N.J.'s best sub/hoagie shop: This is where the cops and firemen eat

N.J.'s best sub/hoagie shop: This is where the cops and firemen eat

Shawn Costa walks into Hero King in downtown Newark and says hello to the crew at the charmingly divey sub shop.

“The only thing I gotta say,” he says, a grin spreading across his face, “is that they’ve got to smile more.”

Wise cracks have always been on the menu at Hero King, open since 1977 at the corner of Market and Union, a block from Newark Penn Station.

Hero King is one of 40 semifinalists in our N.J.’s best sub/hoagie shop showdown. Every eight shops, there will be a trip report like this one. Here is the day-by-day visit schedule.

“We’re slowly renovating the whole place,” explains owner Ray Campisi, who bought Hero King in 2012.  “We’re going to do the floor next.”

The original owner was a guy named Artie, then Gus Fagundo ran it from 1987 until 2012. The heroes – not subs, not hoagies – are loaded with meat, and a mere half will keep you busy for a while.

The Belly Buster (roast beef, turkey, ham, salami, choice of cheese) lives up to its name, the Treehugger (grilled eggplant, fresh mozzarella, roasted peppers), is a sly dig at vegetarians and don’t forget to check the specials board; Campisi recommends the chicken cutlet sub – sorry, hero –   and it’s  a good one.

Hero King was featured on SPIKE’S Hungry Investors show in 2014. In the “Subway Series” segment, Hero King went up against a Jewish deli in Brooklyn in a food battle. The Brooklyn deli won; Campisi, while loving the exposure, was not exactly happy with the result.

“They put us against this big deli,” he says. “We have four stools, they have 75 seats, 100 items on the menu.”

Hero King got over the snub, and customers like Costa don’t care anyway as long as they can pick up their favorite sub. The meats were from Dietz & Watson for many years, now’s it’s Kohler, owned by Freda Deli Meats. The bread comes from Zinicola’s in Nutley, where Hero King has another store.

A group of city firemen walk through the door, followed by office workers. It’s lunchtime. “Eat where the truckers eat” is the longtime axiom. To me, it’s always been “eat where the cops, firemen and EMTs eat.” They know their towns better than anyone, and the best places to eat, whether in a hurry or not.

I tell Campisi he should keep the worn tile floor, but he shakes his head.

“Nah, gotta get rid of it,” he says.


Mike’s Giant Sized Submarines, Keyport.  This bayshore legend, open since 1961, was closed five months due to Hurricane Sandy, but it’s back and now five feet higher off the ground after being raised.

Mike Ingravallo was the original owner, then Mike Aversa took over, and now his sons, Augustine and Paul, run Mike’s. The meat is from Thumann’s, the bread from Nino’s Bakery in West Long Branch. I sampled the prosciuttini, capicola and provolone sub, and the turkey.

Neil’s Kitchen, Long Branch. Bread is as key to a sub’s success as meats and toppings, and Neil Jordan uses good, crusty bread, from Giannella in Paterson. Jordan, who grew up on Staten Island and served as executive chef at the Rumrunner in Sea Bright, opened Neil’s eight years. He’s the cook, while his wife, Sally, is behind the counter. The meat is from Boar’s Head.

“We don’t come here because he gives us a break, we come here because it’s good,” says a local fireman.

Recommended: The #13 chicken cutlet, with fresh mozzarella, baby spinach, roasted red peppers and balsamic vinegar.

Hoagitos, Belmar.  The Asbury Park Hoagitos, in a converted shipping container, has been a longtime favorite of mine; Mark Spagnuolo and Terence McGill opened the year-round Belmar storefront this past Memorial Day.

These are mini-subs with creative toppings and dressings; the roast beef sandwich includes cambozola, pickled onion, arugula and roasted garlic mayo. Cambozola? It’s a cheese that’s half French cream cheese and half Italian gorgonzola.

McGill’s brisket is a complicated affair; ingredients include pickled jalapeno, Swiss, arugula, roasted garlic mayo, crispy shallots and “a bouquet of thyme and bay leaves.” Recommended: the sopressata, with brie, arugula, chile jam and a citrus vinaigrette.

Vintage Subs, Asbury Park. Why have a mere sub shop when you can add an art  gallery and pop culture museum? There are rotating gallery shows on one side of Vintage Subs; on the other are music, movie and TV posters and albums – Elvis, Bruce, The Knack, Supertramp, Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels and more. The owners are Nick Evangelista and Eddy Sousa.

“We’re making what I call old-school subs,” Evangelista explains. “We’re slicing everything thin; we’re using a nice soft sub roll from Venice Bakery.”

The meat is from Thumann’s. Recommended: the Paramount, with roast beef, provolone, and horseradish mustard.

Big Stash’s Sub House, Kearny. Big Stash’s gets a facelift? Say it ain’t so! When I arrived, a two-man crew was chiseling off well-worn decals and signs on the storefront, the result of a fundraising campaign by the Kearny High School Class of ’86.  This tiny (two tables) old-school sub opened in 1968.  Co-owner Mike Trivic remembered every detail of a Munchmobile visit two years ago. 

The meat’s from Thumann’s, the bread from America’s Bakery in Irvington. Tip:  Order a tuna sub, fresh and creamy. 

Lenny & John’s, Bloomfield. Lenny Antinozzi and John Maselli opened this sub shop in 1971; a Kenilworth store opened 4 1/2 years ago.

A basket of tomatoes rests on the counter, and the menu is no-nonsense: exactly 20 subs, and if you don’t order the tuna you are making a big mistake. It’s homemade, and tastes like it.

The meat is mostly Boar’s Head through New Jersey Provisions. The bread is from Zinicola’s in Nutley.

Dara’s Caterers, Elizabeth. A surprise awaited me at Dara’s. Rod “Junior” Gamache, one of the cooks, brought out a battered copy of my book Jersey Diners.  I interviewed him for the book 20 years ago, when he owned the Newark Avenue Diner in Jersey City. And he had been holding on to it all this time, and would I autograph it?  

Dara’s, named after owner Pete Mitula’s daughter, is a cozy little neighborhood eatery that does big business with companies based at Port Newark and Newark International Airport (FedEx once ordered 150 three-foot subs), not to mention law enforcement. “We get federal agents come in here every day, local cops, sheriff’s officers,” Mitula says. 

The meat is from Thumann’s and Hatfield and the bread from Calandra’s, but they roast their own beef, and the tuna, sauces, mayo and pulled pork are homemade. The roast beef sub was rare, red, and juicy.

Peter Genovese may be reached at pgenovese@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PeteGenovese or via The Munchmobile @NJ_Munchmobile. Find the Munchmobile on Facebook and Instagram.

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Published at Sun, 20 Nov 2016 14:00:00 +0000