A Tale of Two Cheesesteaks
A few years back my wife’s friend came in from Miami and wanted to see Philadelphia. He is a chef in a casual restaurant and wanted to see what the fuss was about when it came to unarguably one of the most famous sandwiches in the United States, The Philly cheesesteak. So we took him to the where the rivalry of two dueling cheesesteaks sit exact opposite each other on a busy Philadelphia corner.
Countless times these two iconic places have been the subject of television shows which feature food and travel of Americana. As it turns out, I was not the only one with a clever idea to get one cheese steak from Pat’s, and another from Geno’s to compare and contrast the two side by side. It seemed like everyone had this idea. They would divide into two teams and once the order was received they would split the sandwiches and make their assessment as to which is best. Well, they both suck. Keep in mind I am from North Jersey, and with New York City just minutes away, its easy to see where my loyalty lies. In fact, you can easily find a better Philly cheesesteak right here at any Jersey Boardwalk down the shore if you are closer to Philadelphia than New York. Anyone will tell you that, even Anthony Bourdain when he was still alive.
To be fair, neither is a bad sandwich, but certainly cannot compare to even the one you can make at home just as easily without the two hour drive. Pat’s had the better seasoned meat, but the bread did not seem as fresh. Geno’s had a better roll, juicier meat, but less flavor. Overall, it seemed as if (at least that day), Geno’s had the cheesesteak with fresher ingredients. I can’t remember which one this was, and not even sure why there is a tomato on it (my wife likes to order things her way even if it is not traditional, she likes what she likes). But even this bread looks pretty sad compared to this fresh one I made at home.
While I admit the one I do at home is nearly a complete makeover, there is never an excuse to not use fresh ingredients if you have the opportunity. Especially if you have the landmark location and the turnover of customers that these two places have on a Saturday afternoon. Keeping the sandwich enjoyable and delicious at a fair price so a profit can still be made is always a challenge. So after you had one in Philadelphia, enjoy a better one at home using the very best ingredients you can. It will be a lot more tasty, fresher, and believe it or not, cheaper. One pound of quality meat like Pat LaFrieda shaved beef is about $7. The onion and pepper is about $1, and the mayonnaise and bread is also less than a dollar. You can easily make 4 sandwiches for less than $20. Here is how:
- Quality Beef: You should be able to find this in your supermarket. If not, go to a butcher and ask them to slice rib eye as thin as they can, and don’t be afraid to tell them it is for a cheese steak sandwich. Never use those frozen meats like “Steakums”, while I enjoyed that as a kid, I didn’t know any better and nothing beats fresh (not frozen) meat in this case. A word of warning – quality Pat LaFrieda meat goes for about $8/pound but if you go to the butcher it can easily cost you twice as much. Does it taste better from the butcher? Of course, but does it taste twice as good? You decide. For me, this is street food. It should taste good but not be of poor quality either. I am also only feeding two people, not a small party – plan accordingly.
- Fresh Bread: “long rolls” from your favorite bakery, even the fresh rolls from your supermarket bakery will do. For me, I don’t like them too soft, or too hard, they should be chewy, but not so its a struggle to take a bite. The choice here is yours, however, the bread is the key vehicle to the delivery to a good sandwich.
- Cheese: This is also a matter of preference. While the original might call for processed soft cheese whiz, nothing beats provolone (as it is served in Philly) or even cheddar. Sometimes I use a combination of the two.
- Onions & Peppers: while some people don’t like peppers, you can omit those, but onions are a must. It adds to the flavor and once cooked. Green peppers definitely taste best in this. I’ve tried them all, green, orange and red.
- Seasoning: Always season your meat well with salt and pepper, but don’t over do it. Season the meat, even add a couple of cloves of shredded garlic (whole cloves shaved with a cheese grater). Allow it to sit at room temperature for about 15 minutes so the seasoning sinks in.
The rest is easy. Use a good cast iron skillet, or a flat top grill. Over medium heat, add small amount of olive oil and add the onions and/or peppers, sprinkle of salt and pepper, and allow to cook until desired doneness. I like mine a bit on the softer side. If you like them firmer, remember, you still have to add and cook the meat so the onions and peppers will continue to cook during that time.
Push the vegetables to one side, turn up the heat to medium high, and cook the beef well. Even if you like your steak medium or rare, this is not the time to do it. The meat must be cooked well done.
While cooking, mix back in the vegetables from the side of the pan and allow them to cook together. Once you are about ready, add the cheese until completely melted. You can even cover the top of the skillet to get it to melt faster.
When preparing the bread, don’t be afraid to use mayonnaise on both sides of the bread. This will help keep the bread from getting soggy and keep some of the heat in after you put the beef in there just before serving.
I think 1/4 pound (4 ounces) is enough meat for each sandwich, you can obviously add more if you like, but I like a balance. The beef should be 60% and the vegetables and cheese should be the other 40% of the sandwich. Of course, you can always make it a “cafone” Or, as Junior’s calls it, a “Gavone” (Italian slang for unapologetic slob, and that is putting it nicely). Go easy either way, because you will find yourself wanting one of these more often once you see how good it can be.
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