The sign outside Town Hall Delicatessen
reads “Birthplace of the Sloppy Joe,” and it's not entirely accurate. Said honor goes to Havana, and the swinging 1930s hotspot run by José García Río. Which is to say, the Joe is almost as old as Castro... and its Cuban
But Town Hall holds a different distinction in this messy double-decker's history: First in Translation. At the behest of an enthusiastic sandwich-eating card-playing mayor, TH made the first New Jersey
Joe back in 1936. So on our Sloppy pilgrimage, it seemed only right to begin here.Tony Wonski talks messy sandwiches with hygienic gloves
Town Hall has been around over 80 years, but all you need to know is that Tony Wonski took over in 2003 – and then promptly shut down for renovations. He saved an old phone booth and black iron railing (which now guards the sandwich station), then gutted the place. He also asked anxious locals to voice their priorities online – more parking, new menu, s/m dungeon, etc. – but the top request was simple: bring back the Sloppy Joe
.Don't Front: new brick building houses old school flavor
This is, after all, a sandwich with a devout following... and Town Hall makes one of the best. They start with a unique loaf of pullman-style rye, cut lengthwise. Three long thin slices are buttered, and carefully stacked with Swiss cheese and two different deli meats. Healthy heaps of homemade slaw (crisp, acidic, lightly fermented) and Russian Dressing (made with the terrific house mayo) top things off. Stack, cut in eight neat squares, then get to eating.Make it Sloppy: tongue-folding and knife-stabbing are key
Each Joe has a name, and we started with “The Favorite” (Turkey and Roast Beef, $15.99; add $2 for house-roasted turkey). The first words that came to mind were “freakin' sweet.” This is a quality sandwich, harmonious (crisp slaw, creamy dressing, tangy cheese, savory meats) yet also surprisingly light. No mean feat for a massive double-decker that weighs in at over 2½ pounds.“The Original”: Sloppy Joe made with sliced ham and tongue
“The Original” – ham and tongue – was a bit saltier, but we liked biting into some history. Sliced tongue also brought back memories of my Grandad pressuring me to eat stuff that seemed intuitively nasty. So live a little, grab a grip of people (each sandwich feeds 2-3), try a few combos, and see what moves you. Because something will.
Far be it from me to send people out to Jersey, but this is a sandwich that merits the short stint from Manhattan. A Sloppy Joe sounds simple enough, but something about the preparation and execution - the ritual and tradition, the thoughtfulness and care, the squares wrapped up in a large cake box – makes the trip wholly satisfying. It's something you want to savor at least once, for flavor and uniqueness alike.
And who knows, you might even find yourself like us: stuck a few weeks later, looking at the pictures and awash with the urge to eat again. We feel like ex-smokers who quit but still hunger. The Joe hooked us in, and – logic be damned – still has us fiending for more.Town Hall Deli
60 Valley Street
South Orange, NJ 07079
Sloppy Joes run from $16-$18, depending on ingredients. Half-sized available for $9.
Nervous in New Jersey? Check out the NJ Transit Trip Planner link
for door-to-door directions. Plan on a 30 minute journey from Penn Station.