Because Philly cheesesteak is notoriously difficult to reproduce outside of Philadelphia, not many foodies across the country really know what an excellent Philly cheesesteak tastes like. I'm here to help. Finally, a good use for the zillions of calories I've consumed in Philly cheesesteaks!
At Flavored Nation, we didn’t have to think too hard to identify Pennsylvania’s state dish. Everyone knows about the famous Philly cheesesteak, a specialty of the historic city in the state’s southeastern corner.
But because Philly cheesesteak is notoriously difficult to reproduce outside of Philadelphia, not many foodies across the country really know what an excellent Philly cheesesteak tastes like. I’m here to help. Finally, a good use for the zillions of calories I’ve consumed in Philly cheesesteaks!
If you’re not familiar with the dish, the first thing you’ve got to know is that the name isn’t very helpful. Forget about “steak.” When the dish was first made at a cabbie’s favorite Philly restaurant in the financially challenged 1930s, using the word “steak” probably enabled the restaurant to create the impression that patrons were getting something special for an everyday price. “We’re eating steak!”
But they were not.
They were eating then, as we are now, thinly sliced or chopped beef cooked on a griddle. This cut-up tangle has nothing whatsoever to do with the solidity of a steak. First-time tasters of Philly cheesesteak are sometimes disappointed because there’s no steak there!
A much more useful image is the hamburger, and while it doesn’t look like a hamburger, the thrill of the thing is exactly like the thrill of a hamburger. They’re both beefy, buttery, and you don’t have to chew too hard.
So let’s take a stroll through all the cheesesteak elements, remembering that the condition of a great hamburger is what we’re aspiring to.
Restaurants in Philadelphia use various cuts of beef for cheesesteak, and usually each place sticks to one kind. Rib eye is considered the finest cut because of its extra fattiness, but top round is also popular and makes a very good cheesesteak. Whatever beef you choose, you must slice it thin before cooking.
One of the best things you can own if you’re a cheesesteak-maker is a griddle with lots of miles on its steakometer. Just like a good hamburger pan, a good griddle builds up a sweet, beefy, buttery taste with time. The heat of the griddle is a factor, too, but don’t expect the beef to get browned and crusty on the outside like a good steak. A kind of steam effect takes place, and grey is the most common color of cheesesteak meat. Don’t expect more, just enjoy the wet beefiness.
A related question has to do with the treatment of the meat on the griddle. Some places like to leave the meat in very broad, very thin slices. Some places use the edge of a spatula to break down the meat on the griddle, give it a good chop. I personally prefer the former, those flappy slices, but once again, the most important thing is working up a buttery taste.
It has always been amazing to me that the basic bread used in a Philly cheesesteak, which looks like Italian “hero” bread, or like a “sub,” has exactly the same virtues as the kind of bread used in po’ boys in New Orleans. The bread, in each case, has a thinly crackling, lightly crusty exterior which is much lighter than the crust of a great sourdough. It also has a very light, fluffy, non-dense interior. In New Orleans, the best po’ boy bread comes from Leidenheimer and in Philadelphia, the go-to bakery is Amoroso’s. In my opinion, the reason behind the failure of so many cheesesteaks in other cities is that heavier, “more serious” breads ruin the final product!
Oh, boy. Big controversies here. During his term as mayor of Philadelphia (1992-2006), Ed Rendell once shared a cheesesteak with me. “If it’s not Cheez Whiz,” he commented,”it’s not a Philly cheesesteak.” Maybe he was just positioning himself for votes, because most old-timer Philadelphians feel that way. The platform might cause him trouble today. “Foodies,” millennials, the younger generation in general, seems to like a choice of cheese. And the cheese that has become very popular on Philly cheesesteak is Provolone. There’s no doubt that it adds a little extra flavor. Me? I’m with Ed. The gooey “processedness” of Cheez Whiz is perfect on the meat and lets you taste the meat better. Frankly, I’m not so sure that without Cheez Whiz it’s really a Philly cheesesteak!
One of the most oft-heard orders in a Philly cheesesteak shop is “wit’,” as in “two cheesesteaks wit’.” OK, “with,” but with what? Wit’ onions, of course. Sautéed onions. I always get my cheesesteak wit’. It is one of the factors that drives the taste of a Philly cheesesteak toward the taste of a hamburger.
Another factor is ketchup. Yup, many cheesesteak aficionados, including me, squirt some of the red stuff on the sandwich. With the onions and the ketchup, the cheesesteak’s place in hamburger-like heaven is secured.
At this point I take it one step beyond hamburger. The good purveyors of Philadelphia generously offer a tub of hot pickled chili peppers on the side, and I always top off my cheesesteak with a few of those. They take me from my hamburger-like comfort zone into a hamburger-plus zone that I identify as my own personal cheesesteak zone.
There’s one more factor. Sort of. Fifteen years ago, I was talking with the owner of Pat’s — one of Philadelphia’s most renowned cheesesteak shops, purportedly the place where the sandwich was invented.
I asked him why a cheesesteak tastes right only in Philadelphia, nowhere else.
“It’s the bread,” the owner said.
“What about the bread?” I said.
“It’s the Philadelphia water,” he said.
“What about the water?’
Right. There is a measure of Philly funk in this fantastic creation that you simply won’t find anywhere else. Maybe it's only a state of mind. But Rocky knows exactly what I’m talkin’ about.
David Rosengarten is content director for FLAVORED NATION. He has won a James Beard Award for his cookbook “It’s ALL American Food,” and another Beard Award for his newsletter, “The Rosengarten Report.” Rosengarten appeared in the first show on the Food Network, and went on to appear in approximately 2,500 Food Network shows, including his cooking show “TASTE.” A Flavored Nation event, featuring iconic dishes and the chefs and restaurants that make them from each of our 50 states, will be held Oct. 27-29 in St. Louis, Missouri. Find out more at flavorednation.com.