The other day I ate my first cheesesteak outside my native Philly area since the 1990s. Long ago, I stopped eating cheesesteaks away from home after getting zero brotherly love from a sorry pretender consumed in a Los Angeles hotel. Never again, I resolved.
There are two problems with me trying to eat cheesesteaks beyond Philadelphia. One, you can’t compete with the flavor of nostalgia. Two, the cheesesteaks you encounter elsewhere are bound to suck.
Why is this? A cheesesteak is nothing but chopped meat, cheese, a roll, and maybe onions.
The steak itself is typically of no notable quality. They sure as hell aren’t chopping up grass-fed wagyu on South Street (although some spots claim to use rib-eye). The rolls, too, are on the plain side. Furthermore, the best cheesesteaks are made with Cheez Whiz. Yes I’m talking about the orange goop from the can.
A great secret, actually, is that the Philly cheesesteak isn’t even the city’s best sandwich. That title belongs to the roast pork — which comes on a harder roll with broccoli rabe, au jus, and razor-sharp provolone. The roast pork is like an Italian porchetta, only the pig is roasted off the bone and its skin isn’t used.
The level of skill and finesse with the Philly roast pork can be impressive. The cheesesteak, by comparison, is simple addition. Cheese + steak + roll = cheesesteak. Easy, right?
My extra-Philly abstinence ended at a place called, doubtfully, "Best of Philly."
The place is a throwback counter-service joint on Edgemont Street and Central Avenue in Phoenix. As I opened the door from the blinding parking lot, I could almost feel my heart tense, as if bracing for the grease tide and inevitable letdown.
The menu blared that all cheesesteaks were made with American cheese. My cheesesteak order has forever been “Whiz with,” meaning Whiz with onions. Shit — no Whiz? At a place called Best of Philly?
I asked the cashier if they had Whiz. “Oh yeah!” she replied.
My order placed, I stood and waited for my Phoenix cheesesteak.
I studied the grill master, a trim middle-aged man lasered in on his task: chopping meat, placing cheese, slotting cheesesteak onto buns. He wielded two metal spatulas, one in each hand. These are the tools for making a real cheesesteak. The sound of them scraping and clacking and colliding with the sizzling flattop, together with the brusque kitchen commands and customers ordering food, took me back.
It could have been high school. It could have been South Philly’s Italian Market. It could have been the St. Patrick's Day where I ate cheesesteaks for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a late-night snack.
My trance broke. “Yo, you from Philly?” someone asked.
Remembering I was wearing a Phillies hat, I nodded. “Just outside the city."
He was from north of the city. I grew up west. He came to Best of Philly all the time for lunch. Not bad, I thought. There may even be hope for this sandwich.
Those hopes took a slow beat down as I watched the grillmaster work. He was crazed, scampering from grill to counter and back, nobly immersed in the flurry of the lunch rush. As he rained a spate of chops onto piles of steak (topped with white American cheese), one shred flew across the room just past the face of his co-worker at the frying station. The cheesesteak hustle was there in spades.
But the meat he was transferring to the grill wasn’t the red color of raw beef. It was brown, already partly cooked and waiting in tins for the grill’s final kiss. With just one person working the stove, I understand the place's need for convenience. But taste often doesn’t.
He draped a few half-squares of American onto my steak. He side-stepped, and out from a secret place below came a tub of Whiz. At last, he baptized my chopped steak with a dollop of congealed orange.
A few minutes later, I was sitting in the sun with my non-Philly Philly cheesesteak.
And holy shit, it wasn’t bad. Graded on a curve, the cheesesteak was decent. I wouldn’t say good or great, but passable, edible, and a somewhat solid representation of what a Philly cheesesteak is. The roll was nice and chewy, the steak spilling, and there were no fucking vegetables in sight. Not bad.
There were a few culinary decisions that, made differently, could have raised the stakes. First, the thin beef sheets really should start out raw. Second, the cheese needs to be evenly dispersed through the meat, so that the good stuff coats every last shred in a thin fatty layer. Third, the Whiz should be ladled or otherwise slopped on molten and with a much, much heavier hand. I could go on, but we’ll keep to that curve.
A cheesesteak, in the end, is more than cheese + steak + roll = cheesesteak. It's also the sum of the minor traditions and elementary techniques you don't really notice until they're not all there. There's that nostalgia aspect as well, the most potent seasoning of all.
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All said, Best of Philly makes a decent cheesesteak. I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to find Dalessandro’s or hot-Whiz nirvana on a 100-degree fall day within sight of palm trees. I was expecting a sorry sandwich like the one in L.A., and what I got was decent.
So then, will I change my ways? Will I start eating cheesesteaks beyond Philly?
Maybe. I'll keep an open mind.
Best of Philly. 2818 North Central Avenue, 602-266-7374
Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; closed Sunday