ONE CAN only imagine what the late Joey Vento of Geno's fame would have thought of a cheesesteak joint where it's expected that customers will order in Spanish. But we assume that even Vento, who notoriously asked that his customers order in English, would have no beef with Rocky's Philly Steaks. After all, it's in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
So, how on earth did the cheesesteak migrate 5,266 miles south?
"I thought the Argentines would like the cheesesteak," explained Matthew J. McCarthy. With his business partner, David Floerke of Denver, Colo., McCarthy, a 29-year-old Spring Lake, N.J., native, opened Rocky's last June in the upscale Recoleta neighborhood (think Rittenhouse Square) of Buenos Aires.
"I thought Philly cheesesteaks would be popular here because Argentines like beef, and it's not spicy or something like that, that wouldn't go with their taste," McCarthy said. "Just greasy beef stuff. That's what they like."
McCarthy moved to Buenos Aires in 2005 after graduating with an international-relations degree from the University of Delaware. Although not from Philadelphia, he has spent a lot of time in the area - enough to have a cheesesteak fave: Larry's Steaks, in West Philly.
Rocky's was conceived as a sort of side project; McCarthy's main business is El Alamo, a student-oriented bar next door to the shop, which he took over in 2008.
Drawing from the late-night-munchies culture of American universities, McCarthy decided to buy the storefront next to El Alamo when it became available, figuring that the pairing of bars and cheesesteaks knows no international boundaries. "We figured we would open some kind of food place where drunk people would go, and we'd capture that market," he said.
Despite its location, Rocky's wouldn't look out of place in the Quaker City. It's housed in a building with a 19th-century facade, and the walls boast a number of Philly totems, from a painting of South 9th Street to a poster for the most recent "Rocky" movie, "Rocky Balboa." There is also a picture of Geno's, and an interior shot of Jim's on South Street.
Interestingly, Rocky's is not the first tribute to Philly culture in Buenos Aires. A store on Avenida Santa Fe, the main drag in the Palermo district, is called Love Park, and uses for its logo the same lettering found on the iconic Center City sculpture by Robert Indiana. And the city is filled with fans of the "Rocky" films, so much so that hardly a day goes by when one of the films isn't screened on local TV.
As for the sandwich, things, by necessity, aren't exactly authentic. For instance, cheesesteak aficionados would likely note the absence of Amoroso rolls and Cheez Whiz or provolone.
McCarthy says the key to his product is adaptability.
"You can't get the exact same thing they have in [Philadelphia]," he said. "Like the airy Italian roll, that's hard to get. We've been using baguettes mostly - we have a place that makes them especially for us. They make them daily, so they stay fresh. And they make them a little bit bigger than your standard baguette."
The cheese Rocky's uses is what McCarthy described as a machine-processed Argentine equivalent of American cheese.
The one ingredient that Rocky's definitely gets right is the meat. He said that he uses rib eye because Argentines are accustomed to their nation's top-grade beef and would not accept a lesser grade.
As they are here, the standard toppings at Rocky's are fried onions and peppers. Mayonnaise is slathered on the roll unless the customer opts out. Other condiments, like jalapeños and homemade hot sauce, are available upon request (presumably for foreigners, as Argentines have a general aversion to spicy foods).
Rocky's menu has other stuff, including hotdogs - known in Argentina as panchos - and tacos. The cheesesteak, which goes for 35 Argentine pesos (about $7), reigns as the most popular item.
Adapting the Philly cheesesteak to Argentine culture isn't just about the food. It also drives the environment inside the shop, which has several tables and a window-side counter.
"Argentines don't spend a lot of money when they're out," said Sabrina Espinosa, Rocky's general manager. She was referring to an aspect of Argentine culture that is far-removed from the grab-and-go American way of dining: Argentines tend to spend hours in cafés and restaurants catching up with friends or working on their laptops - often without buying more than a soda. Espinosa said the tables and Wi-Fi have been set up to make the locals "feel at home."
But Argentines are not the only clientele that the owners had in mind for Rocky's. U.S. sporting events are shown on the restaurant's TV, creating an added draw. "We have, I'd say, several dozen American expats who come here all the time," said McCarthy, "and there are some who come here a couple times a day. They just love it."
As do the locals. "As soon as they try it, they love it," he said of the Philly classic.
McCarthy's assertion was confirmed in conversation with customers.
"Muy rico! Muy bueno! [Very tasty! Very good!]," said 25-year-old Mealisa Alonso after trying her first bite of a Rocky's steak. Alonso, who lives outside the city, was in the neighborhood for a doctor's appointment. A true fan of the "Rocky" movies (her favorite is "Rocky IV"), she wandered into the shop, intrigued by the name. She said she'd be back.
Alejandro Acaval, 49, was similarly taken by the store's name - he, too, watches the movies all the time. He said he'd visited Philadelphia many years ago but had never tried a cheesesteak. He certainly seemed happy after taking the plunge at Rocky's.
"This is really great, really great!" Acaval raved in Spanish. "A nice place, too."
One might say that Alonso, Acaval and the rest of their fellow countrymen who enjoy Rocky's are now cheesesteak fans.
But we'd rather think of them as "Phanáticos."