Here in Philadelphia, we’re used to folks from other areas getting our venerable cheesesteak wrong, but its still a little painful when one of our own disappoints us.
Case in point: This service-y guide to “what makes a good cheesesteak” from the Charlotte Observer written by Adam Bell, who states at the top of the piece that he grew up in the Philly ‘burbs. Bell, a longtime reporter who has worked at publications including the Bucks County Courier Times and The Patriot-News, also notes that he worked at a steak and hoagie shop in San Francisco for a summer, so “I know what I’m talking about.”
And, admittedly, Bell’s five-point list for a good steak starts off well. But as the qualifications for a good steak go on, things start to go somewhat awry. We even turned to Craig LaBan to get his thoughts on this list:
“1. Start with the rolls. They need to be fresh, firm and big enough to hold the sandwich. In Philly, that often means Amoroso’s.”
Yep, a good roll is important. And Amoroso’s rolls are good. But so are Liscio’s (like at Joe’s and Campo’s) or Aversa’s Italian Bakery (Philip’s), or Carangi Bakery (John’s Roast Pork), or … Look, the point is, brand loyalty isn’t as important as good taste and structural integrity.
Craig LaBan felt differently, standing firmly against Bell's choice. "Amoroso’s is not the bread to use, that is the squishy, mass-produced grocery store roll favored by lower grade griddles and places 100 miles from Philly that can't get something better," he said.
“2. The meat has to be fresh and chopped up into little pieces, not just cooked and tossed whole on the roll.”
Well, sort of. This seems to be a uniform attitude in the Philly suburbs, where many corner steak shops chop their filling into oblivion. Philly, meanwhile, has sliced meat-loving spots like Geno’s and Steve’s. But these days, the whole point is somewhat moot, with places like Oregon Steaks and Jimmy G’s offering both. So have your meat and eat it, too, as long as its broken down some.
"I prefer a mid-chop of my beef. I think that when places chop it so fine, it becomes like burger meat, and it tends to get overworked and gets dried out," LaBan said. "I don’t like it whole, I preferred it coarsely chopped, so it is beef-forward, but you still get the texture."
“3. The cheese (personal preference is provolone, not Cheez Whiz) should be thoroughly melted on top of the meat.”
Sure, preference — but if you’re a tourist, the correct choice is Whiz. If not, learn to love yourself, and go with American, a far creamier choice than provolone. And wherever you go, make sure they mix the cheese in with the meat a little, and not just drape it on top of the steak like a dairy blanket. Anything else is a mild form of disrespect.
“4. Wit or wit’out? Personal preference is wit’out fried onions. But be generous with the portion if they are there.”
If you’re paying $9 or more for a sandwich, you probably should take whatever they are willing to offer you, just for value’s sake. Medium-diced and well-fried is the way to go, so, for non-Philadelphians, that’s “Whiz wit” at the order window, and no other words. But don’t be too generous — after all, onions should just give a little pop to the sandwich, not be the sandwich.
"Anyone who gets their steak without onions is really missing out. The onions totally amplify the flavor of the beef and the cheese," said LaBan. "They are the flavor dial, the thing that focuses everything and makes it better. They make the overall experience more profound."
“5. Finally, top it with real marinara sauce. Not ketchup. What is this, Jersey?”
Oh, Adam. Adam, Adam, Adam. That would be a pizza steak, and we think you know that. It’s a specific sub-species of the venerable cheesesteak, and not just a “good” one. Please don’t mislead the good people of Charlotte that way. Ketchup is a whole other topic, but suffice to say, it only belongs on less-than-stellar steaks, whether they are from Jersey or not.
"Choosing marinara for your steak is not the standard. Pizza steaks are a thing, and I do think sauce can improve the substandard steak," LaBan said. "But to me a cheese steak is all about the onions and the beef and the cheese. The sauce obscures the main event."