What Makes or Breaks a Cheesesteak
Paul finishes up a cheesesteak on the grill at Pappa Geno's.
Photos by Troy Fields
Such is the importance of the cheesesteak in Philadelphia that John Kerry's infamously emasculating "dainty nibble" at his sandwich -- which he heretically asked for with Swiss cheese -- is counted among one of his greatest failures during his tragic campaign for the office of president in 2003. "In Philadelphia, that's an alternative lifestyle," quipped Craig LaBan, food critic for the Philadephia Inquirer. Voters in the Pennsylvania city were instantly turned off by Kerry's refusal to eat their iconic sandwich as God intended: covered with Cheez Whiz and/or provolone, and making a huge mess in the process.
If Howard Dean was brought down by a terrifyingly overwrought and bizarrely primal-sounding scream in Iowa, Kerry was brought down by a cheesesteak. Ah, the indignities of politics.
But this is Texas. We have our own food peccadillos and idiosyncrasies to deal with down here. Why should we care about a Yankee sandwich from the East Coast? Because the love of a serious, no frills, street-certified cheesesteak is lurking somewhere inside all of us, no matter where we hail from.
In a 2008 article in Philadelphia Magazine, Victor Fiorillo compiled a list of quotes from Philly residents and non-residents alike about the sandwich and its sacred place in the city's food pantheon. "It's a working-class food. It's the stuff you ate growing up. It was good. No matter how successful or fancy you got, you never forgot your roots. We have loyalty. And you can't shame us into not eating this stuff. We don't care who you are," said Maury Z. Levy, the magazine's former editorial director. It's a sentiment that most Texans can appreciate.
We can appreciate the ingredients, too: beef, and a lot of it. It might seem difficult to go wrong with beef and cheese heaped into a po-boy-style roll, but it happens all too often. A real Philly cheesesteak needs to have that frizzled texture to the beef: almost paper-thin, shredded into shards that break apart the instant they hit your tongue, a bit crispy in areas and tender in others. The cheese needs to be shamelessly processed. Cheez Whiz is preferable here. And the bread... The bread makes or breaks a cheesesteak.
At Pappa Geno's, the subject of this week's cafe review, owner Paul Mitchell knows that if the bread is subpar, then there's no point in even making the sandwich. He flies his bread in from Rochester, New York, where he says the water is better for making the white rolls correctly: doughy and soft but sturdy on the inside, slightly chewy and crispy on the outside.
"Any time it says 'Philly 'in front of the name, don't get it. They're pretenders if they have to use the word Philly. I stopped trying cheesesteaks throughout the country when at a California farmers' market they offered me a choice of toppings: bean sprouts or avocado," said Holly Moore, greasy spoon connoisseur and founder of HollyEats.com, in Philadelphia Magazine. At Pappa Geno's, you don't have to worry: the signature sandwich there is simply called the Pappa Geno's Steak & Cheese. You can also order it "Philly Style" with the signature Cheez Whiz. Both are wholly and sweater-stainingly authentic.
And none of them are served with Swiss cheese.
See more photos from Pappa Geno's in our slideshow.
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