PHILADELPHIA -- There is a restaurant here named the Hoagie Experience. It has two mottoes, both listed in quotation marks on the menu. Motto No. 1: "Gourmet Hoagies & Steaks for the Connoisseur." Motto No. 2: "We're Better Than We Have to Be." We would not argue with either motto. The Hoagie Experience is indeed an experience aimed at connoisseurs of Philadelphia sandwiches, and the sandwiches are mighty good.
The rolls are freshly baked, hard-crusted and with heft enough to pocket immense amounts of sloppy ingredients. Among the good eats available are thin-sliced and nearly pulverized sirloin, combined with your choice of cheese (mozzarella, provolone, Cheez Whiz or any desired combination thereof), along with optional fried onions and hot peppers or pizza sauce to make a fine, steamy-hot cheese steak sandwich. But it isn't steak sandwiches that put the Hoagie Experience on the map; it is hoagies.
Hoagies (a.k.a. heroes, grinders, submarines, spukkies) are like cheese steak sandwiches only in the fact that they consist of lots of different things piled into long lengths of good, crusty bread. Unlike a cheese steak, a hoagie is customarily served cold rather than hot; and its ingredients are usually cold cuts: salami, ham, turkey, roast beef, cheeses, lettuce and tomato. For nearly all top-notch Philadelphia-style hoagies, the sandwich-maker moistens the inside of the bread with a spritz of oil -- olive oil or salad oil seasoned with pepper and spice.
At the Hoagie Experience, the variety of available combinations is nearly infinite, ranging from low-cal turkey and low-sodium lean ham to the Great Italian Experience (ham, cappicola, cooked salami, Genoa salami and provolone cheese) and the design-it-yourself Great Experience of any six meats and two cheeses you desire. One of the less showy but memorable sandwiches we have enjoyed is known as the Tuna Experience, our own interpretation of which follows, in which a small mountain of luscious tuna salad is counterpointed perfectly by the snap of provolone cheese.
The fun of the Hoagie Experience isn't only the hefty sandwiches; it is the outrageous interior decor. The dining room of the storefront shopping center restaurant at Welsh Road and Roosevelt Boulevard is done up in screaming chartreuse so bright you need sunglasses. There are signs everywhere. Some are long, long lists of the various combination sandwiches available; others refer to diners' progress -- from "This is the beginning of your experience" above the order window (customers serve themselves) through "This is the end of your experience" above the trash cans.
A tuna experience
Serves two very generously.
1 7-ounce can albacore tuna, drained and flaked
tablespoons chopped sweet pickle
1/3 cup minced celery
1 teaspoon minced onion
1 teaspoon prepared Dijon mustard
1/3 to 1/2 cup mayonnaise (to taste)
1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
2 lengths French or Italian bread, about 8 to 10 inches each
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
6 slices provolone cheese at room temperature
Combine tuna, pickle, celery, onion, mustard, mayonnaise and lemon juice. Blend well but do not pulverize. Slice bread horizontally, and if the loaves are thick, scoop out some of the inside to create a hollow to hold the ingredients. Drizzle the olive oil along the inside of the loaves. Pile in the tuna salad and top with provolone cheese, then lettuce and tomatoes. If desired, sandwiches may be toasted whole briefly in a 350-degree oven, just long enough to crisp the bread.
The Hoagie Experience, 2532 Welsh Road, Philadelphia, Pa. 19152; (215) 552-9355. (There are two other Hoagie Experiences, one in Glenside, one in East Norriton, Pa.)