See Pappa Geno's kitchen in all its Cheez-y glory in our slideshow.
"This is about as authentic as it gets," my friend Jim Parsons remarked as he took another bite of Pappa Geno's steak and cheese sandwich on a recent Tuesday evening.
"It's the bread, isn't it?" I said.
"Yep," he agreed. "It's the bread." He took a few more bites and seemed lost in thought. Parsons, a contributing editor to the Wallpaper City Guide Philadelphia, knows his cheesesteaks and seemed to be considering this one carefully. "Of course," he said, "it does lose a little bit of its authenticity if you're not eating it on a street corner with it running all over you and your shirt."
It's good to have friends who appreciate messy, drippy sandwiches as much as I do. And it's great to welcome Pappa Geno's, a purveyor of Philly cheesesteaks and more that make it as close to the City of Brotherly Love as you'll get in the Bayou City.
Pappa Geno's occupies a part of town that almost lends itself to an old-school, neighborly feel. Situated just outside Timbergrove Manor — where Heights residents move when they really want to settle down — it stands in front of a nearly anachronistic Food Town and next to one of the city's few independent gas stations. Coming out of the wooded drive along T.C. Jester headed toward Ella, it's easy to fool yourself into thinking you've temporarily left Houston. Not for Philadelphia, mind, you, but for some smaller town with a slower pace of life.
The atmosphere inside Pappa Geno's further encourages this feeling. There are only a few booths inside the bright-orange and white interior. Most everyone sits on twirling stools at the counter, which wraps 90 degrees around the cash register and invites people to talk and catch up with each other as well as Paul and Sophia, the married couple who run the place.
Paul mans the grill while Sophia works the register, fills up cups with Coke and encourages patrons to try different items on the menu. They live in the neighborhood, and it shows in their affinity for the regulars who've already cropped up only a few months after Pappa Geno's opened its doors.
The store is at its busiest during lunch, when a small line starts to form and nearly runs out the door. Evenings are quieter and perfect for catching up with a friend over a sandwich and a boat of cheese fries. On a previous visit, Paul had deliberated on his favorite places for a cheesesteak back in Philly, where most of his friends and family live.
"Rick's," he finally decided. "Or Talk of the Town. Definitely not Geno's or Pat's. You only go to those places for the atmosphere."
The evening when I was dining with my friend Jim, he echoed Paul's sentiment as he quickly polished off a Wicked Philly, topped with Italian hot peppers, celery and pickled carrots. "People at Geno's or Pat's just scream obscenities at each other while they stand in line," he noted.
I prefer the calm, friendly vibe at Pappa Geno's to that idea any day. Grabbing bites of Jim's sandwich when I could, I was blown away by what the hot peppers added to the sandwich. It can verge on too heavy if you aren't accustomed to wolfing down a foot-long covered with meat, cheese and mayo, so the hot peppers do an ace job of weaving and cutting through all that fat like tiny divebombers. The pickled carrots in the mix are so good, I couldn't stop stealing them. Paul saw me and laughed. "You know, you can add those to any sandwich you want for 50 cents," he said.
One afternoon over a traditional Philly cheesesteak, Paul and I began discussing what makes a "true" cheesesteak. Paul agreed with Jim: It's the bread.
"Where do you get your bread?" I asked, mindful that many Houston restaurants are notoriously guarded about the provenance of truly great bread. But Paul answered immediately.
"Oh, I fly it in from Buffalo, New York," he smiled. "You can't get good bread in Houston."
"I've heard that from po-boy places," I said.
"It's true," he continued. "It's the water in this city. It doesn't make for good bread."
The bread at Pappa Geno's is vaguely similar in structure to that of good po-boy bread: soft on the inside, hard on the outside. But it doesn't have that same flake and shatter. Instead, this white bread has a lot more give when you bite into it, almost addictively chewy and satisfyingly dense. That thick, pillowy, dense bread does a phenomenal job of soaking up the juice from the shards of well-seasoned meat and caramelized onions that comprise a standard Philly cheesesteak. But whether you choose to top yours with Cheez Whiz, sharp provolone or both, Pappa Geno's has you covered.
So far, I prefer the Pappa Geno's steak and cheese, differentiated from the Philly Style steak and cheese by the fact that it contains that lovely melted provolone and a thick spread of mayonnaise. But there's a lot to be said for the Cheez Whiz, even if most of it is simply based on tradition and the gleeful way that the industrial-sized cans are displayed behind the cash register, as if to say, "This is it! This is what you've been waiting for!" Pappa Geno's even offers a Chicken Philly, an increasingly popular twist on the cheesesteak for those who are only kidding themselves about being health conscious.
In a nod to the restaurant's Texas location, however, there are a few other items rounding out the menu, including burgers and a Texas Philly melt. The burger tips the scale at a full pound of meat when all is said and done: four ounces of shredded steak on top of a four-ounce beef patty, further topped with two types of cheese and mayo. Simply put, it's amazing. But being the minimalist that I am, I prefer the Texas Philly melt on two pieces of thick, buttered Texas toast. It's actually smaller than the regular sandwiches despite its own immense size — everything is relative, after all — and the Texas toast does a brilliant job of standing up to all that rich, juicy meat and cheese.
"We were thinking of doing a hot Italian beef," Paul told me on my first visit as I polished off the last of my fries and gravy, the last of the crunchy french fries rendered wonderfully gravid and soggy with the thick gravy. My eyes lit up at this. "Dipped?" I asked, excited.
"Yeah, dipped," he nodded. "But we weren't sure how most Houstonians would react to that, you know?"
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"To the soggy bread?" I answered.
"Yeah, the soggy bread." He shook his head. Apparently, I'm not alone in wishing that the hot Italian beef trend of French bread soaked in oregano-flavored au jus would hurry up and catch on.
"What about a roast pork with broccoli rabe?" chimed in my dining companion. Now it was Paul's eyes that lit up. They launched quickly into the intricacies of constructing the equally delicious Philadelphia sandwich — albeit one that doesn't get as much attention as the nationally known cheesesteak — and whether it was a possibility. The pork takes a long time to roast, and the broccoli rabe can be hard to come by sometimes. My dining companion, a vegetable wholesaler, was nearly vibrating with excitement. "Oh, I can get you broccoli rabe! I can get you all the broccoli rabe you want!"
I picked at the few pieces of peppery meat that were left in the bottom of my basket as I listened to them and basked in the newfound food friendship that was forming to my left. When they finished, my dining companion turned back to me and continued the thread of our previous conversation on food in Philadelphia: "It's fucking food nirvana there," she sighed as she went back to her sandwich. If the sandwiches at Pappa Geno's are anything to go by, I believe her.