The making of Joe's Steaks' Gritty cheesesteak

Proof the sandwiches contending at the inaugural Gritty Sandwich Showdown were absurdly over the top? Just look at Bernie Parent’s response to having them loaded on a table in front of him.

The Flyers legend, whose goaltending skills helped lead Philadelphia to back-to-back Stanley Cups in the 1970s, stopped by City Tap House Saturday morning for a quick judging session before heading to the Wells Fargo Center to catch the game.

Parent eyed the three dishes created in honor of his former team’s popular new mascot with a healthy dose of skepticism.

“Take a picture now — while I’m still skinny!” he said before digging in for a bite.

Flyers legend Bernie Parent with a ton of Gritty food in front of him Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

After sampling each of the competitors, Parent whispered his selection to the other judges before heading to the arena.

Then it was up to the rest of us — Danya Henninger of Billy Penn, Greg Lehman of Victory Brewing and Dan Rudd of Snider Youth Hockey — to cast our votes and choose an overall winner.

L to R: Joe’s Steaks owner Joe Groh; Flyers legend Bernie Parent; City Tap House corporate chef Larry Hawks; Mike’s BBQ owner Michael Strauss Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

To rewind a bit, the competition stemmed from the Gritty fascination that’s gripped Philadelphia since the muppet-maned mascot burst on the scene.

A timeline of the Grit-omenon so far goes like this:

  1. Gritty is introduced and Philly is horrified
  2. The rest of the country discovers Gritty and is also horrified
  3. Philadelphia takes offense and rallies with full-throated Gritty support
  4. Activists claim Gritty as a mascot of the resistance, with new memes popping up daily
  5. Others argue Gritty should be kept out of politics
  6. Philly decides Gritty is the only Halloween costume worth wearing
  7. Trademark issues mean DIY Gritty costumes are the jam — and they even show up in NYC
  8. Thanks to all of the above, Gritty’s name becomes known far and wide
  9. Guesses as to when Gritty craze will die down become moot
  10. Gritty mania becomes the New World Order

As all of this played out, Philly restaurants got in on the action and began offering specials inspired by the tangerine terror. With several notable sandwiches named after him, we decided to find out which was the Grittiest sandwich of them all.

Judging ain’t easy… Credit: Billy Penn

The contest wasn’t just about taste. After trying all the free samples, one guest at City Tap House posed an important philosophical query:

“Should a Gritty sandwich…be a good sandwich?”

Good question. After more orange-tinged meaty mouthfuls than anyone would normally inhale before noon — except maybe the mascot himself — it was still tough for the judges to pick a winner.

Here’s how it went down:

“The Gritty” by City Tap House chef Larry Hawks

‘The Gritty’ at City Tap House Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

What’s in it: Scrapple and pork roll hash, peppers and fried eggs on a hoagie roll, served with Herr’s Red Hot chips and a Victory Hip Czech lager.

Creator’s statement: “Gritty looks like he’s recovering from a hangover, so we created this sandwich as a cure.”

Judges’ comments: The two fried eggs on top do a great job of mimicking Gritty’s googly eyes, the scrapple/pork roll give it local cred — “People reacted to Gritty nationally the way they react to scrapple, like, ‘Oh that’s gross,’” someone pointed out — and proceeds benefiting charity are always a plus. But as a sandwich, the roll is too soft and it could use more crunch (“We expect Gritty to play hard”).

“The Gritty” by Mike’s BBQ chef-owner Michael Strauss

‘The Gritty’ by Mike’s BBQ Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

What’s in it: House-smoked brisket, housemade Cooper Sharp whiz, fried onions, lettuce, tomato, special sauce and potato sticks on a long roll.

Creator’s statement: “Some people hate cheesesteak hoagies for no reason — just like people hated Gritty at first — but this sandwich proves they can actually be great.”

Judges’ comments: The sandwich was actually great. Outside this contest, it would be one of the best sandwiches in the city, thanks in large part to the amazing brisket that forms its base. It also had a good “crunch ratio,” with the hard-edged Carangi roll, the crispy veggies and the crunchy potato sticks all doing their part. The turmeric spicing in the special sauce added nuance. But overall, the dish was just too perfect — from its visual attractiveness to its deliciousness. Said the judges to one another: “Gritty isn’t pretty!”

“Gettin’ Gritty Wit It” by Joe’s Steaks owner’s son Patrick Groh

Adding the Whiz to a Joe’s Steaks sandwich Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

What’s in it: Cheesesteak with onions and Whiz, topped with fries and Cheetos.

Creator’s statement: “I tried Doritos as a topping too, but they just didn’t do it. Turns out the Cheetos actually worked.”

Judges’ comments: Considering the fact that Joe’s Steaks already makes one of the best cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, you would expect any extras to detract from the original. But — like Gritty himself — the concoction with Cheetos was better than everyone thought it would be. The crunch factor was there, and the visual appeal, while almost as striking as the mascot, was also initially a turn-off. “It under promises and over delivers.”

And there you have it.

Bernie Parent with a rep from Joe’s Steaks Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Congratulations to Joe’s Steaks, winner of the first-ever Gritty Sandwich Showdown.

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...