Mmmmm…The Philly Cheese Steak. There’s nothing quite like it. In fact, most eateries outside of Philly and South Jersey try to imitate it, but wind up making something that is nothing quite like it. I’ve seen the traditional Steak Sandwich butchered (get it…butchered!) beyond belief, from gristley chipped beef with yellow American cheese on a hot dog bun (Applebee’s) to an actual piece of eye steak on a Kaiser roll with mayo and ketchup (little café in Virginia). But anyone who lives within 60 miles of Philly knows one thing: There’s only two ways to make a Philly Cheese Steak. The right way, and the wrong (aka everyone else’s) way. (And yes, this includes New Yorkers…yoos guys gots no idea how to make a decent sub. Pastrami, maybe, but yoos cants makes a sub to saves ya lifes!)
The REAL Philly Steak sandwich actually has a few acceptable variations, but when it gets right down to it, the basics are the same: Good quality, no gristle beef sliced thin, Provolone or Mozzarella cheese, and a fresh hard Italian long roll, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.
The Original South Philly Cheese Steak
There are plenty of people who will argue you to death about who invented the Philly Steak. A lot will give credit to Gino’s (http://www.genosteaks.com, founded 1966), and most will give it to Pat’s (http://www.patskingofsteaks.com, est. 1930) across the street. It doesn’t really matter who invented them…what matters is they were invented. And even though the two before-mentioned eateries are the most famous of the steak joints, they ain’t necessarily the best. (Matter of fact, over the years both these places started replacing provolone with cheese wiz. I just don’t get it. I guess the kiddies like it or something.)
Joe’s up the Street
There are sandwich places all over Philly (and South Jersey too) that make great Cheese Steaks. The White House Sub Shop in Atlantic City has been making killer subs since 1946. And of course, there was Joe’s up the Street, a little joint on the corner that didn’t
even have a sign. If you weren’t from the neighborhood, you probably didn’t even know it was a business. Joe sold cold cuts and bread. And he made sandwiches. Some of the best Cheese Steaks in the world, matter of fact. He made his simple: Thin sliced roast beef, seasoned with a little garlic and salt, fried on a grille with sweet onions (sliced, not chopped). He’d spread a little butter on a fresh Italian roll and toast it on the grille with the steak. Then he’d put a few slices of Mozzarella on the steak, and let it melt. When it was melted, the roll went on top of the meat and cheese, and he flipped the whole thing over onto a paper plate with a stainless steel spatula. For an extra 10¢ you could get green peppers fried with it. And for an extra 15¢ you could get a Cheese Steak Hoagie – lettuce, tomato, and hot peppers. Damned good!
What’s with the Cheese Wiz???
Somewhere along the lines, I’m pretty sure in the 1980’s, some yahoo started putting cheap canned cheese-wiz style processed cheese goop on Steak Sandwiches. You can be damned sure it was started to cut costs…a pound of provolone in the 80’s cost about $3.50, while a 5 pound can of liquid cheese cost about a nickel, or at least that’s all it was worth. This is the stuff they put on hot dogs at 7-11…strictly low rent. But apparently a lot of people started to like it (I blame college kids that hung out at a cheapo steak place on South Street in the 80’s…that’s the first time I saw the wiz being consumed). The problem with the cheese wiz is that it’s so gawd awful that it ruins the taste of the meat. There is no harmony. But I’m sure some will disagree. To you I say, “Go ahead and have your cheese wiz. Wash it down with some Maddog 20-20 while you’re at it!”
The Recipe For A Great South Philly Cheese Stake
Like most guys from Philly, I take my sandwiches very seriously. Even moving all the way down to South Florida hasn’t changed that. So when it comes to Cheese Steaks, I must say I make a pretty mean one. My personal recipe comes from years of sampling and experimenting with the finest ingredients and best ideas. It comes from eating Steaks from all over Philly and Jersey. It comes from eating, what I have calculated, about 1600 Cheese Steaks in my life! So here’s my recipe, a little more elaborate than the usual, but still staying true to the old style, still keepin’ the faith…
Mack’s South Philly Cheese Steak Hoagie
Start with two large sweet onions, sliced medium-thin into rings. Put these on the grill or in a hot frying pan with about 3 tbl olive oil. Add about a half tspn of salt and a few shakes of pepper, and let those fry up for about five minutes. Then add one whole, chopped green pepper and stir it into the onions. If things start to dry up, add a few drops of oil.
