America Has Two Great Chain Sub Sandwiches
But one is better.
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I’m not the type of writer who looks to court controversy, but I’ve found that people are sensitive about certain subjects in ways I had never considered before until after the piece gets published for the world to read. I get it pretty easy for the most part. Like the guy who e-mailed me angrily because I wrote about my big feet (size 13 1/2). He wrote about a thousand words about how I’ll never know true embarrassment because I don’t have size 15 as he does and how I’m not (and this is his wording) “a true big-footed man.” I thought he was kidding, but when I didn’t respond within 24 hours, he wrote another e-mail calling me all sorts of names, telling me he looked at my Instagram and he didn’t believe I even had size 13 1/2 feet, and then started making fun of Don Rickles because I had posted a picture of him recently. I don’t like quoting Jim Morrison, but he was right about the whole “people are strange” deal. I only wish Don was around to type out a response to that dummy.
By the time of Big Feetgate, I was already pretty familiar with Internet decorum and had dealt with my share of e-mails, tweets, DMs, and every other way people voice their displeasure online. Even in 2017, I was pretty used to answering people and their opinions with “Well, why don’t you write something about the way you feel about the thing I wrote,” which would shut down the conversation. But nothing prepared me for the number of e-mails, texts, and even phone callsI got for an article I wrote for Thrillist about the Florida obsession with Publix sub sandwiches. The editor gave it a grabby headline, writing that the grocery store makes the best sandwiches in the country. If you know me, you know I’d never proclaim something like that, because the one thing I believe is we are a nation of many great sandwiches, no one sits at the top because that’s democracy.
But America is also a country filled with people who don’t like to read past the headline. And freedom of speech being what it is, a lot of people e-mailed to tell me there were better sandwiches. The press also picked up on it. Not just in Florida, but all across the South where Publix has stores. I was getting so much feedback (good and bad), that I had to take what ended up being the one true Internet break I’ve ever gone on, waiting about five days before I started poking around online to see what new things people were angry about. Nobody brought up the piece again for a few weeks until I was having drinks with a friend who grew up in New Jersey. We were having a nice time when they brought it up, telling me they liked Publix subs, but that I “really did WaWa dirty.” I laughed, but my friend just stared at me. He wasn’t kidding. I forgot how many friends from WaWa country I have and how strong their love for the gas station hoagies is. I also love them, but I grew up going down to Florida and the first stop was almost always Publix.
Still, after years of living close enough to a few WaWa stores and stopping at them on any trip west of New York City, I’ve become a big WaWa guy and felt like it would be nice to be able to compare the two places accurately. That became a possibility a little over a decade ago when WaWa started opening up shop in the Sunshine State, and I’ve been saying that sooner or later I’d do a full comparison of the two to see which is the better sub. This past weekend, at 9 in the morning while visiting Orlando for a family thing, I finally did it.
Before I get to the results, let me say that I walked from my hotel to both locations and I forgot that walking in Florida as a New Yorker is a total trip. Getting out of my hotel parking lot took 20 minutes, then the rest of the walk I was under the assumption I’d be walking for an hour according to Google Maps, but it was actually 30 minutes because I have New York legs. On my way there, I saw that El Bagel truck and considered leaving a note asking how much they wanted for it. About five minutes later, at a leaky fire hydrant on the sidewalk by the Tire Kingdom, Google Maps told me to turn left. The only problem was a dead end, which makes me think Google Maps is working with local meth heads to lure dummy tourists down an alley so they can rob them.
When I finally made it to my destination, there was almost a minor change of plans when I noticed there was a Popeyes near the Publix and WaWa, and I considered also getting some tenders since Publix makes some really good chicken, but thankfully, for my cholesterol, the Popeyes wasn’t open at 9 in the morning. The WaWa was. It’s always open, 24/7. I rolled up and bought a turkey hoagie with Swiss cheese, mayo, lettuce, peppers, and onions. That was my order at both places. I walked over to Publix, got my sandwich, walked outside, told someone trying to give out Bibles that no, I hadn’t thought of Jesus today, and went back to eat my sandwiches.
