In Pursuit of the Ultimate Cheesesteak, Chapter 2
If one craves Philly cheesesteaks and is nowhere near Philly, what does one do? One makes do with the local cuisine. In Austin, there are a number of cheesesteak-ish facilities available, of varying quality. Herewith, reviews of the local establishments.
Texadelphia: This is a local Texas chain. It started in Austin, and about half of their stores are still in Austin. It's a sandwich shop with cheesesteaks and burgers and some other sandwiches. The "cheesesteak," yes, has thinly sliced steak, and cheese, on a bun; but a Philly cheesesteak, it is not. I mean, one of the flavor add-ons is jalapeno pepper slices. This accurately represents the "Texa" part of the name. The "delphia" part, however, is poorly represented.
My original review of it, when I first moved to Austin, was, "Sort of a steak sandwich, but the city of Philadelphia should sue for misuse of the name."
Jersey Mike's: Another chain, this one much larger. I don't know how many there are, but certainly more than a hundred, including some even in New Jersey. There are four of them in little ole Austin. There is almost certainly one in your neighborhood. It is a sandwich shop with a large variety of subs, with one real standout. Jersey Mike's, I'm delighted to report, makes a really good, very Philadelphia-like cheesesteak sandwich. Good roll, good steak, good cheese, texture and flavor both perfectly competent. Any place in downtown Philly should be proud to serve steak this good. Go visit your local one and see. The sandwiches are so good that I forgive them for being a chain.
Hog Island Deli: A local Austin establishment. There are two of them downtown, and another one will be opening soon, we hope, in the northwest area. One is a student hangout a few blocks south of the campus. Regrettably not open on Sundays. A sandwich shop with a variety of hoagies. Ah, but not an ordinary shop and not ordinary hoagies. The cheesesteaks here are outstanding, as good as anything that I have ever had, in Philadelphia or elsewhere. The meat has the right range of texture, with some edges being slightly crisp. The cheese is wonderfully gooey. Peppers. Onions if you wish. A little salt and pepper. Yum, yum. Heavenly.
We were in New Jersey recently, dangerously close to Philadelphia, and someone issued a challenge that there was a local place that had "THE best cheesesteaks." Well, we tried it.
First, we have to find it. Never fear, we have Google to give us the address, and our GPS, Nancy, to be our guide. Or so we think. The hard part is that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania seems to have reported some bad data to the Census Bureau, or the Department of Transportation, or wherever the GPS manufacturers get their data. So Nancy guides us to the right street, but like the wrong end of it, 800 or 900 numbers away from where we should be. However, with a little bit of wandering around in the rain, we locate it.
A little aside: when we come out, it is raining so hard that even the geese are hiding under the roof in front of the storefronts.
Aside aside: Even in winter, this area is filled with Canada geese. Yes, they fly south for the winter, but apparently some of them are too lazy, I guess, to fly all the way, and they stop in New Jersey. Some people foolishly encourage them. Around here there are a lot of places with ponds. Ponds tend to freeze in the winter. Geese need water. If the pond is frozen over, then the geese can't really live there. So what do they do? Well, one company with a huge and beautiful campus and a large pond sends the groundskeeper out every morning to break the ice on the pond with a backhoe so that the geese can drink. Sounds very kind and charitable to the poor birds, doesn't it. Now consider what the birds do the rest of the day when they are done drinking their fill at the pond. What they do is crap on your lawn. That huge and beautiful campus, acres of perfect grass, is a couple inches deep in goose guano. You can't walk anywhere on it, at least not safely without some impervious Kevlar boots. Ordinary shoes would dissolve in seconds. So maybe encouraging the geese to stay through the winter is a really, really bad idea. Worse than feeding deer, which allows them to increase their population in an area and then eat every garden and cultivated plant in sight. This bad idea is played out all over the Northeast. Whoops, what happened to Texas? End of asides.
Sam's Cold Beer Takeout, Morrisville, Pennsylvania: A bar with many beer coolers and a couple tables. Cheap Formica tables and chairs. And bright fluorescent lighting. Sort of a 7-11 that carries beer and little else. There are twenty feet of glass-front beer coolers and two little bitty soda coolers. And a couple shelves of chips. Three of the four tables are occupied by, I assume, regulars. But these guys make the "Cheers" crowd look like Nobel laureates. You know "the regulars" from the Dortmunder series by Donald Westlake? Like that. But oddly, one loud snatch of conversation that I can't ignore is about using on-demand channels on cable. Not a topic I would have expected.
Up by the cash register are a couple (badly) hand lettered signs describing the menu. The cheesesteaks can come with peppers, onions, mushrooms, even gravy. Five bucks, which is really cheap. And fries for an extra buck. The sandwiches are good, competent cheesesteaks, but "THE best" they ain't. A bit greasy, a bit gummy. The meat in larger pieces, not shredded as it ought to be. The rolls are pretty good, though, as advertised. Overall, too far to go, geographically and culturally, for a merely good sandwich. In my humble opinion, both Jersey Mike's and Hog Island are way better.
The recommender informs us that the real cook was not there that day, apparently off for the weekend or the holidays. If the Fat Lady isn't there, the product is not likely to be at its best. Well, maybe. We'll try it again someday.
Meantime, I'll go back to Texas to get a really good Philly cheesesteak.
Another aside: We also tried the Pennington (NJ) Pizza & Italian Restaurant cheesesteak. This is a homey pizza and sandwich shop with a large local following. Sorry to report that the cheesesteak is not very Philly-like. The roll was not bad, the meat was okay if a little gummy, but there was very little cheese. The worst feature was the peppers, which were not roasted but probably only cooked with the meat and retained much of their green pepper bitterness. Ick. On the plus side, they sell pizza by the slice, and the slices look great.