The Villanova, Temple and Penn State pennants on the wall give me a good feeling about Jake's Philly Steaks. Even more reassuring is the souvenir menu from Pat's King of Steaks, where the steak sandwich was invented. But when I reach the counter and spot a stainless-steel warming pot with a Cheez Whiz logo, I know I've come to the right place. I order a large Philly cheese steak.
The dining room is packed, so I stand by the counter surveying the scene and waiting for my order. I feel deep sympathy for the large man trying to remove a grease stain the size of a fried egg from his blue oxford dress shirt. He has a wadded paper napkin in his left hand and the bad-puppy cheese steak still cradled affectionately in his right.
A white-haired guy enters from the kitchen and stands behind the counter looking official. I ask him if he's Jake.
Jake's Philly Steaks
2944 Chimney Rock
713-781-1962. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.
Large Philly cheese steak: $5.25
Large fajita Philly steak: $5.25
Large Italian meatball: $5.25
Large Italian sausage and peppers: $5.25
Cheez Whiz: 50 cents
Turns out Jake was the previous owner. The current owner, Robert Ginn, took over in 1993. The guy behind the counter is Robert's dad.
"So you like Pat's or Geno's?" I ask him, cutting to the chase. The two cheese steak joints are right across the street from each other in the City of Brotherly Love, and among Philadelphians each has ardent supporters. Robert Ginn and his dad took a trip to Philly and sampled both.
"Tell you the truth, I didn't see much difference," he says, with a Texas accent.
The Philly cheese steaks at Jake's will get even closer to the original next month, I'm told, when they start using rolls from Amoroso Bakery, the Philadelphia bread maker that sells the city's favorite hoagie roll. Amoroso ships partially baked and frozen rolls to sandwich shops across the country that are concerned with authenticity.
My cheese steak is delivered on a cafeteria tray. But something's missing.
"Hey, where's the Cheez Whiz?" I ask.
"I'll get you some," says Robert's dad, taking my tray over to the stainless-steel warmer. Careful reinspection of the menu above the counter reveals that Cheez Whiz is 50 cents extra.
Jake's No. 1, a regular Philly cheese steak, features lots of shaved rib-eye steak grilled with onions and then loaded onto a toasted baguette split lengthwise with provolone on each side. Cheez Whiz is indelicately drizzled all over the meat, but only if you request it. The Cheez Whiz has been relegated to optional status because so many diners find the stuff disgusting. But one glorious bite of crunchy bread, juice-squirting meat, slippery sweet onions and silky processed cheese goop reaffirms my faith in America. The viscous yellow liquid is the glue that holds the steak, onions and toasted bread together. Without it, a Philly cheese steak would be just another steak sandwich.
I look forward to sampling the Amoroso rolls as soon as they start coming off Jake's assembly line. I hope the thaw-and-bake variety is sufficiently crusty -- there's nothing worse than a soggy cheese steak. That's why you shouldn't bother getting cheese steaks to go. I've developed an elaborate method for reheating these sandwiches that maintains some of the crunch (place a refrigerated cheese steak in a toaster oven on bake at 350 degrees for about ten minutes), but the best plan is to just sit down and eat your cheese steak on the spot.
I discovered Jake's Philly Steaks at bestcheesesteaks.com, a Web site where former Philadelphians swap info about sandwiches around the country. The Houston correspondent, Joe Ciliberto, had spent the first 41 years of his life in Philly before being transferred to Space City. "For the first year I was going through serious cheese steak withdrawal," he wrote. "But about six months ago I found Jake's Philly Steaks on Chimney Rock between Richmond and Westheimer. That's about a 45-minute drive from my house, but I make the trip several times a month." I admire that kind of dedication.
Jake's makes a hell of a cheese steak, but it isn't far from my house. So just to make sure I don't favor it out of laziness, I also stopped by Texadelphia (2420 Rice Boulevard), a Texas-Philadelphia fusion restaurant where the house special is a cheese steak with picante sauce. Continuing the Texas theme, tortilla chips and salsa come with every sandwich. The meat here is a flavorful shaved Black Angus sirloin, served with grilled onions and your choice of several sauces, including ranch dressing. But the cheese is mozzarella, a dramatic departure from cheese steak orthodoxy. There are lots of extras, including mushrooms, jalapeños, and lettuce and tomatoes. They don't have Cheez Whiz -- even as an option.
I also tried Joey's Philly Cheese Steaks (5177 FM 1960), where the No. 1 Philly cheese steak comes with onions, green peppers and provolone. There was a lot of meat on the sandwich, and I really liked the addition of grilled peppers. But Joey's didn't have any Cheez Whiz either.
Gooey, ripe French Livarot on walnut bread, smelly Swiss raclette melted over potatoes and pickles on a heated pewter plate, a fondue of fromage d'alpage, a Gruyère made in Alpine mountain meadows -- these are a few of my favorite cheeses. But there are the times when only Cheese Whiz will do.
What is Cheez Whiz, exactly? Kraft called it a "pasteurized process cheese sauce" when the company introduced it in 1953 as a shortcut for busy homemakers. In an article in Chemical and Engineering News ("What's That Stuff?" February 7, 2000), a Cheez Whiz lover named Steve Ritter explores Title 21, Part 133 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, a.k.a. the cheese rules.
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Pasteurized process cheese, reports Ritter, can come molded in a loaf or a plastic-coated single. But Cheez Whiz uses a slightly different formula so that the product remains in a liquid state to be sold in a jar. But whatever its form, process cheese is essentially a combination of cheeses (like cheddar and colby) with extra milkfat added. It's heated, along with an emulsifier, then watered down -- so it melts more easily. Of course, since it's watered down, salt, artificial colors and flavorings have to be added.
I have agonized over such pasteurized processed American cheeses in this space before; they are the secret to old-fashioned Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas. (See "There's Something About Larry's," May 23, 2002.) But just as enchiladas have been "improved" over the years with better cheeses, so has the Philly cheese steak been yuppified by earnest culinary reformers. I understand the impulse. My brother Dave, a cheese steak lover for many years, insists provolone is a better idea. He speaks for the majority when he says, "Cheez Whiz is disgusting. Nobody in their right mind eats that stuff."
But I referred my brother to www.patskingofsteaks.com, the Web site of the revered Pat's King of Steaks. The site explains how Pat Olivieri, bored of eating wieners every day, invented the prototype of the steak sandwich at his hot dog stand in South Philadelphia in 1930. It also gives the restaurant's Philly cheese steak recipe. While the substitution of provolone is allowed, Pat's King of Steaks recommends Cheez Whiz.
Maybe you're deck enough to insist on a Philly cheese steak made with authentic Cheez Whiz, and maybe you aren't. But either way you've got to applaud Jake's Philly Steaks for preserving the sandwich's proud, processed cheese traditions.