Before I get to the results, the one thing I’ll say is a lot of people who saw me post about my journey on Instagram reached out and all asked my thoughts on Jersey Mike’s. And my answer to each of them is “Not much.” I don’t care that much for Jersey Mike’s, Subway, or any big chain sub place besides maybe when I find a stray Quiznos still hanging on. If I’m getting a sub, hoagie, grinder, or whatever you call it, I’m either going to an Italian place or a bodega. That’s pretty much it. I wouldn’t say I like most chain subs. Everything is pre-packaged and has this flat taste that bums me out. WaWa and Publix, on the other hand, are mostly regional, one is in a gas station and the other is a grocery store, and a big reason locals love each one is because there’s a freshness to their sandwiches. They both taste good. That’s the one thing I’m not denying here. I love both Publix and WaWa, but one was better than the other.
Ordering at WaWa is easier. You pop your order into a computer. While I don’t love using computers to order and would rather talk to a human, it makes waiting a little less annoying. You can also customize your sandwich more at WaWa. Different meats, cheeses, and kinds of bread, but also various sauces, and even if you want a regular amount of mayo or a little mayo. They also offer Old Bay. I’ve had more Publix subs in my life at this point, and I’ve found that the ordering process can screw things up sometimes, especially when there’s a lunch rush.
The chip selection at WaWa is better. At least it’s easier to see the good chips when getting your sandwich. You pick up your sandwich, and you see Utz and Zapp’s. In my mind, those are two of the finest chips you can get. I believe you can purchase them at Publix as well, but the chips they have on display by where you pick up your subs are the Dirty Potato Chips, and for some reason I’ve never liked those.
People at Publix are friendlier. I think this isn’t too surprising since they’re mostly in the South and usually at a WaWa, you’re getting your order from some guy named Scott who has a tattoo of the Flyers mascot Gritty on his arm and his hobbies include trying in vain to talk with Tom Scharpling on an episode of The Best Show and telling you to go fuck yourself if you don’t like Philly sports teams. That’s not a diss against Scott or anybody from the Mid-Atlantic. I sort of like it. I’m just trying to give you all the facts. I tend to like the surly guy making my sub (hoagie, in this case since it’s Philly), but maybe you don’t.
The Publix sub is bigger. I ordered a half from each place and it’s basically like a softball and a golf ball.
WaWa gives you more options, but the bread options at Publix are better. WaWa has multiple sizes including “Classic,” “Shorti Roll,” and “Junior Roll,” and they also have white, wheat, and rye bread, and if you’re a freak, you can get a bagel sandwich. Publix has white, wheat, and multigrain, and the difference is pretty noticeable. Publix sub rolls are big and buoyant, while WaWa’s version looks sort of sad in comparison. I never really thought of that until I had the two together.
WaWa has the better extras menu. Multiple kinds of mustard, garlic aioli, ranch dressing, hot honey, buffalo sauce, etc. And the Old Bay as an option is pretty great. The toppings aren’t all that different between the two, but WaWa has sweet and hot peppers, while Publix gives you jalapeno and banana peppers. I like jalapenos, but not on a sandwich. It’s the texture. It throws things off, especially if you get pickles like I do. Neither place has red onions. I think that’s too bad. I put white ones on my sandwich, but red onions are superior on one.
Publix lets you know they use Boars Head meats. I had to go to Reddit to see what WaWa uses, and even though I’m still not sure, I know it isn’t Boars Head so Publix wins this one by a landslide.
I’ve found that the construction of the Publix sub can vary depending on factors out of my control. It’s all about the person who makes it. The person who made the sandwich I had when I also went to WaWa did this thing where they tucked the meat into the meat, which I don’t like. Let the meat flop over. Tucking is weird. I think every WaWa hoagie I’ve had has been pretty uniform and I appreciate that.
The Publix sub tastes fresher. I think this shouldn’t be a surprise since it’s a grocery store with fresh produce on hand. You usually get a WaWa hoagie when you’re filling up gas. That’s why I sometimes have a hard time comparing the two sandwiches, because they do come from different kinds of places, but the local love of each one has led me to believe they are the only two regional chain sub sandwiches that truly matter, so I had to make a decision.
Publix. It’s just better. Fresher and bigger is always going to win. That doesn’t mean the WaWa hoagie isn’t good. It’s still the best damn thing you have to look forward to when driving out of New York City besides maybe Sheetz on the western side of Pennsylvania, but that’s only because I’m mystified by that area’s love of putting French fries on sandwiches. But a few years later, after the headline for a piece I wrote caused more controversy than the piece itself, I’m here to say that the headline was correct. Publix is the best in America.