The Immortal Cheesesteak

Ah, Philadelphia. City of Brotherly Love, home of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, where Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, where Rocky ran up some steps waving his arms in the air. John Coltrane came from Philly. So do Tastykakes.

I’d never had a burning desire to go to Philadelphia. But I was deep in the midst of a David McCullough reading bender — having recently finished “1776” and being more than halfway through “John Adams” — and was going to be driving right past the city en route from Washington D.C. to our pal Jon’s family lake house in the Adirondacks.

Already on our East Coast vacation, we had seen important sights in D.C., would be staying in Brooklyn close to where Washington’s troops got whooped by the British, and lodging within view of Bunker Hill and the Old North Church in Boston.

So when Jon said, “Is there anywhere we wanna stop on the way?” I suggested Philadelphia.

Not only would we be able to visit the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration, Independence Hall where the founding fathers met to plot out a country, and the highly overrated Liberty Bell. It would be lunchtime, and we could eat a cheesesteak, too.

I’ve had cheesesteaks before. Much like Cajun cuisine in the 80s, it was a bit of a thing when the first few places in Southern California began offering them — something rare and exotic, like an animal you’ve never seen before at the zoo. I recall trying a couple at the time, but do not remember the sandwich itself. It did not leave an impression. Perhaps, I figured, it was one of those things like molé or poutine that was better experienced at the source.

Flynn and Trey at Independence Hall

Getting into downtown Philadelphia at lunchtime on a Saturday proved surprisingly easy. We exited the freeway directly into the Old City, and turned into the first parking lot was saw — which happened to be right beneath the Liberty Bell. We avoided the block-long line for that particular attraction, choosing instead to gaze through the window at the Liberty Bell. We also skipped the line to go into Independence Hall — it was enough to see it from the outside this time — and walked over to Carpenter’s Hall instead, where the First Continental Congress was held in 1774.

Then it was lunchtime, everyone was hungry, and we wanted to get back on the road. So we wandered from the historic center into downtown proper, which was eerily quiet.

“This is a weird town,” Leslie said.

I proposed it might be hard to get to know a city in your first hour. She also asked what a Philadelphia accent sounded like, and Jon and I both attempted pathetic versions that sounded more like a cross between Southey and the Bronx. But it would not be long before she would find out.

Hungry kids

You see signs for “cheesesteaks” everywhere in Philadelphia — from Subway’s to find dining establishments. Jon had initially suggested we go to South Philly, where the best cheesesteaks were supposed to be. But we had limited ourselves to two hours to see sights and eat, since we were looking at an 8-hour drive even without the stop. We had already used up an hour, so South Philly was out. He then offered that perhaps we try the Wawa convenience store, which supposedly had good cheesesteaks. But entering and glancing around, we realized it was not the ambience we were looking for.

We were running out of time, and getting further from our cars. So we turned right down a side street, and voila! There in front of us was the place — a grungy looking pizza/stromboli/sandwich joint that, like everyplace else, proudly advertised “Cheesesteaks!”

“What can I get you folks?” said the dude behind the counter, a perfect caricature of the working-class Philadelphia guy, accent and all. Jon couldn’t wait and scarfed a stromboli, while the rest of us ordered our cheesesteaks.

“Ketchup?” the guy said. We all nodded. “Grilled onions?” When in Philly…

Digging in

We went upstairs to where there were some tables and drank our complimentary ice water. It was hot and muggy outside. A few minutes later, we heard footsteps ascending the stairs.

“Who’s hungry!??” said Philly guy, followed by a big black dude, two stuffed trays of food between the two of them.

The Philly cheesesteak is a hot mess of a sandwich — literally and figuratively. Pat and Harry Olivieri, who owned a Philadelphia hot dog stand in the 1930s, are credited with the invention. Like other blue collar Eastern sandwiches, you want to begin with the softest, most preservative-packed roll you can find. Thinly sliced steak is cooked on a grill, topped with some American cheese until it all becomes gooey, and then scooped into the soft bun. Greasy, coat-your-mouth comfort food. I strongly recommend the addition of the onions and ketchup. Some people add mushrooms or grilled green peppers. I’ve read of chicken cheesesteaks, pizza cheesesteaks, even vegan cheesesteaks. But those all seem to miss the point.

Cheesesteak — the portrait

Other than Jon, we each ate only half our cheesesteaks, and wrapped them to go — fully fueled for the remaining 5 hours on the road. The cheesesteaks, not surprisingly, would reheat perfectly well in the microwave for breakfast the next day.

I’m still trying to figure out the Philly accent. When I was a kid, I worked for an old cat from Philly in an Italian deli, and I tried to remember how he talked. I watched a YouTube tutorial in which the woman advised me to widen the sides of my mouth and say “water,” which is supposed to sound like “wodder.” In the comments, one person said, “WTF?? That sounds more like Boston!” and another said, “That might be South Philly, but definitely isn’t Philly.” So I gave up.

The cheesesteak would have to be enough Philly for me.

*    *    *

Philly cheesesteak
serves 2

1/2 lb. ribeye or top round, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
4 slices American cheese
2 soft rolls
ketchup
salt & pepper to taste

Heat oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Saute onions, stirring frequently, until softened and browned. Remove and set aside.

Add steak to pan. Fry, stirring frequently and breaking apart with a spatula, until golden brown. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Form into two elongated piles, and top each with two slices of American cheese. As cheese begins to melt, open rolls and place on top of cheese, and cook for 1 minute. Remove from heat.

Use the spatula to flip each sandwich over onto a plate, scooping meat and cheese into the roll as you do. Squirt with some ketchup and serve.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Amanda Bower
    Jul 25, 2018 @ 19:49:36

    Never in my life have I had a cheesesteak sandwich! LOL Your recipe sounds way better then the sandwich looks in the picture though….

    Reply

  2. andreathompson2
    Jul 26, 2018 @ 19:30:16

    Yum!!!

    Reply

  3. Jessica
    Jul 27, 2018 @ 06:03:05

    On my 2nd trip to Philly, we did the same thing, found some random cheesesteak spot near Independence Hall. Back in Philly this Feb. for only my 3rd time, tagging along on college visits with my niece, we made it to the legendary Pat’s King of Steaks, located across from its main competitor, Geno’s. I’m told that the main difference between PA and NJ diners is the type of cheese – PA folks swear by Cheese Whiz which they call “whiz,” while NJ folks prefer provolone. Pat’s has a helpful ordering guide posted so you can sound like a local. Health food it is not! P.S. I’m not sad that I’m old enough to remember my 1st visit being in awe of the Liberty Bell – at that ancient time, it was NOT ensconced in an enclosure – you could literally walk up to it and touch it! Thanks for bringing up these great memories.

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Jul 27, 2018 @ 15:42:02

      I’m starting to think of the cheesesteak as a blank canvas — so many directions you could go, right? Hey, how about a cheesesteak on KING’S HAWAIIAN BREAD!! 😃

      Reply

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