The Philadelphia Story
(Not specifically Texas, but *while* we were in Texas.)
Philly Cheese Steak $5.75, Parking $137.50
Over Christmas this year, we met a friend in Philadelphia for an evening. Ms. T. and I joined the friend, who shall remain nameless for reasons that will become clear, and the friend's 84-year-old mom. Motley-ness is our specialty.
The idea for the evening was a survey of "Philly cheese steaks," a sandwich that is supposed to be particularly wonderful in that region. The plan was to go to several places, get one sandwich cut into four pieces at each place. That way, we could go to a number of places without over-gorging. Of course this was just the excuse for wandering around the city to see various locations.
For those who have not sampled this particular delicacy, a "Philly cheese steak" is a lot like a cheese steak at a good deli or sub shop, but it originates in Philadelphia, or at least in the area. The proper sandwich is a long roll of soft Italian bread, a pile of thinly sliced beef, an admixture of fried onions and peppers, and melted cheese. I don't know what kind of beef is required, but it's best if it's cooked in large batches on a hot grill so that it's well-done, largely de-greased, and some of the edges are crispy. Onions are onions, but I'm sure cheese steak gourmets can distinguish white and yellow and who knows what else. Cheese comes in three varieties: American (traditional), provolone (ethnic), and Cheez-Whiz (head-banger). I'm a traditional American kinda guy; Ms. T. is a Cheez-Whiz girl; our friend was a provoloner, despite having no Italian genes; his mom tried them all and preferred the Cheez-Whiz.
There are cheap imitations called "Philly" from other regions, but they don't measure up. In Austin, for instance, there are "Texadelphia" and "Philly Mike's" that are both weak sisters. On the other hand, the two best cheese steak sandwiches that I know of do not come from Philly. One is from "Speed's" in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and the other from the "D'Angelo's" chain in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Our friend came armed with a Philly cheese steak (hereafter called PCS) survey from "Philadelphia" magazine a year ago. He disagreed with the results of the survey -- his favorite place was well down in the listing -- but that wasn't really the point. The survey's job was to give names, addresses, and phone numbers of a dozen candidates. The survey had been done by a group of high school students who used the idea as an excuse to drive around for lunch for several weeks and then publish something that looks cool on the college application.
Method: We chose to go with a standard sub at each place: vanilla roll, onions, no frills like peppers. We did vary the cheeses, however. This is the theory that Ms. T. and I use when surveying pizzas in a new place. Standard pizza: large, cheese, sausage, nothing else. A simple, vanilla item makes comparison easier, or even possible.
The results of our mini-survey, which is the boring part of the story, follow.
- Johnny's Famous, Market St. between 2nd and 4th. Very good meat. Not great bread. Great T-shirt: black, big white hoagie on the front with big words "Bite Me."
- Campo's, Market St. near 2nd. Mediocre meat, sliced too thick. Good bun. They had a choice of traditional bun or a crispy sesame seed bun. We chose trad.
- Jimmy's, South St. Very famous, the kind of place with lots of autographed celebrity pictures on the wall -- basketball players, Bruce Willis when he had blond hair, Bruce Willis when he had hair.
The production style was clearly correct, big piles of meat and onions steaming on the grill, pull out some of each, mix them, cheese goes on the bun, slap the bun upside down on top of the steaming meat, knife under to scrape up the meat, turn over, meat now on top, drop onto waxed paper, done. Very good meat. Good bun. Didn't enjoy the smoky flavor of the provolone cheese on this one, though.
There was no clear winner, but I liked Jimmy's best.
Yes, we got to only three places instead of four or five, and here's the rest of the story.
After the second place, we needed directions to the next sub shop. Ms. T. says, ok, I'll get the map from the car. It's just around the corner. Five minutes later, she returns distraught. I can't find the car. It's not there. Uh oh. We all troop over. We all read the signs. More carefully than we did the first time.
The paper sign tied onto the parking meter says No Parking 8 PM - 2 AM for some special event. No problem. A news photographer on the street had told us that something special was going on, film, I think.
The green sign on the pole says 2 Hour Parking 8 AM - 5 PM. Again no problem.
However, further up the pole there is a red sign, a little thing, that says Reserved for Valet Parking 5 PM - Midnight. Problem. None of us saw the red sign. Oops.
The valet parking guy standing there with his walkie-talkie assures us that the car was towed, yes, and kindly gives us the number of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, which he keeps on speed dial in his cell phone. Call twice before they answer at all. It's $100 for the tow, $25 for the ticket, yes, they take MasterCard, Visa, and AmEx. He gives directions, go down Delaware Avenue, blah blah blah. Valet guy confirms, down Delaware Avenue, blah blah blah. Problem is that Delaware Avenue isn't called Delaware Avenue anymore; it's now Columbus Boulevard on 100% of the signs and maps we saw. (I'm guessing that it *used* to be called Delaware Avenue but they renamed it maybe during the 500th anniversary of 1492?)
So basically what both of these guys did is tell me to turn two blocks before where the old Jones place used to be before it burned down. Very funny. I know the old joke.
So to find the place we follow the line of tow trucks with blinking yellow lights heading toward the concerto of car alarms in the distance. Sure enough there is a huge impound lot, long fences topped with razor wire, bright lights. There is a little building out front with a little parking lot. Our friend parks his vehicle very crooked in the spaces. Not a problem. The lot is empty because everyone who comes here arrives by cab, duh.
There is a little excitement retrieving the car because I don't have what they think is a "rental contract" for the car. Well, if you get express or premiere service from one of the big rental car companies, you don't get anything that looks like a contract. You get only this little printed card and that doesn't match the Parking Authority's concept of a rental contract. Stonewall. Much discussion through clenched teeth. Photocopy. Works. Okay.
The rest of the evening is relatively uneventful. We find the third steak place, down on South Street. Remember South Street, famous in R&B songs? You wouldn't believe the police presence on South Street on a holiday evening. Density of cops = approximately six per block. No kidding. And flatbed tow trucks taking two cars at once.
We didn't even think about trying to find street parking. Paid for a space in a lot, a mere $12.50, more expensive than a PCS but cheaper than another heart attack. End of adventure.