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Philadelphia Story

Searching for a magic mixof meat, cheese and bread

Recently, I've found myself obsessed with a particular culinary mission: to find an honest Philly cheese steak. It is, I admit, a mission that might surprise many of the people who know me. After all, I was born and raised in Texas. I've never so much as been through Philadelphia. And I've never had a particular fascination with the torpedo-shaped sandwich that's one of the city's better known exports. But lately, the "limited time only" sign hanging in the window of my local Jack in the Box has changed that.

We're all blind consumers sooner or later, and fast food is where I lose my sight, and my money. Jack in the Box's latest limited-time-only offering is the Philly cheese steak, and I've discovered that the sandwich -- in principle, anyway -- goes straight to the heart of my gustatory desires. Mixing meat, cheese and bread (the only three food groups I ordinarily associate with) with onion and just the slightest touch of chopped green peppers -- to mollify certain busybodies who needlessly worry that my body will someday be called upon to pay for years of eating only foodstuffs available in varying shades of brown -- has, I've been made to realize, transcendent potential. The catch is that the Jack in the Box cheese steak hints at potential it's unequipped to realize.

And that begs the question: just what does constitute a memorable cheese steak? And more to the point, can such a sandwich be found in Houston? To answer the first query I sought -- via letter, phone, e-mail and face-to-face conversation -- the opinions of a broad cross section of native and transplanted Philadelphians. Their answers reflected their own particular tastes and home neighborhoods as much as any iron-clad rules of form. All said, the steak should be thinly sliced, though some prefer intact sheets of meat, while others swear by chopped. Some will settle for planks of provolone slapped onto the bread under a pile of steak; others insist on having the cheese and meat stirred together on the griddle, Marble Slab-style. (My vote goes with the latter, since cheese steak is, in usage anyway, one word, indicating a more or less homogenous mass.)

Location Info

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Jake's Philly Steaks

2944 Chimney Rock
Houston, TX 77056

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Galleria

The bread should be a chewy, maybe even slightly stale Italian roll. Masses of grilled onion are de rigueur, though whether they should retain their oniony bite or surrender to the coagulate mush of meat and cheese seems to be a matter of debate. Some cheese steaks come dressed with mayonnaise; bell peppers, sweet peppers, hot peppers and banana peppers are the most widely accepted variant toppings, mushrooms slightly less so. The cheese steak should be prepared while you wait, served hot off the griddle. This is what I learned. But where to put my knowledge to practice?

Jake's Philly Steaks appeared unexpectedly beside the side of the road one day, and I made it my first stop. Jake's has been inserted into a small strip center, but the owners have tried mightily to give it a heavy dose of Philly nostalgia by covering the walls and every available hanging surface with Philadelphia sports paraphernalia. Here you order at the counter and retire to a booth along the wall to watch Oprah, or whatever, on one of two TV screens kept blaring in the corners, until your order's ready. This is the sort of place where, when you overhear the guy behind the counter shout, "Can I get you a beer, father?" and turn expecting to see some cheese steak empire patriarch, you see instead a thirsty looking Catholic priest sauntering up to the counter.

Jake's menu is catholic, too, offering a wide range of sandwiches along with plenty of variants on the cheese steak theme, chicken among them. I'm not interested in chicken. I went for the steak original, which is available in full ($4.95) or half ($2.99) sizes. It came in a basket on a soon-to-be greasy piece of paper. Jake's chops its steak, and lets a separate layer of cheese melt of its own accord. The bread is big, crusty and a little on the hard side. Peppers of any sort are optional. High marks for the beef seasoning and the generous quantity of browned onions piled on top; high marks also for atmosphere. Jake's was a good Philly cheese steak; it beat Jack in the Box hands down.

A few days later, a meat/ cheese/bread-loving friend who'd been doing research for me delivered a menu for The Philly Steakery, a relatively new venture in the Village. I went straightaway. The strip mall holding this restaurant is a bit more upscale, and the relatively Spartan table-and-chairs arrangement carries a still-new gleam. Here, it's clear you're not in Philly.

At the Steakery, too, there's a full menu of subs, pitas, burgers, hot dogs, gyros and salads built around the cheese steak staple. Again, I went for the original steak-and-onion standby. The eight-inch variety is $3.29 (a four-inch "jr." goes for $1.89), and it's hard to fault the product. Thin-sliced sheets of meat, cheese, onions and a few too few bell pepper chunks were swirled together nicely and packed liberally onto a soft, flaky hoagie roll. The steak was spicy; the grease was minimal. Kill yourself off with an order of ranch and bacon fries for $1.79, and you've got a meal that Jack in the Box can't touch with a ten-foot pole. Of course, there's a downside, which is that you have to eat in the Village instead of in your car, but nothing's perfect.

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