Cheesesteak: you're doing it wrong - Jay Maynard

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Thursday, 9 October 2008


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1302 - Cheesesteak: you're doing it wrong

I had another yummy cheesesteak for lunch at my client's cafeteria today. The cook here knows how to do it. That's rare outside of Philadelphia; I guess Baltimore is close enough that people around here notice.

The usual "Philadelphia cheesesteak" outside of the immediate area consists of slices of roast beef on a long sandwich roll, with miscellaneous cheese (usually Swiss or American), raw onion, maybe sauteed mushrooms and bell pepper, lettuce, and tomato.

The real thing is quite different. Here's how you do it:

Take a slab of meat. A chicken breast will work, if you're a heathen or trying to be healthy, but the canonical version is a slice of frozen beef about the size of the roll and a quarter inch or so thick. Drop it on the grill. Take your sharp-edged metal spatula and shred it while it begins to cook. If you want onions, take some chopped onion and drop it into the meat. Cook, stirring to make sure it's cooked evenly. This will go quickly. When it's almost done, layer slices of cheese (canonically, Provolone) on top, and let it melt into the shredded meat. Spread mayo or ketchup on the inside of the roll as desired. Scoop up the meat with your spatula and place in the roll. Eat.

There are those who will argue that the kind of crusty Italian bread you find in Philadelphia is an essential component. It certainly makes things even better, but the folks at the cafeteria here use a standard submarine sandwich roll, and it worked well enough. The key is the cooking method, which is designed to go quickly: a cheesesteak is fast food, and the kind of lunch wagon you see in Philadelphia depends on high volume to make money off of its inexpensive sandwiches.

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Comments:


From:grimmbear
Date: - 0000
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As a born and bred Philadelphian I have to agree with you. It's rare to get a good cheesestake outside of Philadelphia county. Although there are some fantastic variations on the theme even here. Take the 'Stockyard" for example. It's a cheesestake with beef, chicken, bacon, pepperoni and Marscopone cheese and a good roll and it's bliss.
http://zagat2.orcsweb.com/Verticals/Menu.aspx?VID=8&R=71775&HID=500004630
A link to Campo's.
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From:phanatic
Date: - 0000
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When it's almost done, layer slices of cheese (canonically, Provolone)

Provolone's *available*, but if you order a cheesesteak without specifying, you hardly ever get provolone. I'm not going to say "never," but I've never gotten it.
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From:jmaynard
Date: - 0000
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Hm. I don't recall being able to order one without getting asked what kind of cheese. Personally, I prefer sharp Provolone when I can get it, but American just seems wrong.
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From:zarchasmpgmr
Date: - 0000
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I believe Cheez Whiz is the default, IIRC.

(And, wow. A chance to actually use this userpic with its original context.)
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From:megadog
Date: - 0000
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As someone with a genetic inability to deal with dairy, the idea of cheesesteak is ++wrong.

Rather, give me a steak that was 'distressed' by being walked through the kitchen before slaughter. If it doesn't flinch when I cut it, it's not fresh enough!
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From:pat_barron
Date: - 0000
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Having grown up in Philadelphia, and having consumed way more than my share of cheesesteaks (which I guess sort of explains the shape I'm in...), I know what you mean.

As far as I'm concerned, though, the cheese on a cheesesteak is American, without exception. (There are those that will tell you that the cheese of choice is Cheez Wiz, but as far as I remember that's something that the South Philly cheesesteak shops started doing in the mid to late 80's or so, and my guess is because it saved them a little time per sandwich, or something like that.) We always got our cheesesteaks from some variant of "the pizza shop down on the corner", and it was always American - nothing else was even available. You could get them "wit" or "wit-out" (fried onions, that is...), sometimes people would get green peppers, too. A popular variant was the "pizza steak"; instead of American cheese, you'd get mozzarella, and it would be topped with pizza sauce - not something I always have a taste for, but it's good to have occasionally.

The bread used to be important - but alas, you can't even get the "good bread" in Philadelphia anymore. When I was a kid, every day local deli's would get a delivery (usually from Amoroso, or some other local high-volume bakery) of Kaiser rolls and submarine rolls (a/k/a "round rolls" and "long rolls"...), that they'd have in big bins at the front of the store. They were crusty on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, and had just a hint of a salty flavor. You had to eat them that day, because they'd be stale and rock-hard by the next day. Even in Philadelphia now, I don't know where to get bread like that - Amoroso has long since changed their recipe to extend shelf life, and the bread has the texture and consistency of cotton balls now (IMHO...).

I just had a cheesesteak for lunch today, at a chain cheesesteak shop. I always have to painstaking tell them how to make it right (even though we're only about 300 miles away from Philadelphia). Have to specifically specify American instead of Provolone (which is the default - it's actually the only available cheese listed on the menu, so you have to "go off the menu" to get American...sometimes this almost makes the cashier's head explode...). Even worse, the default cheesesteak configuration here adds lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise to your cheesesteak - if you don't stop them, you get it... Yuck. The only real problem I had with today's cheesesteak, was that they toasted the bun (which is just wrong). I didn't know they'd actually done that until I started eating it - if I'd known they were going to toast the bun, I would have stopped them....
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From:jmaynard
Date: - 0000
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Toasted the bun? Yow. You're right, that is just wrong. I don't have any problem with mayo, but lettuce and tomato Do Not Belong.

You'd think they'd have someone in Pittsburgh who'd get it...I guess not. Which chain is this so I'll know what not to expect should I find myself back there?
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From:pat_barron
Date: - 0000
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The chain in question is Charley's. I can usually get them to make it close to the way I want it, but they sort of have a "routine" they go through, and any time you take them out of their routine, especially if you give them more than one non-standard request (I usually request no onions, no lettuce/tomato/mayo, American cheese, and sometimes I ask for extra cheese), you risk confusing them. The location I frequent replaced a similar (now defunct) chain sandwich shop, that had similar problems, only worse. At least this chain has one of those video monitors near the grill, where they can see the order as it was placed by the customer and entered at the register. At it's predecessor, the cashier called out the order to someone down the line, who repeated it to the person at the grill. It was kind of like playing Chinese Whispers - you were never quite sure what you were going to get, since the order was likely to be misrepeated or misheard by at least one of the parties involved, and the more non-standard things you asked for, the better the chance that they'd get it wrong.

The place here that gets it closest to right is an independently owned shop called Southside Steaks. Their cheesesteak is basically what you'd expect - meat, cheese (provolone, American, Cheez Wiz, or pepper jack), and onions if you want. Lettuce and tomato are not even offered on the "original" cheesesteak; at least they understand that. They get their bread from Amoroso in Philadelphia (which, like I said, is not nearly as good as it used to be, but at least their current recipe allows the bread to survive cross-state transport). The problem, though, is that they squirt some kind of flavored oil on the meat while it's cooking. This makes the finished product excessively greasy, and messes up the taste. I always forget to ask them not to do that, possibly because they give off a very strong "special orders do upset us" kind of vibe...

Several people I know swear by Peppi's, a little neighborhood place on the North Side, as having the best cheesesteak. I've never gotten over there to try it myself, but it's on my list.

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