Sandwich

Have You Met the Other Sloppy Joe?

February 28, 2018

It wasn’t until halfway through my teens that I realized most of America assumes sloppy joe means tomato saucy ground meat, sandwiched between two soft buns. If you’re from New Jersey—most specifically, Essex County in northern New Jersey—this is all wrong. Very wrong. To us, sloppy joe means a sandwich, too, but a cold, triple-decker, rye bread sandwich, stacked high with meat, cheese, cabbage slaw, and so much Russian dressing. Anything else is an imposter.

This version was born in a town called South Orange, by way of Cuba. Town Hall Deli, which opened in 1927 and is still around today, claims ownership—and no one, so far as I can find, contends otherwise. The story goes like this: It was the 1930s. The mayor of a local town went on a trip to Havana, Cuba, where he visited Sloppy Joe’s Bar and Eatery. Ernest Hemingway loved this place. It was very cool and had very good sandwiches—one that Mayor Sweeney couldn’t stop thinking about, even when he got back home. So he asked Town Hall Deli to re-create it: ham, cow tongue, Swiss cheese, coleslaw, Russian dressing, rye bread. Almost like a Rachel—a turkey reuben—except a Rachel usually includes sauerkraut and is pressed/griddled, then served hot.

Almost a century later, practically every sandwich shop in Essex County makes sloppy joes. (My hometown, Millburn, is particularly proud of theirs.) But Town Hall still has its signature: Instead of slicing the bread loaf vertically, as usual, they slice it horizontally, yielding thin, oversized slabs. (Scroll down to “New Jersey Sloppy Joe” and see it to believe it.) Of course, without a professional slicer, this is pretty tricky to achieve at home. But that doesn’t mean—even if you’re outside of New Jersey—that you should ever be without a sloppy joe. Here’s how to make one at home:

Bread

Seek out New York deli–style rye. This feels a little, well, ironic, considering the context, but it’s what we’re going for. Dense, but not too dense. Nordic varieties will not work here. And the thinner, the better. Remember, each sandwich has three slices! And you have to butter the bread. I know you’re thinking it’s overkill, and maybe it is, but you just have to.

Meat & Cheese

Ham, cow tongue, and Swiss reigned as queen in the ’30s. Today, anything goes. Turkey, roast or corned beef, pastrami, even egg and tuna salad. The cheese is less adventurous—most spots still default to Swiss but my family often switched that to Muenster.

Where are the napkins? Photo by Bobbi Lin

Cabbage Slaw

This gets a little controversial. Town Hall starts with tangled, shredded, undressed green cabbage. After being piled on the sandwich, this is mercilessly drowned in Russian dressing. Other spots start with classic, mayo-dressed coleslaw. I like to meet in the middle. If you’re shredding the cabbage yourself, you need it to wilt a bit before being stacked. So salt it, toss it, and let it hang out. Just before adding to the sandwich, toss with a small spoonful of Russian dressing, to give it a head start.

Build!

Stack in this order: buttered bread, meat, cheese, Russian’d slaw, more Russian for good measure, buttered bread, meat, cheese, Russian’d slaw, more Russian, buttered bread. Slice in half. Serve with a pickle. That’s another deal breaker—the pickle—really important. If you don’t want yours, can I have it?

Have you ever tried a Jersey-style sloppy joe before? Tell us from where in the comments!

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11 Comments

Michele August 18, 2018
Tabatchnicks in Millburn & Kartzmans in Union the best. No cheese. A staple of Jewish funeral meals. I make my own these days. Pastrami, corned beef, Russian and Cole slaw.
 
Dave March 5, 2018
Gary, the article correctly states Town Hall Deli in South Orange is the originator of the Sloppy Joe, and gives the backstory. Hill City and Millburn Deli may claim otherwise, but they know better!
 
Gary March 5, 2018
The original Sloppy Joe started at Hill City Deli in Summit, not the Millburn deli. There are a lot of Summit citizens upset with this error in the article.
 
Dave March 3, 2018
The Town Hall Sloppy Joe is my favorite of the NJ Joes. I try to bring one back to Brooklyn every time I visit the old neighborhood. Usually, I do corned beef, turkey and Swiss.
 
steve March 2, 2018
CJ's Deli in Madison. For us, it's the one and only!
 
Carol C. March 2, 2018
I am a former NJ resident. One of the food items that I miss is a sloppy Joe from the Millburn Deli.
 
Heather March 1, 2018
My family of 4 share a Town Hall sloppy joe. The Montrose- turkey & ham with Swiss. It comes wrapped and served in a bakery type box. They cut into little squares so you don’t feel like you’re eating a mountain of sandwich!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. March 2, 2018
My family's go-to is the Montrose, too!
 
C February 28, 2018
A Rueben has sauerkraut; a Rachel has cole slaw.
 
amysarah February 28, 2018
I love a NJ Sloppy Joe - and can attest that they're also common in Central NJ (my sloppy experience was in Princeton.) But, I tend to nix the double-decker part - I find the proportion of bread to filling is better with just 2 slices of bread.
 
Csw June 17, 2018
I grew up loving the Millburn Deli Sloppy Joe, but was horrified to learn I was eating tongue! W’ve been living in Prnceton for over 50 years, but have yet to find a true Sloppy Joe. Where on earth did you come across one in Princeton?