Hoagie Haven in Princeton, NJ: Phat Ladies, Chocolate Cheesesteaks, and Happy Undergrads
"It's hard to bring yourself to order a Phat Lady. But it's equally hard to put it down."
Any self-respecting college town needs a greasy late-night food stop, preferably with quarterback-filling portions, 2 a.m. crowds, and rich local legend. In Princeton, New Jersey, that place is Hoagie Haven--or, more often, just "The Haven." In fairness, the town of Princeton is more than the university that shares its name, and Hoagie Haven is as throwback Jersey as a sandwich shop could be. But no one needs a good Saturday hoagie like a college undergrad.
A Princeton institution since the 1970s, the Haven is about as no-frills as an eatery gets: fluorescent lights, no seating, cash only. The menu, on a row of old-school signs, lists the Haven's original sandwiches by number--the Bacon Cheese Steak, #16; the Meatball, #23. Hoagie rolls from the Italian People's Bakery toast in the warmer. Just behind the counter, quick-handed workers throw steak and bacon onto the sizzling griddle, toss cheese and eggs on after them. If these heady fumes of cooking meat don't make you hungry, nothing will.
And you'd better be hungry, because even the half-sized hoagies are nearly a foot long. Wholes are as long as my arm. Looking at a finished sandwich, it's impossible to imagine a single person scarfing one down. But of course, they routinely do.
Which is especially impressive, given the bubbling deep-fryer--many of the Haven's specialties pile on the fries, chicken tenders, and even mozzarella sticks. About six years ago, the Haven added a list of sandwiches loosely based on the Grease Trucks in New Brunswick. These food trucks, stationed at Rutgers University a few miles north, sell "Fat Sandwich" subs--artery-clogging behemoths stuffed with meat and fries, one of which, the "Fat Darrell," earned Maxim's nod for the "Best Sandwich In America". (As any sandwich stuffed with mozzarella sticks and chicken tenders is sure to do.)
So Hoagie Haven invented its own line of super-greasy novelty sandwiches, which Haven purists (and Rutgers loyalists) initially sniffed at. But in a college town, one year's sacrilege is the next year's tradition, and these hot hoagies are now among the Haven's best-selling.
The Phat Lady ($4.95 half, $9.35 whole) is a veritable graduation requirement--a cheesesteak with mozzarella sticks and French fries right in the bun. Best with hot sauce and mayo, if you dare.
Just as cholesterol-endowed is the Heart Stop ($4.95 half, $9.35 whole), a cheesesteak with bacon and two fried eggs--also better with hot sauce and mayo.
Which pales in comparison to the Big Cat ($6.55 half, $10.97 whole)--one hoagie crams four cheeseburgers in with bacon, and four eggs. You'll want ketchup.
The infamous Sanchez ($5.50 half, $9.95 whole) stuffs fried chicken tenders, hot mozzarella sticks, and fries in a hoagie roll, with an extra blanket of cheese and tangy, spicy Sanchez sauce. Better with double the sauce, ordered as "extra dirty." (For those not fluent in collegiate humor, watch your language--that's a reference to a lewd act that will not now, nor ever be defined on this website).
The Bloch ($5.45 half, $9.85 whole), named after a Princeton student with a trademark order, is a chicken parm with bacon and fried eggs thrown in. No additions necessary--tomato sauce makes this sandwich more than drippy enough.
And though less gratuitously greasy, the best of all might be the Buffalo Chicken Cheesesteak ($4.50 half, $7.90 whole)--thin-shaved chicken, thrown on the grill cheesesteak-style, with buffalo sauce and blue cheese dressing. As gooey and satisfying as any hoagie could be.
Concept is important, but execution is key. A badly composed mozzarella stick sandwich would be pretty appalling. But with everything fried to order, soft, just-crusty rolls, and toppings any way you want, Hoagie Haven makes a consistently excellent sandwich. It's hard to bring yourself to order a Phat Lady. But it's equally hard to put it down.
And while the Haven does its own thing, it'll try yours, too. Plenty of regulars have special orders--one friend gets his Buffalo Chicken Cheesesteak with two fried eggs and extra blue cheese. And a recent graduate, after mishearing "chicken cheesesteak" as "chocolate cheesesteak," decided that a chocolate-soaked sandwich sounded incredible. (Draw your own conclusions as to his concurrent altered state.)
He smacked a Hershey Bar down on the counter and asked that it be melted right onto the toasted hoagie roll. The guy at the grill, undoubtedly entertained, obliged--and five minutes later, the chocolate cheesesteak was born. It was, he claims, delicious. (He has since replicated the experiment with a Snickers, which he thought even more successful. I have my doubts.)