Mushroom Cheesesteak — Boo’s Philly Cheesesteaks and Hoagies, Fountain Ave, Silver Lake

boosphillycheesesteakI have no idea what to make of the cheesesteak. In the past I’ve gotten polite and restrained sandwiches, two words that rarely go with Philadelphia. Another time a cheesesteak with pickles and ketchup in it, something that apparently isn’t unheard of hi Philadelphia but causes the natives I know to cock an eyebrow. It isn’t even that establishments are so hung up on authenticity that they make a bad sandwich, it’s that most of them are hung up on authenticity, don’t make an authentic cheesesteak, and they make a bad sandwich. It’s a strange beast, the cheesesteak.

Take the above. Boo’s Cheesesteaks, like all the others, promises an authentic experience. They come close to delivering, with an honest, cornmeal-dusted hoagie roll, plenty of steak and an honest Philadelphian’s portion of grease. I’d be quite pleased to get that in a sandwich, but I didn’t get it in a sandwich. As you can see, I got it in a pile.

Most everyone who makes cheesesteaks does so by piling stake on the grill, laying cheese on top, then lifting the whole mess into a roll. That’s all well and good, provided you pay attention to how wide your roll is and don’t just flatten it out and dump the whole mess on top. This isn’t just a personal quirk or a question of aesthetics; consuming the above involves folding it around the steak, not over it, and as a result all the cheese is bunched in at the far seam and you’re left with a lopsided sandwich. Getting a bit of everything in every bite is basically the entire point of a sandwich, and with what is essentially a two ingredient sandwich that really shouldn’t be very hard. Sadly, the basics are often neglected in pursuit of loftier goals, with the above-pictured calamity as a typical result.

Bulgogi Cheesesteak (Gogi Hoagie) – Sandwich Shop, W 6th St, Los Angeles

sandwichshopI’ve talked before about the difference between something like a cafe, where sandwiches are on offer, and a sandwich shop. As you might imagine, I prefer the establishments were sandwiches are the sole focus, but I also hold them to a higher standard. When I came upon one literally named Sandwich Shop, I worried that I might be setting myself up for disappointment. That turned out not to be the case, though, as I found instead the best cheesesteak I’ve ever had.

Thinly shaved rib-eye is the cut of choice, naturally, and it has plenty of the sweet-salty-savory flavor from the bulgogi marinade. The provolone played smoothy in the background, and the jalapeños were just the right amount of heat. The cheesesteak is a simple number, and there’s no great revolution here. Just a few tasty things put together in a classic form, with a very very tasty end result.

Now, I have been known to get bent out of shape over the reinvention of archetypes, and most recently I have objected most strenuously to non-traditional bánh mìs. But I didn’t mind the updated vision on display at the Sandwich Shop, and I’m not sure I can state with certainty why that is. It is entirely possible that I am simply a hypocrite, that my attachment to the bánh mì takes over my head and, having no such attachment to the city of Philadelphia or its chosen emblem, I just don’t care. But there is another reading that is more charitable towards myself, and that’s simply that this was a very good sandwich. Of the two bánh mìs linked above, one fails at being a bánh mì and the other fails at being delicious. Those are fair grounds to cast them aside, in my estimation, and by that standard the sandwich pictured above is more than welcome. I can see no way in which it betrays the fundamental cheesesteak aesthetic, and as such I found it delightful. If some fan of Philadelphia wishes to point out some flaw that I have missed, I encourage them to do so.

Hot Cheesy Steak – Specialty’s Cafe & Bakery, S Market St, San Jose, CA

I seem to be having a bit of bad luck with the execution of sandwiches lately, as this is another fine idea for a sandwich that suffered as presented. Roast Beef, provolone and cream cheese join fresh mushrooms, bell peppers, red onion, pepperoncini, stone ground mustard and mayo on toasted ciabatta bread. The first thing I noted when I got the sandwich was that the crust was pale and soft, which is a bit uncommon for places that make some note of their baking. Thick crust is used to signal artisan or fancy bread, and that was lacking here. As it turned out, that was a good thing. You can see the excess mayo on the sandwich there, the top half of the roll was sliding around even as I took the picture. Upon my first bite that mayo sent half of the ingredients shooting out of the rear of the sandwich. I hadn’t run across this level of filling creep in quite a while, and needless to say I wasn’t pleased to see it again. Peppers, mushrooms, onion, pepperoncini, roast beef, all of it went sliding this way and that. Had the crust actually been a bit stronger I shudder to think of what a chore this sandwich would have been.

Similar to the tragedy at On a Roll, what’s really terrible here is how simple this is to fix. Move either the roast beef or the mayo to the bottom and your problem is instantly solved. It’s the juxtaposition of the slick surface of the cold cuts against the slickness bread spread with mayo that’s at issue. There’d still be slippage if you piled the veggies on top, but nothing to the degree that you get with the roast beef. Specialty’s is a small chain, and I wonder how rigorous their preparation guidelines and recipes are. Is the roast beef on top mandatory? Did someone at this particular Specialty’s simply slip up? I pondered all of these questions as I chased sandwich ingredients around my plate, trying to pile them back on the roll for the next bite. I might remake this sandwich myself, just to see what it’s like with a bit more thought behind it. Alas, this particular experience was lost. I come to sandwiches to indulge, not to labor.

Philly Cheese Steak – Philly Style Food, E Santa Clara, San Jose, CA

I have looked at the Bay Area cheese steak before, and I found it lacking. Philly Style Food is a more recent addition to downtown San Jose, and it sits almost directly across the street from the Cheese Steak Shop. It’s hard to imagine it is anything other than a direct challenge, a move befitting an establishment bearing the colloquial “Philly” in its name. Aside from the name, though, Philly Style Food makes no additional boasts of authenticity. There is no note on the origin of the bread, for example. It seems they are content to let the food stand on its own; it will either pass as Philly Style or it will not. I wish I could offer you a verdict there, but I fear they walk a line so narrow it would take a local to make a fair ruling. I have walked Philadelphia, friends, but I have not lived it. The sandwich featured what I know of a cheese steak sandwich; beef was thrown a flat top with onion, minced fine, provolone laid on top to melt. After placing that in a roll, pickles and ketchup were added, and that’s where my knowledge fails. (I had, as is policy at On Sandwiches, replied to the standard “Everything on it?” with a simple “Yes, please.”) Pickled and ketchup aren’t completely out of place on a cheese steak, but they’re not part of the traditional, classical concept, and more than that I could have sworn that that sort of sandwich hailed from some other part of Pennsylvania. In short, it seemed to me that a sandwich distinctly billed to be Philly Style was exactly the opposite. But I cannot say for certain, and so I will reserve judgement on the philosophical component of the sandwich.

What I do feel qualified to rule on, though, was the quality. It was a fine sandwich. The cheese melted all the way down, mixing in with savory beef and well cooked onions. The roll had a nice chewy crust and the ketchup wasn’t so sweet it took over the sandwich. So while I may not be able to say with any certainty whether or not this was strictly Philly Style, I can assure you that it was a tasty sandwich.