The sandwich maker at South Philly Steaks, a new shop at Scott and Alabama, was a big black guy wearing a do-rag. The griddle where he was frying steak slices is behind a big picture window, so you can watch him work. I checked out his technique for a while, then found a seat.
At the walk-up window, I had ordered a cheese steak with onions, provolone and Cheez Whiz; a "Philly special," which is a cheese steak with mushrooms, green peppers and onions, along with provolone and Whiz; and an Italian hoagie with everything except mayo. I got them to go, so I could perform a clinical examination of the sandwiches in the privacy of my newly completed test kitchen.
Most of the customers at South Philly Steaks appeared to be students from nearby UH and TSU, and steak sandwiches seemed to be the most popular order. The restaurant's walls are covered with Philadelphia-bilia. There's a panoramic photo of the skyline, a Rocky poster and ads for a 1940 movie, The Philadelphia Story. There's also a T-shirt from Geno's hanging on the wall, which is a big tip-off to the cheese-steak cognoscenti.
South Philly Steaks
3602 Scott, 713-741-0500
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays.
Philly special: $6.99
Cheese-steak hoagie: $5.99
Italian hoagie: $5.49
Pizza fries: $3.45
Since the last time I wrote about Philly cheese steaks in these pages ("Say Cheez," February 20, 2003), I have made a pilgrimage to both Geno's and Pat's, the two sandwich shops at the three-way intersection of Ninth, Wharton and Passyunk in South Philadelphia. These two places have made the Philly cheese steak an American icon. And, as I discovered, each has its own distinctive vision of what a cheese steak should be.
Pat's cheese steaks are a glorious mess of rib-eye steak cooked on a griddle and chopped up with onions. The sandwich is served with your choice of provolone, American or Cheez Whiz. In fact, Pat's pioneered the use of Cheez Whiz on a Philly cheese steak shortly after the processed cheese's introduction in the '50s.
Geno's, the more attractively decorated of the two restaurants, sells a tidier Philly cheese steak. The steak slices aren't chopped up; rather, they're neatly layered. They'll give you Whiz at Geno's if you ask for it, but it's applied across the top of the sandwich like the mustard on a hot dog, rather than mixed into the meat. Messy guy that I am, I like Pat's version more, but both sandwiches are exceptional.
When I got home, I cut in half all three of the sandwiches I'd ordered at South Philly Steaks. As I might have predicted from the T-shirt on the wall, the cheese steak did indeed resemble Geno's version. The tasty, paper-thin slices of rib eye were layered and folded into a crusty roll. The provolone lined the sides, and the Whiz was spread across the top. For neater transportation, the top had been protected with a sheet of aluminum foil.
I love Cheez Whiz on my cheese steak, but last time I wrote about the subject, I learned that you shouldn't order Whiz to the exclusion of provolone, especially when you get a sandwich to go. The reason is as much logistical as culinary. The provolone is applied to the inside of the roll, and then the meat is added. This waterproofs the bread so that the juicy meat doesn't soak through. Then the hot Whiz is piped over the top. If you order a cheese steak with Whiz and without provolone, odds are your sandwich will fall apart before you get home.
I wouldn't bother getting the Philly special again at South Philly Steaks. The only difference between it and the cheaper cheese steak was a faint taste of green peppers. The mushrooms and other extras were so sparsely applied that I barely noticed them. But make no mistake, both sandwiches were excellent.
The Italian hoagie, on the other hand, was a flop, which was strange, since the sandwich seemed to be made with high-quality deli meats, especially the gorgeous-looking copa ham. Unfortunately, it was dressed with nothing but shredded lettuce, tomato, and vinegar and oil. I expect a hoagie to have some roasted peppers on it and a decent Italian dressing with some herbs and maybe some garlic bits.
As it happened, I had some crushed red pepper-marinated olives from Whole Foods in my kitchen. So I put some in the middle of the hoagie to give it a little spice. After a bite or two, I put what was left of the olive-spiked hoagie in the fridge. Late that night, looking for something to go with a beer, I tried the hoagie again. Wow. The peppers had permeated the entire sandwich. What had once tasted blah was now lighting up my taste buds.
On my second visit to South Philly Steaks, I noticed the condiment bar. It contained jalapeños, Italian peppers and pickles. Evidently the idea is to add your own peppers to the bland hoagies.
A colleague and I ordered some "pizza fries," a chicken cheese steak and a cheese-steak hoagie, which comes with lettuce and tomato. This time, the guy frying steaks in the window was a skinny white kid with black hair sticking straight up. And he was chopping the rib eye with a wildly flying spatula the way they do at Pat's, instead of laying it out neatly like they do at Geno's.
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Sure enough, the cheese-steak hoagie that got delivered to our table had a pile of messy meat in the middle. It also seemed to contain less meat than the ones I'd taken home. "It's good," my co-worker said, considering the cheese-steak hoagie in his hands. "But it's not the kind of big overstuffed sandwich I expect when I order a Philly cheese steak. I'd come back, but I like Texadelphia better."
The chicken cheese steak was boneless, skinless and lame, and the pizza fries were a sodden mess of soggy potatoes, bad red sauce and barely melted mozzarella. When the skinny cook walked by our table, I asked him if he was from Philadelphia. "No," he said, "but the manager is."
A phone call revealed that manager Steve Kaufman is indeed from South Philadelphia. South Philly Steaks has been open for around two and a half months, he told me. But that's all the conversation he had time for. The place was packed, and he had orders backing up. Despite the fact that it's new, South Philly Steaks appears to have developed quite a following.
Purists may prefer the cheese steaks at Jake's on Chimney Rock, and Texans may like the meaty Tex-Penn fusion version served at Texadelphia. But South Philly Steaks is doing a damn fine job with the iconic Pennsylvania sandwich -- and it's a welcome addition to the Scott Street food scene.