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Whatever You Want to Call It, the New Jersey Pork Roll Is Having Its Portland Breakfast Sandwich Moment

So what the hell is pork roll, and why are two places in Portland serving it?

You can call it what you want.

That's the position of Chazz Madrigal and Doug Miriello, the respective owners of Lamotta's Handmade and Dimo's SPK, both of whom are feeding Portland a specific type of East Coast breakfast sandwich built around a certain type of processed meat. Their weekend pop-ups—at Water Avenue Coffee for Madrigal and Dimo's Apizza for Miriello—drew immediate long lines and rapturous Instagram stories, as well as pushback in the comments. Because as with oversized Italian sandwiches and pizza, there's no way to sell a pork roll, egg and cheese without an argument over culinary etymology.

See, if you're from Philadelphia—which I am—or South Jersey, "pork roll" is what you call the product that's labeled "John Taylor's Pork Roll" and is officially known in full as "John Taylor's Original Taylor Pork Roll." In North Jersey and New York, the same product is called "Taylor Ham." You can see the discrepancy in pop culture: On the one hand, you've got Ween, from New Hope, Penn., with their 1991 song "Pork Roll Egg and Cheese." On the other, comedian Chris Gethard, from West Orange, N.J., issued his album Taylor Ham, Egg, and Cheese in 2019.

The Taylor Ham misnomer—in your face, West Orange!—is based on the fact that when John Taylor first packaged the product in 1856, he called it "Taylor's Prepared Ham," only to see his vision dashed by the Upton Sinclair-inspired Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, after which the product no longer met the federal government's legal definition of "ham."

So what the hell is pork roll, and why are two places in Portland serving it?

"It's a delicious, quintessential East Coast non-delicacy sort of thing," says Miriello, who is from Connecticut but always heard about the stuff from Philly and New Jersey friends. "I'm like, 'What is this disgusting-sounding thing called pork roll?' And then I finally tried it, and it's pretty revolutionary."

"I would liken it to something akin to Spam: It's processed and pressed, chipped and chopped into a roll," says Madrigal, a longtime local bartender, DJ and restaurant vet. Among many other spots, he used to work at Creepy's, which may have been the city's pork roll pioneer, serving a "Jersey Breakfast Sandwich" on an English muffin.

As an emulsified forcemeat, pork roll in no way resembles actual ham. But what Spam is to jamon, pork roll is to mortadella or bologna. "It's breakfast bologna," Miriello says. "Bologna with a little extra salinity to it that just crisps up beautifully. Am I plating it on anything other than a Taylor Ham, egg and cheese? Probably not. But in that combo, it's perfect."

Madrigal is from, as he puts it, "the Oakland Bay area," and claims "absolutely no spiritual connection" to the sandwich. That came from a friend with New York City roots, Phil DeGennaro, with whom he first dreamed up the idea of opening an Italian American-style deli. As a one-man, part-time kitchen, Madrigal bakes his own sesame rolls for LaMotta's take on an Italian sub. But the "Badlands" sandwich—if you hold it up to your ear, you can hear it softly calling, Broooooce—piles Taylor Ham on a squishy An Xuyen seeded burger bun, with scrambled eggs and American cheese.

For his "Jersey Special," Miriello more actively sought authenticity and memory. To him, a proper pork roll, egg and cheese has to have a fried egg and Kraft American cheese. But most of all, you've got to have a proper East Coast hard roll—something softer than a baguette, but more resistant than a bun. Bunk Sandwiches, the home of Portland's OG bacon, egg and cheese, has long gotten its rolls from Fleur de Lis Bakery. At Dimo's, Miriello toyed with several options, including baking the rolls himself (too hard), shipping them from back East (no one took him seriously) or using Grano Bakery in Oregon City, which supplies Dimo's Apizza with its sesame baguettes (too artisan). Ultimately, Dos Hermanos, which, like Dimo's, is backed by the omnipresent ChefStable restaurant group, came up with a custom choice.

Neither Madrigal nor Miriello really knew or cared about the name thing. At LaMotta's, Madrigal calls it Taylor Ham. Dimo's, meanwhile, went with "Taylor Pork Roll," thereby displeasing partisans on both sides.

"If I called it Taylor Ham and anyone from the Pacific Northwest ordered it, they would send it back," says Miriello. "'I ordered a ham, egg and cheese! Why are you giving me this weird bologna?'"

The other thing that both restaurants agree on, which just might be a harder sell than mystery meat: SPK, or "salt pepper ketchup." The acronym is right there in the Dimo's name, and that's also how LaMotta's dresses the sandwich, with no substitutions. Add some hot sauce if you must, but the ketchup's cloying sweetness balances the salty pig and yolky-cheesy fat.

"Salt, pepper, ketchup. That's just the way it's done," says Miriello. "I think a lot of us, especially during the pandemic, are cooking through nostalgia. So even if there's not a pure, reasonable explanation as to why, that's how it's gotta be."

EAT: LaMotta's Handmade at Water Avenue Coffee, 1028 SE Water Ave., Premade sandwiches served 7 am-1 pm Thursday-Friday, full menu 8 am-2 pm Saturday-Sunday. (On vacation Thursday-Friday, April 1-2.) Dimo's SPK at Dimo's Apizza, 701 E Burnside St., 503-327-8968, 9 am-2 pm Saturday-Sunday.