tomato pie is similar to a pizza, comparing a New Jersey Sloppy Joe to a Sloppy joe anywhere else is impossible. And there are still some New Jersey residents who aren’t aware of the difference. That’s why Sloppy Joe is our New Jersey Vocabulary word of the week.
Sloppy Joe — Noun. A New Jersey sandwich of two meats, Swiss cheese, coleslaw and Russian dressing between three layers of rye bread, served cold.
Example: “No. There is no ground beef in a Sloppy Joe. You want ground beef, go eat some Hamburger Helper.”
Elsewhere in America, a Sloppy Joe is made of ground beef and lots of sauce, but in New Jersey it’s a whole different story. “Call it a Sloppy Joe, call it a big sandwich, whatever you want to call it, it’s good,” said Harrison resident and Sloppy Joe fan Peter Warmkessel. “You can tell someone’s not from the area if they think the Sloppy Joe is one of those ground beefy, ketchupy, Manwich things. That’s not a Jersey Joe. No way.”
The sandwich can be found in a number of North Jersey delis, but its birthplace is The Town Hall Delicatessen in South Orange.
History: Eat Like a Billionaire
The Town Hall Delicatessen is home of the original New Jersey Sloppy Joe. In the 1930s, South Orange Mayor Robert Sweeney visited Cuba, and stopped by a bar called Sloppy Joe’s. At that bar, the mayor tasted a sandwich so good he didn’t want to live without it. When he returned to Jersey, he asked the owners of Town Hall to recreate the sandwich, and the New Jersey Sloppy Joe was born.
“From there, the history gets interesting,” said Matt Wonski, who currently runs The Town Hall Deli with his father Tony. “After the Mayor got back, and has Town Hall Deli recreate the sandwich, he took it to his weekly poker game. And there were some notable people at the game. These people liked the sandwich and started ordering it. And soon, it was going to the parties.”
The parties Wonski is referring to weren’t your typical birthday parties with a few balloons and cake. “These were Gatsby parties. They were unbelievable. You can’t even imagine these events,” said Wonski. “The families of three of the biggest liquor companies lived in the area and held huge, epic parties. When one family had a party, the other family would send gifts — such as cases of Scotch. Due to rules and regulations, they couldn’t send a case of Scotch directly from their own company, so they had to go through Town Hall Deli, which was the only store in town with a liquor license.
“Eventually, when they started ordering cases of booze to go to these parties, they would send them the Sloppy Joes, too. Lots of them. And that’s how they caught on. They started distributing them through these parties. And so people said, ‘Oh, if these people are eating them, then it must be something good.'”
A $20 Sandwich?!
The sandwich is big, and it’s recommended that one sandwich feed two to three people.
“A customer’s first reaction is, ‘Wow. $20 for a sandwich. What the hell is a $20 sandwich?'” said Wonski, who has walked many customers through the process. “First, we tell a new customer that it’s not chopped meat on a bun. Then we explain that each sandwich feeds two to three people; It’s a triple-layer sandwich cut into eight pieces.”
Even those with big appetites will be defeated by Joe, according to Wonksi. “My roommate in college was a big guy, 375 lbs., and after three squares he was full. It’s a lot of food.”
The original sandwich was made of ham and beef tongue, because back in the 1930s, those were inexpensive meats. If you’ve never had tongue before, Wonski promises, “It tastes just like corned beef.”
You can still order it that way, but you’re turned off by the thought of eating tongue, you can order the Joe with any two meats you’d like. “The most popular is roast beef and turkey, but the turkey and turkey combo is gaining popularity because people like to stay away from the red meat,” said Wonski. “One of the more popular ones that still kind of blows my mind is the tuna and egg salad combination. I would never consider putting those two together, but I just made three of them right now. And chicken liver and tongue — that’s an unusual one.”
To go with your titanic sandwich, Wonski recommends a Dr. Brown’s Cream or Black Cherry Soda, a side of coleslaw and, of course, cheesecake. “Our cheesecake is out of this world.”
The Secret: There Is No Secret
What makes a Town Hall Sloppy Joe so good? “Everything is homemade,” said Wonski. “We brine our own coleslaw, we make our own mayonnaise and Russian dressing. We don’t pre-cut anything. We may be a bit slower than another place, but we don’t sacrifice the quality.”
And despite it’s name, this might be a neater sandwich than you’d expect. “The coleslaw is brined three to four days, and then drained. So it goes on the sandwich dry, which is different than other delis. We don’t put a mayonnaise-based coleslaw on the sandwich. That’s why it’s not as sloppy as some of the others.”
Order Up, Up, and Away…
After you eat a Town Hall sandwich, it becomes a habit. Luckily for those who moved away, you can get your sandwich delivered via Fed Ex. “We do a huge volume in shipping,” said Wonski. “I just sent two out to California today. We do a lot of California shipping. We tried doing shipping on our own, and it was kind of a headache, but we started using Goldbely.com. Since we got on their site, we quadrupled our shipping.”
But even if you do leave the area for a while, you’ll come back for a Joe. “South Orange is great. There’s something about it that draws people back. Even if they go away, they end up coming back. Some move down to Florida in their seventies, and come back in their nineties. It’s a strange thing. This place is a tradition. People have tons of stories about Town Hall Deli.”
And, of course, giant sandwiches make the best football food. “Our busiest day is Super Bowl Sunday,” said Wonski. “We stay overnight Saturday, making about five hundred Joes, and then we’ll make a couple hundred more during the day on Sunday.”
It’s a good idea to order ahead for the Super Bowl, but Wonski says you can walk in Sunday morning and place an order.
Where to Get One
The Town Hall Delicatessen is located at 74 First Street, South Orange, NJ 07079.
They’re open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 8 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. – 6 p.m., and Sunday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
For more information, visit www.townhalldeli.com.
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