Lou’s Turns 70

Regional sandwich history is a murky, oft-contentious business, filled with pompous posturing and rampant revisionism. Inquire about the origins of the beef on weck at a bar in Buffalo, the po’boy in New Orleans or the cheesesteak right here in Philly, and the lines are clearly drawn, but quick. Such is the case in Norristown, at the seven-booth, chrome-trimmed Lou’s Sandwich Shop, which has, since 1941, offered a hyper-local hoagie variant known simply as the Zep. Ask any of the regulars here, and they’ll tell you that the Zep was invented right behind that counter. Fans make the same claim on the shop’s Yelp page. But a dissenting theory comes from a surprising source: Lou Alba, the current owner, whose maternal grandfather, Lou Bondi, opened Lou’s six days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. As Alba tells it, the Zep was birthed, not at Lou’s, but at a grocery store down the street in the 1930s, by a Coatesville man known as Jimmy Zep. “I also hear all the time: ‘I remember when we used to get Zeps for 10 cents,’” says Alba, in his best Grumpy Old Man voice. “Wrong. They were a quarter.” All historical disputes aside, one thing everyone agrees on is the contents of a proper Zep: cooked salami (Lou’s prefers Montco’s Hatfield), domestic provolone, sliced onions and tomato, oil and oregano. Never lettuce. Why? “I have no idea,” Alba admits. “It’s always been a mystery.” These days, a Zep will set you back $4.50 and will likely be composed and served by Bondi descendants, as Lou’s is still very much a family affair. “After working here her whole life, my mother just retired at 82,” Alba reflects tearfully. “She’s a great woman. God bless her.”

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