In the longstanding rivalry between Philadelphia and its metropolitan neighbor to the north, here’s one for the home team:
According to New York Magazine, the best breakfast sandwich in NYC is made by a guy from Northeast Philly.
“Do better ingredients make a better egg on a roll? In this case, absolutely,” wrote the magazine’s editors.
The eponymous “Southside” breakfast sandwich includes ham from Heritage Meats, high-end Cabot cheddar, organic eggs and a roll from famed brasserie Balthazar. But as any sandwich connoisseur (or damn, just about anyone who’s given a lot of thought to sandwiches, a huge swath of Philadelphia) knows, it’s not enough to source quality products and slap them together. Building a perfect sandwich is an art.
“I would call Josh an equal in sandwich artistry to me,” says Hungry Pigeon chef Scott Schroeder, who hosted Sobel in Philly a couple years ago for a pop-up dinner at American Sardine Bar.
What are the criteria for a truly great sandwich? Sobel offers a few. “It needs to be balanced,” he says. “Not just a pound of meat. You need the right amount of protein, something crunchy, something acidic, the right bread and a good sauce. Sauce is key. Every dish needs a sauce.”
Sure enough, on the breakfast sandwich NY Mag lauds, there is a special sauce. Sobel calls it “breakfast mayo,” and makes it by whipping coffee grounds, maple syrup and mustard into a housemade mayonnaise. It’s something the 34-year-old chef kept in his back pocket until he had his own place.
“I thought it up a long time ago when I was at Court Street Grocers, but selfishly decided to keep it for myself.”
Long journey of short hops
Court Street Grocers, in Brooklyn’s Carol Gardens neighborhood, was just one of several stops Sobel made on his way to restaurant co-ownership.
Raised in Oxford Circle in Northeast Philadelphia, Sobel got his first kitchen job when he was a junior in high school. It was at the Country Club Diner, where he worked his way up from dishwasher to prep cook and then one day found himself behind the line when another cook called out.
“It was a classic diner but they did a lot of Jewish-American food, like sweet noodle kugel and matzoh ball soup. I grew up with that food, so to be able to make it for customers was wonderful. I loved it,” he remembers.
Sobel had found his calling. He enrolled at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College, but left after two years — he had to work full time to support himself, and class was mostly a distraction. Instead, he became sous chef at Derek Davis’ Sonoma in Manayunk (it was most recently known as Derek’s), and then got recruited to work at Whole Foods running the prepared food section, first in Devon, then in Jenkintown.
There, he learned about the business side of the industry: Logistics, ordering, sourcing, menu planning, customer service. “It was the kind of job where if you were actually in the kitchen for a long period, they would ask you why,” he says. “A lot of office work.”
At Whole Foods, he met his wife, Aileen, and when they returned from a 2008 honeymoon spent eating and drinking around Northern California, Sobel felt like he had to get back to real cooking. He rejoined Derek Davis at the just-converted Derek’s. Just under two years later, Aileen decided she wanted to move to New York to go to nursing school.
“The Philly food scene really wasn’t what it was now; it was only just starting to get noticed,” Sobel points out. “Back then, NYC was where all the big players were.”
Following a dream
After catching sight of Williamsburg’s Marlow & Sons on an Anthony Bourdain TV show, Sobel decided he that’s where he wanted to work — and subsequently got the job.
“It was a rainy Monday, I drove up, went in for lunch, and asked if they were hiring. A sous-chef came out and talked to me, and three weeks after that I was living and working in Brooklyn.”
The move to NYC was fast, but not easy. The Sobels had been living in Conshohocken, and the transition from suburban life to a tiny apartment with no washer or dryer, much less car or driveway to park it in, was a bit of a shock. So was the cost of living. And the restaurant scene was at a whole different level than what Josh was used to in Philadelphia.
“There was never a slow night. It’s always cranking, all day, every day,” he says. “And whatever you did before, wherever you came from, no one really cares.”
Sobel calls his time at Marlow “the top cooking experience of my career,” but even so, after two years he was ready to move on. Next he landed at Court Street Grocers, where he first thought up the breakfast mayo that helped nab him the NY Mag nod. The shop is famous for its between-bread creations, and Sobel describes it as the place where he really got to “spread his sandwich wings.”
That sandwiches were already his favorite food helped. “I can’t sit in a restaurant, I don’t feel comfortable,” he says. “I’d much rather go grab a sandwich and hang out.”
His casual proclivities are something he shares with his hometown: “Philly’s way more down-to-earth than New York. You get a real sense of what people are about. NYC is a lot more about PR — you’ve got to pay to play.”
After a couple years at Court Street, he joined Mile End Deli, a modern Jewish delicatessen with locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Even though founder Noah Bernamoff wasn’t looking for another team member at the time, he liked Sobel’s drive and skillset so much that he basically created a position for his new hire. By the end of Josh’s two and a half years there, he was executive chef, overseeing both retail establishments plus the production kitchen where cured meats, bagels and pickles were made.
It was a thrilling job, but one that quickly led to burnout.
“Mentally and physically, it was really hard,” Sobel says. “I reached the point where I said, I have to try and do something on my own.”
‘A couple of beers and a handshake’
Sobel had grown to like his neighborhood on the southern edge of Prospect Park, but the one thing he found lacking was a good sandwich shop: “There were so many days I just wanted to roll out of bed and grab a breakfast sandwich, but they were all a little too far away.”
He was a regular customer at a neighborhood coffee house called Southside, and had become casual friends with owner Ben Jones. In August 2015, when Sobel started searching for a possible restaurant location, he reached out to Jones to help vet a few listings on Craigslist. It was a serendipitous decision.
“Oh, you want to do a sandwich place around here?” the cafe owner asked. “We should talk.” In addition to the coffee shop, Jones ran a restaurant across the street called Lot 2, and he and the chef there had been thinking about doing sandwiches themselves. Bingo. The three men formed a partnership, and made plans to reboot Southside — which had previously only offered pastries to accompany the java.
“Southside Coffee 2.0 came together over a couple of beers and a handshake,” Sobel says.
‘What I like to eat’
After three weeks of renovations, Southside reopened in October 2015, with Sobel as partner. The menu served at the small cafe, which has just a handful of tables and does most of its business to-go, is entirely his creation.
“I just base it on what I’d want to eat every day,” he says. There are tributes to his native land, like a roast pork with rabe and provolone, and the hoagie he calls the “Italian Combo,” although it does use mayo in addition to oil and vinegar — “I would get thrown out of South Philly for that,” he acknowledges.
In general, the breakfast sandwiches are the best-sellers, something Sobel credits to his ultra-fluffy scrambled eggs (the secret? Tons of butter). He wasn’t alerted to NY Mag’s “best of” award in advance, but he did have an inkling.
“They call and say they need a photo, and it’s really important to get a good one. You bring all the ingredients to their studio and then assemble them in front of the camera,” he explains. “They prop it up and make it look even better than it already does.”
That was a couple of weeks ago. On March 8, he found out what it was all for.
Does the chef have plans to bring his now-recognized talents back to his hometown? Don’t count it out.
“Part of me is like, awww, I wish I had stayed in Philly, I could be a part of all the amazing things going on now,” he says. “My wife and I have been weighing our options, thinking about what’s a sustainable living situation if we want to start a family.
“If I could find something worth doing back home — something not necessarily there yet, something new — I would definitely do it.”
Until then, know this: Amtrak + R train will get you from 30th Street Station to Southside Coffee’s door in just over 120 minutes.