Meanwhile, take a 16″ loaf of crusty Italian bread and slice down the middle, being careful not to cut all the way through. Spread a thin coat of softened butter over each half, then sprinkle with garlic powder (or fresh garlic) and a little pepper. Place this butter-side down on the grill or up under a broiler and allow to toast.
When the onions are fried to a nice golden brown, reduce the flame to medium and add 1/2 pound of the sliced roast beef. Using two spatulas, separate the beef and mix it into the onions and peppers. Shake a little garlic powder onto the beef (not a lot!) and let this fry up until the meat is nice and brown, and add enough slices of provolone or mozzarella to cover the whole thing.
When the cheese is melted, scoop everything up with the spatula and lay it on the open bread, cheese side up. Add a little lettuce and tomato, and hot peppers if you like em. Ahh, datsa nice! Chow down, baby!
Variations on the Theme…
• If you’re really adventurous, use some fresh garlic in place of garlic powder. Oooo, adventurous!
• To give it a little kick, chop up a hot Italian pepper and let it fry up with the onions (thanks Dennis).
• If you can’t eat beef, sliced turkey breast tastes pretty close to the real thing in this recipe.
• For those of you who insist on that disgusting liquid cheese wiz, why don’t you try some real cheddar cheese instead.
South of Philly
I guy I used to know named Neil came up with this…he called it “South of Philly”. He used caramelized onions, sharp cheddar cheese and top round sliced thin. Great combination.
Ok, ok, I know everyone likes thing differently. But I just can’t stand it when some yahoo puts everything plus the kitchen sink on a sandwich, just because it’s there (Tim). If you throw mayo, ketchup, oil, vinegar, olives, mustard, sweet peppers, hot peppers and salt and pepper on anything, it will just taste like a mixed up mess of salad dressing and goo. Condiments should compliment the flavor, not cover it up. On a Cheese Steak, a tiny bit of ketchup can liven the flavor without overpowering it. Even a small amount of mayo has been known to be acceptable. Under no circumstances does a serious coinessuer use vinegar or mustard. Hot or sweet peppers should be used sparingly. Olives? Too Greek. Just stick to the basics and don’t ruin your sandwich.
Drinks & Sides
So you’ve followed the recipe and created an incredible Steak sandwich. What’s left? The sides and drinks, of course. You can’t wash down a great Cheese Steak with just anything, after all.
For sides, there’s nothing better than Boardwalk Fries and chopped coleslaw. If you can’t get Boardwalk fries, steak fries or waffle fries are good too. Make them crispy. A baked potato is also an interesting and sophisticated side to have with your Cheese Steak. After all, it is steak, right?
As for drinks, that really depends on your taste (and age!). If you like beer, a good old fashioned brew is great with the Steak. Jack and Coke also seems to work well, at least for me, as does ginger ale. A&W or Hires Root Beer is great and authentic to Philly. Of course I usually stick with ice water, so I can enjoy only the taste of the Steak. Just remember…under no circumstances should you drink white wine, lemonade, or iced coffee with your Cheese Steak…you’ll explode.
So there’s your course in Cheese Steak history and preparation. I’m a traditionalist, and this is retro site, so I’ve stuck to the old skool methods. You of course don’t have to. Experiment a little! Try one with red and yellow peppers, or Bermuda onions. Try exotic things like fennel and arugula. Or maybe a pizza steak. Whatever you decide, just remember…it ain’t a Philly Cheese steak unless you start with the basics. And for God’s sake, stay away from cheese wiz!