South Orange, NJ has a unique take on a sloppy joe sandwich. Layers of meat, cheese, coleslaw, Russian dressing and thinly sliced bread make it a delicious classic.
A sloppy joe was a special treat when I was a kid. I remember watching Manwich commercials and trying to convince my mom to make them for dinner. It was basically the equivalent of Hamburger Helper, but to me it sounded so different from our usual home cooked meals. We would normally have homemade sauce and pasta, baked chicken or beef stew for dinner…but of course I wanted what I perceived the rest of America was eating. It’s like wanting McDonald’s instead of a juicy burger off the backyard barbecue…it doesn’t make sense, but we become conditioned to crave what we see in those commercials.
Similarly, when I received a two-story dollhouse for my Barbies that my dad labored over for weeks, I remember longing for that pink plastic house where my girlfriend’s Barbies resided. As an adult, I can’t even imagine that I would choose a Manwich over roast chicken or a flimsy plastic structure over the special and meticulously crafted house that my dad built for me, but I realize it was really more about fitting in than anything else.
To me, sloppy joes have always symbolized Americana and comfort food. Not fancy, not fussy, but always tasty and a little indulgent…ground beef in a slightly sweet tomato sauce spooned into a soft white roll. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that a sloppy joe was something else entirely when we moved from Manhattan to New Jersey.
The sloppy joe sandwich is a culinary staple in Maplewood and South Orange, NJ. It was created back in the 1930’s at Town Hall Deli. The owner of the deli traveled to Cuba where he visited Sloppy Joe’s Bar and enjoyed a sandwich piled high with meat, cheese, coleslaw and dressing. He enjoyed it so much that he recreated it back home and the rest, as they say, is history.
This sandwich appears simple…cold cuts and cheese, but in fact, an authentic sloppy joe needs to be prepared in a very specific way.
First, and perhaps most importantly is the bread. We begin with crustless, very thin slices of Pullman rye. You can substitute white or wheat, but I really think rye makes the most tasty sandwich. You can choose your favorite combination of cold cuts, but my preferences are turkey/corned beef or roast beef/ham. After your first layer of cold cuts comes a healthy dollop of coleslaw (not too wet…we don’t want a soggy sandwich), then a smear of Russian dressing and a couple slices of Swiss cheese. Follow that with another slice of bread, another round of cold cuts, slaw, dressing, cheese and bread. Now this is a sandwich that’s meant to be shared. These slices of rye? Well grab yourself a loaf of bread, removed the crusts and slice it super thin, horizontally, not vertically. Think a family sandwich, not lunch for one.
My version differs slightly from Town Hall Deli in that I’ve made my own coleslaw and Russian dressing. My slaw is creamy, but with a little bite from the vinegar and tang from the sour cream. And the dressing has just a touch of heat from the chili paste and horseradish. But other than that, there’s no need to mess with a classic.
This is no Manwich and certainly not the sloppy joe of my youth, but like that dollhouse my dad built, it’s well-crafted, unique and will stand the test of time. And it’s one more reason that I’m proud to call South Orange home.
- 1/3 cup sour cream
- 3/4 cup mayonnaise
- 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp celery seeds
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 14 oz shredded cabbage and carrots bagged coleslaw mix
- Russian Dressing
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1 1/2 Tbsp sweet pickle relish
- 1 tsp prepared horseradish
- 1 tsp sambal oelek chili paste
- 3 Tbsp ketchup
- 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- dash of freshly ground black pepper
- 1 loaf pullman rye bread 1 lb
- 1 lb corned beef or roast beef thinly sliced
- 1 lb turkey or ham thinly sliced
- 1/2 lb Swiss cheese thinly sliced
Coleslaw: Whisk together everything except the cabbage mixture. Fold in the cabbage mixture and let stand for at least 30 mins for the flavors to meld.
Drain any liquid off before making the sandwiches.
Russian Dressing: Whisk all of the ingredients together until combined.
Sandwiches: Remove the crusts from the loaf of bread and cut into a rectangle block.
Very thinly slice (1/4 inch) the bread horizontally.
Lay down one long slice of bread and layer with 1/3 of the corned beed or roast beef.
Dollop on some coleslaw and spread over meat.
Spread some Russian dressing over the slaw and lay a couple slices of Swiss on top.
Place a slice of bread on top and repeat with the turkey or ham, slaw, dressing and cheese.
Top with another slice of bread and cut into rectangles or squares to serve.
You can vary the ratio or meat/slaw/dressing/cheese to taste.