Philadelphia Story

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.)

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.

Excepting, perhaps, the final stop on my cheese steak odyssey, one found via a serendipitous search through the phone book. There, I happened upon the Philly Steakout, another hole-in-a-strip-center concern located on West Bellfort in the middle of nowhere -- from my neighborhood, anyway.

I learned from the Steakout's owners/ servers, a pair of recent immigrants from Philadelphia itself, that they'd opened their shop a mere six months ago. At 9 p.m. one evening, it was just the two of them in a deep, rectangular room occupied by a fry table, a shelf of supplies and a lot of empty floor space. The serving counter is near the front, leaving the customer to share space with a newspaper rack and two slatted benches pushed against the walls. There are no tables. You can eat in, as I did, and partake of a friendly conversation with the proprietors, but the space is really designed for pickup and takeout dining. A Philly cheese steak poster adorns one wall, and posters advertising local rap groups spot the other.

Again, the menu is filled out with hoagies (distinguishable from cheese steaks by the distracting inclusion of lettuce and tomatoes), burgers, triple-decker sandwiches and fried shrimp and fish platters. Here again, the classic Philly cheese steak was augmented with barbecue, jalape–o and chicken variants. Here again, I went after what I came for, the $4.80 original, spiced this time around with the 50 cent addition of banana peppers. It took a little less than ten minutes to fill two orders, and at the end of that time, I knew I had found the Philly grail.

I knew it when I was handed a tall brown paper bag with the end of a gargantuan cheese steak sticking out the top; I knew it when I unwrapped a huge swath of butcher paper and found another huge swath of tin foil holding the hot sandwich; and I knew it for sure when I tasted the steaming goop, held together with a hot, chewy Italian roll. Tons of meat perfectly melded with tons of cheese speckled with tons of onions and the sweet tang of banana peppers. I'm not qualified to judge as a purist, but lately I'd spent a decent amount of time considering the essence of cheese steakdom, and surely, here I beheld that very essence.

They chop their steak pretty fine at the Steakout, which surprised me, since I'd been led to believe that sliced was the traditional way to go, and anything this good, I thought, must surely be the real thing. So I asked the woman behind the counter about it, and she told me that in Philadelphia, well, it just depends. Traditions vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, cart to cart.

"I never really thought too much about what it's supposed to be," she told me. "We fix them the way I always liked them. You could get a cheese steak like this in Philadelphia or it might be different; it just depends on where you go."

Sounds reasonable to me, and since Houston's cheese steakeries are so widely scattered, it only makes sense that the neighborhood rule should apply here as well. But then Houston, more than Philadelphia, is a car town, and as long as mine's running, I think I'll make my cheese steak neighborhood center on West Bellfort.

Jake's Philly Steaks, 2944 Chimney Rock, 781-1962; The Philly Steakery, 2420 Rice Boulevard, 526-2991; Philly Steakout, 8276 West Bellfort, 988-5425.


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