Soft pretzels are big business in Philly, and picking the right pretzel for an afternoon snack (let’s face it, you buy three pretzels instead of lunch at least once a week, we won’t judge) is vital to the overall Philly food experience.
A spirited conversation in the Billy Penn newsroom on which local establishment has the best pretzel — stemming from last summer’s ode to pretzely goodness/dough-and-salt slash fiction — we decided to taste them. And to blindfold people. For science.
The five pretzels we tasted were from a variety of shops, ranging from a mall chain to a South Philly wholesale distributor that’s also ideal for snagging at midnight as a bar-crawl refuel. In random order, our panel tasted:
- Center City Pretzel Company,
- Auntie Anne’s
- Philly Pretzel Factory
- Miller’s Twist in Reading Terminal Market.
You can watch a rebroadcast of our Facebook Live full (blind) taste test here:
We employed a diverse panel of pretzel tasters, from Philly lifers to a total pretzel novice. Our panel included reporters Cassie Owens, Anna Orso and Mark Dent, Culture Editor and food aficionado Danya Henninger and Billy Penn intern Kaylee Tornay, who is in Philly for a few months by way of Oregon. (She’s the pretzel novice.) Managing Editor Shannon Wink helped preside over the test to ensure it was as fair and Philly-centric as possible.
We rated each pretzel on a simple scale of 5, with 5 being the best and 1 the worst. Every pretzel could score a 5 or a 1, as each option was ranked independent of the one that came before or after. Of our panel of five judges rating each pretzel, only two votes recorded were 5s, with only two votes were 1s.
Soft pretzels are almost always better hot, and while we purchased each option from locations close to City Hall — the Center City Pretzels were purchased at their only location near 9th and Washington — the logistics of production and getting a group of nine reporters and editors in a room together to eat pretzels precluded us from testing all the pretzels hot. This absolutely impacted the judging, as one or two pretzels tasted far better hot and fresh than when our panel was able to judge. (In other words, if you try this at home, don’t dawdle.)
We also chose to test the pretzels without any mustard or other condiments. We stand by this. (For science.)
Last, we know we didn’t get every pretzel in the city. We know. Your favorite shop in Delco or that shop on 7th or your nanna’s 100 year-old recipe are all better than every pretzel we tried. We get it. If this angers you that much, contact us and show up with your favorite and we’ll judge that against the list above, King of the Hill style.
To our surprise, the lowest-rated pretzel came from the most ubiquitous place in town. The Philly Pretzel Factory scored the worst in our test, with just 11 points out of a possible 25. It’s worth noting that different PFF locations may have provided different results. Alas…last.
Coming in second to last was Center City, as their pretzels received only one point higher, with 12. Both of the more traditional “Philly” style pretzels received one vote of 1. Center City Pretzels had a more metallic aftertaste than the others, and tasted much more like the pretzels you get outside the stadiums. That wasn’t a good thing.
The top three were clearly more well received. Coming in as a tie for second were the two sweet, buttery options from Miller’s in Reading Terminal Market and, yes, Auntie Anne’s. As Cassie, our Philly lifer, pointed out, neither tasted like a traditional Philly pretzel, but they were both really delicious. Mark and Danya both decried the lack of salt on Miller’s, though that could have been a product of the way we broke up and distributed the samples. (Science.)
The winner, if you can believe it (we can’t) was Wawa.
Let that sink in for a minute.
[table id=Pretzels /]
Wawa has the best soft pretzel in the city, of the five we tested, very subjectively. And what’s amazing is that the Wawa we went to didn’t even have fresh pretzels. We bought individual pretzels in plastic bags. Plastic bags! And our panel chose them as the best, not just in terms of doughy consistency, but overall flavor as well.
Surely there are better options in the city than a Wawa pretzel in a plastic bag. Surely. But in our test, we couldn’t find one. At least not yet. (Ed note: Shannon swears that the Philly Pretzel Factory option you can get at the food carts around the city, wrapped in plastic, are better than the bagged options in the store.)
As Mark mentioned at the end of our taste test video, he still doesn’t see himself going to Wawa when he craves a pretzel — again the hot options at other outlets like the Pretzel Factory or Miller’s tasted far better than the 30-minute old options we taste-tested — but next time he’s in a Wawa, he wouldn’t be so quick to disregard their pretzels as an option.
There was a downside to this delicious decision, as each of our judges — and hosts — felt weighty and lethargic after the test, craving something fresh, light and not covered in butter. If you do this test yourselves, beware of post-pretzel paralysis.