Intro to cheesesteaks 101

by Brian Clarey

Philadelphia is abig, wonderful East Coast city with culture and traditions – and anaccent – all its own. It is also a spectacular food town. I could go ona week-long food tour of Philly, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner ina different restaurant each day and still just scratch the surface ofthe culinary scene here. But that would be difficult, because Iwould have a hard time staying away from cheesesteaks, which, alongwith soft pretzels and scrapple, is the city’s most iconic dish. Notthat you can’t get cheesesteaks everywhere these days, even right herein Greensboro, but nobody makes ’em like they do in Philly. Andwhenever I find myself here I feel obligated to have at least one a day. Iavoid the notorious tourist joints, Pat’s and Geno’s, because they kindof suck. On this trip I find my steak at Rick’s, right next to my hotelin the Reading Terminal Market. The cheesesteak was born in 1932when hot dog stand owner Pasquale "Pat" Olivieri, sick of tubesteaks,grilled up some beef with onions and piled it on a hot dog bun. Apassing cabbie smelled it, coveted it and bought it for a dime. Wordspread. The rest is legend. Rick Olivieri, grandson of theinventor, keeps up the tradition here in this giant market with rows ofgreat eateries, butchers, farmers’ produce, candies. There areMennonites cutting meat, women in overalls serving scrapple withpoached eggs, delis that make their own salamis and prosciutto. Butthere’s just no way I’m not gonna get a steak. Philly steaks aredifferent. They use thinly sliced minute steaks – not a chopped andpre-formed product. They use provolone (sometimes American cheese,sometimes Cheez Whiz, but both are inferior). The bread is important:an Amoroso hero roll, with a thick crust and insides like spun cottonthat soak up juices and keep them there. A foil wrap is important, too,connoisseurs say, because it allows the ingredients to meld togetherfrom the insulation. Some places chop the steak with a spatula on thegrill while it cooks; others roll it together with the onions andcheese. There is something to be said for all these methods. Withina couple hours of landing in Philadelphia I have a cheesesteak in myhand. I go straight up: onions and provolone, a little ketchup. Thereare variations. A pizza steak has tomato sauce and mozzarella. Acheesesteak hoagie has lettuce and tomato. Some choose to scoop out theinsides of the roll. Others like mushrooms, peppers, pickles or hotsauce folded into the mix. You can get a chicken cheesesteak or (gasp!)a vegetarian version. Not me. I get my sandwich, and Itear off the ends of the roll, not unlike a hand-rolled cigarette. Ihunker down over the plate and tear into it. I make yummy noises as Ichew. "You likin’ that steak?" a young man behind an Italiandeli counter asks me. I tell him I am. He’s got a Philadelphia accent,which is similar to the hoi toide patois spoken on the North CarolinaOuter Banks. His name, he says, is "Moike," And he maintains that the best steaks in Philly are actually in the South Street neighborhood. "These guys," he says, gesturing towards Rick’s, "they cook their steaks in water." He pronounces it "wudder." "You got to cook the steaks in their own juices," he says. "That’s how you do it." Idon’t argue, I finish my steak, wipe the grease and ketchup from mymouth, and thank Moike for his knowledge. And I know I’ll be backtomorrow.