Monday, January 11, 2010

“I’d Walk a Mile for a Camel”*

But would I drive forty-one miles (each way) for a Philadelphia Cheesesteak?

I can’t begin to tell you how many menus claim that the restaurant in question serves an authentic “Philly” Cheesesteak. And every time we take a pass, realizing that you can only get a real Philly cheesesteak in Philadelphia. So what to think when, while perusing the dining guide to Tempe, AZ, we read about a restaurant that serves REAL cheesesteaks with meat imported from Philadelphia. While maintaining a level of reasonable doubt, we decide to take the trip to Tempe (AZ) and sample the sandwiches at Forefathers Gourmet Cheesesteaks & Fries. How did we know the distance? Our trusty GPS told us so.

For those not familiar with this Philadelphia original, the cheesesteak is good quality, thinly-sliced - almost shaved but not quite - rib eye cooked on a medium hot grill and served on a long roll. The cheese can be American, mild or sharp provolone (mild is more common), mozzarella, or that Philadelphia cheesesteak favorite - Cheese Whiz. Optional toppings can include grilled or raw onions, grilled green peppers, mushrooms, and pizza sauce either individually or combined. The meat should be tender and the finished product juicy, but not greasy. Most non-Philadelphians know about the cheesesteak through regular hype about the “rivalry” between Geno’s Steaks and Pat’s King of Steaks - two steak stands located across the street from each other at Ninth and Passyunk in South Philadelphia. Real cheesesteak aficionados won’t eat at either of them.

Now I must tell you that Chuck is one of the all time great cheesesteak makers. Our favorite Italian deli - Altomonte’s - sold both the sliced rib eye and the rolls, and he would man the griddle with spatulas in both hands. So Forefathers had some stiff competition here.

The menu listed three cheesesteak variations: the Philly Original with grilled onions and Cheese Whiz; the Cheesesteak with grilled onions and your choice of American, provolone, or mozzarella cheese; or the Pizza steak with grilled onions, pizza sauce, and your choice of American, provolone, mozzarella, or Cheese Whiz. And there were four varieties of chicken cheesesteaks – the regular, the pizza, the buffalo, or the barbecue. But no matter what you call it, a chicken cheesesteak is not a Philly cheesesteak.

My first question to the gentleman behind the counter where you order was “Do you really get your meat from Philadelphia?” He replied in the affirmative and explained that no one in the area could master slicing the beef as thin as it needs to be. Then I looked over toward the griddle. There was a young man, a spatula in each hand, chopping the meat while it cooked on the grill. Now there are two ways to serve a steak sandwich. You can leave the slices of meat whole or you can roughly chop them while on the grill. We both belong in the latter camp. Things were looking up.

Chuck ordered the Cheesesteak (hold the fried onions) with provolone cheese (above). I ordered the Pizza Steak (below) with the addition of fried green peppers and provolone cheese and topped off with a generous serving of hot banana peppers. And we each ordered a side of fries.

We took our cheesesteaks to a table, took a generous bite, lifted our eyes toward heaven, and exclaimed “Yes, this is worthy of being called a Philly cheesesteak.” The lean and tender chopped beef had nary a speck of gristle and was so moist that the juices ran onto the paper lining of the serving basket. And the roll was perfect and can best be described as soft, but substantial, with just enough “chew.” And the hand-cut fries were crisp, hot, with moist and steamy interiors.

If there is any complaint - and this is Chuck’s complaint and not mine - it’s that the cheese (as was the pizza sauce) was served under the meat and not on top. (He claims the cheese blends with the meat when it is placed on top rather than with the bun when it is under the meat.)

There can only be one 5.0 Addies cheesesteak and that’s Chuck’s. But Forefathers is definitely a 4.5 and was worth an eighty-two mile drive.

*Old Camel cigarette advertising slogan.

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