Jeff Barg is an urban planner and Associate Director of Planning and External Policy Relations at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He also co-created the legendary Philly Taco and appeared on The Pizza Show with Frank Pinello to discuss his biggest contribution to the city of Philadelphia.
The Philly Taco started off as an idea that a friend and I hashed out one day in the early 2000s. We were both huge cheesesteak aficionados and wanted to create a challenge. We were right around college-aged—when everyone loves pizza—and we came up with this idea to go down to South Street, where you have Lorenzo's Pizza, which has the largest slices of pizza you can ever imagine, and Jim's Steaks which makes classic Philly cheesesteaks down the street.
At the time, I was working for an alt-weekly here in Philly and I wrote about this challenge, not as a thing I made up, but as if it were already a thing that people did—and, sure enough, it became a thing that people do.
The concept was to wrap a slice of Lorenzo's pizza around a Jim's cheesesteak. The beauty of the Philly Taco is not just the double starch; you're increasing the carbs as you go. When you wrap it correctly, you wrap the pizza lengthwise, as opposed to pigs-in-a-blanket style. We tried both versions. Lengthwise is definitely better: With each bite, you get more pizza than the previous bite. As a result, it actually gets more challenging as you go. The final bite is all pizza crust and the nub of the cheesesteak roll—only the strong survive. Alcohol is not required for this challenge, but it's not discouraged either.
The Philly Taco was originally conceived of as the challenge, but some people referred to it derisively as an a__ctivity, because they didn't think it was too much of a challenge. Case in point, my buddy's three-year-old son ate most of one by himself. Then, somewhere along the way someone re-christened it the Philly Taco, which is, quite frankly, a way better name.
In the years after it was invented, we would hear of a few people doing the challenge, but then, years later, we googled "Philly Taco" and to our shock and delight, thousands of results came up, from web pages to bulletin boards. Not too long after that, it ended up in the Great Philly Cheesesteak Book and it became part of the cheesesteak eating contest that we have on South street. It's become a great, decadent Philly thing, which feels awesome and now, it's on The Pizza Show.
It's been a while since we've been known as the unhealthiest city in America, but we did have that title for a couple of years. Our mayor did try hard to fight that and we made progress. It was nice to contribute to that. There's no real connection between my job as an urban planner and the Philly Taco, other than a nice dose of irony because my most lasting legacy on the city is a cheesesteak wrapped in pizza.