Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cheesesteak Confidential

The cheesesteak is the best evidence I know of that a higher power exists in this universe.

I'm willing to admit that I may be biased on this topic, the result of my 50 year love affair with the magical concoction I discovered at a very early age.

Meat, dairy, grain, grease … all the major food groups are represented, and you can even add tomatoes, lettuce or just about any other veggie if you care to rationalize that you're eating healthy.

In a perfect universe each cheesesteak eaten would have the equivalent effect on the body of an hour of cross-training in the gym. Add mushrooms and onions to get the benefits of a two mile run, and sweet peppers for a short cardio workout.

Hmmmm …

Sorry, I was lost in my little fantasy world there for a second.

I first encountered this perfect sandwich in the early 1960s at Joe's Steak Shop at 58th Street, just above Wheeler Street in Southwest Philadelphia. A large cheesesteak at Joe's was $1.25, and I calculated that I'd need to make no more than $2 per day (with chips and a soda) to be perfectly happy for the rest of my life.

So cheesesteaks taught me the value of a dollar.

Delaware County takes a back seat to no area on Earth when it comes to getting a fantastic cheesesteak. (That “on Earth” part was really just for dramatic effect since we get very little cheesesteak competition from places like China, Chile or Chad, for instance.)

We moved to Folcroft when I was 10 and it took me about 15 minutes to find a new favorite spot. It was Romano's, a small restaurant in the Delcroft Shopping Center in Folcroft. You could sit at a counter and eat your cheesesteak at Romano's (Joe's was strictly takeout), and it was there that I first saw the little red plastic baskets that all eat-in cheesesteaks must be served in. (The red baskets may not be a law, strictly speaking, but I wish I sold them because they're everywhere.) Of course, there was a counter server there who needed to be compensated.

So cheesesteaks taught me the art of tipping.

Soon I became acquainted with Leo's Steaks and fell in love all over again. First it was at the Sharon Hill trolley station, but moved to a building just down Chester Pike that you can't miss today due to the giant “Leo's Cheesesteaks and Hoagies” painted on the building. I believe there is more meat in a large Leo's cheesesteak than fed the entire Revolutionary Army during its winter at Valley Forge. I sometimes took meat out of a Leo's cheesesteak to make two more sandwiches for later in the week.

So cheesesteaks taught me how to stretch a budget.

The truth is that you can hardly go wrong just about anywhere you choose to go in Delaware County for a cheesesteak. Bad sandwich shops don't last very long. Finding a new one that does a top shelf sandwich is always a thrill. I have had fantastic cheesesteaks at The Little Hut in Ridley Park, The Pepper Mill in West Chester, Coco's Pizzas all over the county and a dozen other spots.

So cheesesteaks taught me the value of trying new things.

Today I live in Bethesda, MD, where you can still see the dreaded “steak and cheese” on some menus. This is the kiss of death to any hope of an authentic cheesesteak. Apparently, as soon as you get 15 miles out of the Philadelphia area, rolls turn to dried-out clumps of cardboard incapable of holding together for anything more substantial than a slice of baloney.

There is one spot in Bethesda called “Philadelphia Mike's” that offers what I would rate as a slightly below average cheesesteak by Delco standards. However, since it's far better than the local competition I go there every chance I get.

So cheesesteaks taught me that sometimes the oddest things can make you miss home.