Somewhere between a reuben and a Cuban, the New Jersey sloppy joe is worlds away from the saucy sandwich your elementary school cafeteria served. Ask for a sloppy joe in northern New Jersey, and you won’t get a tomato-sauced ground meat sandwich on a bun. In this part of the country, where I grew up, a sloppy joe is something else entirely. It’s a triple decker sandwich—cold deli meat and cheese on dense rye bread—glued together with coleslaw and Russian dressing.
The New Jersey sloppy joe is, like many dishes native to my home state—like Taylor ham or disco fries—a bit of an enigma. It’s similar to a Reuben, not quite a Rachel (turkey subbing in for corned beef with coleslaw and Russian on griddled rye). No one is exactly sure where the sandwich came from, but it sure lives in northern New Jersey now. While many have opinions on the origin of the joe, nothing is certain except for a few details. It all started at a bar in Cuba in the 1930s. Probably. The mayor of Maplewood, New Jersey, at the time, Thomas Sweeney, spent some time at a Havana bar called Sloppy Joe’s, where he was served a multilayer cocktail sandwich. Sweeney liked the sandwich so much that he commissioned some friends, Heinz Burdorf and Fred Joost, the owners of the Town Hall Deli in South Orange, New Jersey, to re-create the dish. The resulting ham, beef tongue, and Swiss sandwich became a staple at the deli. “No one has a clear story about the sandwiches,” Matt Wonski, vice president of the Town Hall Deli, told me on a quiet Sunday morning at the restaurant. Wonski’s father bought Town Hall in 2001 from Burdorf’s family. Even a special 2016 pilgrimage to Sloppy Joe’s in Havana shed little light on the matter for Wonski.
And then there’s the Jewish version, just as popular as the original around New Jersey. To keep it Kosher, Eppes Essen, a deli in Livingston, uses three layers of meat instead of cheese, and no ham. Jeff La, who’s been general manager for the past 15 years, noted their best-seller has turkey, corned beef, and roast beef. Eppes Essen also has a unique coleslaw method: They mix mayonnaise into four-day brined cabbage, then strain out excess liquid. “We’re the only place that does that,” crowed La. “I probably have the best coleslaw in the United States.” After coleslaw, Russian dressing is key, and it’s never just ketchup and mayo. While no one was willing to share their exact recipe, Morgan revealed they use mayonnaise and relish, but no ketchup, and La expressed an affinity for chile sauce. Though it’s rare to see a sloppy joe on a menu outside of northern New Jersey, Wonski, Morgan, and La ship sandwiches around the country. Wonski, who ships about 30 a week, keeps a map above the register with a red pin stuck into each place he’s sent a sandwich. Morgan knows every February he’ll send 20 joes to a woman in Michigan for her Super Bowl party. “I ship sandwiches so far I don’t even know how they find out we exist.”But people do find out, because there’s nothing quite like a sloppy joe. La considers it a Jewish creation (as do half of my relatives); the other half say it’s a riff on an Italian sub. It’s definitely sort of Cuban. Wonski and Morgan, however, maintain the sloppy joe is something else entirely: “New Jerseyan."
New Jersey Sloppy Joe
½ pound green cabbage, shredded
¼ cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
½ cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons Heinz chile sauce (or 3 tablespoons ketchup + ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce + ½ teaspoon chile powder)
3 tablespoons pickle relish
1 teaspoon hot sauce
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 loaf unsliced rye bread, ploughman-style or boule
½ pound sliced turkey, ham, roast beef, pastrami, or tongue (pick two)
¼ pound swiss cheese
2 tablespoons butter, slightly softened
The secret to a sloppy joe is to go as DIY as possible. While you don’t have to start making your own deli meat, to get the best possible joe, the Russian dressing and coleslaw must be homemade.
Combine the cabbage, vinegar, sugar, and ½ teaspoon salt in a medium bowl and massage it with your hands to break down the fibers. Season well with black pepper and toss. Set aside for at least a few hours, ideally overnight (in the refrigerator). When you're ready to assemble the sandwich, drain any excess liquid from the slaw. There will be leftovers. Make another sandwich tomorrow.
In a small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, chile sauce, relish, hot sauce, and onion powder. Season with salt to taste. There will be leftovers.
If using a ploughman-style loaf of rye bread, work horizontally and slice three ¼-inch pieces from the center of the loaf. If using a boule, work vertically and slice three ¼-inch slices from the center of the loaf. Lightly butter one slice of bread, then, working from the outside in, lay on folded pieces of your first meat so that the folded edges hit the very outside of the bread. The exact amount will depend on the size of your bread. Repeat with the second slice of bread and second meat. Lay a few spoonfuls of coleslaw over each meat-covered slice of bread, fanning out the slaw with a butter knife or offset spatula so it reaches all the way to the edge of the bread evenly. Dollop a few spoonfuls of Russian dressing over the coleslaw on each slice of bread, then use the butter knife or offset spatula to evenly spread the dressing to the edges. Lay cheese evenly over the Russian dressing on both slices of bread. Place the first layer of the sandwich over the second layer. Butter the third slice of bread, then place it, butter side down, over the top layer of the sandwich. If using ploughman-style bread, cut the sandwich into thirds or quarters lengthwise, then once crosswise to make even squares (this is the style of Town Hall Deli and Eppes Essen). If using a boule, slice the sandwich into three pieces by making two diagonal lengthwise cuts (this is the style of the Millburn Deli). If you want to keep the sandwich from getting sloppy too quickly, you can stick each section with a cocktail toothpick.