The Cheesesteak via Penn Station

Very recently, a true and blue Cincinnatian, upon finding out I am from Philly, asked that I try a Penn Station Philadelphia Cheesesteak. Now I have stepped down this path before. Every one seems to think that with ingredients so simple, cheese and steak, that they can slap them together and throw the Philly™ brand right on it. “COME! Experience a taste of Philadelphia! It’s just like living there! Or at Least passing through!” And who is to say it’s not? Surely, my mind is whisked away to France every time I sip champagne. Well, allow me to put this record on repeat. It’s not that simple people.

To truly test the merits of a PS Philadelphia Cheesesteak, I had to eat it under the most suitable conditions that a cheesesteak was inevitably designed for, with a hangover. You see in Philly, we are careful with our intake of the city’s signature sandwich. We don’t glamorize it in a chain. It doesn’t really come up as an option for lunch everyday in our thought process. Nor dinner. It is a sandwich that the world assumes runs through every Philadelphians anatomy. Wiz in the veins you might say. But that is simply not the case, well, for most of the city. There are a few times when a cheesesteak is required eating, and almost all of those moments revolve around inebriation. The 2am Pats/Genos run. The 11am didnt-quite-make-it-there-last-night-cause-I-drank-too-much run. The before-any-ballgame run. The someone South-Philly-challenged-you run. Or, the you-are-a-tourist run.

Yes, Philadelphians argue over the best one, much like Cincy and it’s “chili.” But no matter if it’s Pat’s, Geno’s, Carmen’s, Tony Luke’s, Campo’s, Jim’s, Steve’s, John’s, Shank’s or any of the glorious food carts about the city, each cheesesteak abides by a few unspoken rules, all of which Penn Station East Coast Subs broke.

Having been born in Jersey, lived just outside of New York City, and spent an equal amount of time in Philly, I can tell you, that the # 1, make or break of your sandwich, begins and ends…with the bread. Cincy, and the midwest in general, seems to lack this fundamental truth. I always thought a fabulous incentive/economic development idea would be to just give a couple families from the northwest an entire city block, complete with storefronts on the ground and residences above. These families have talents. You need the baker, the butcher, and the cheese maker. This simple triad forms the foundation of food gloriousness, not to mention spurns economic growth around it. Just watch, specialty shops like pasta, sausage, and pastry would pop up. Very shortly thereafter you will have a deli, a cafe and a BYOB all in a nice little row.

But I’m getting off track, in Philly, all the great sandwiches use Sarcone’s bread. And I mean, ALL of them. Crispy on the outside, soft and moist deliciousness on the inside. This hoagie roll has some serious girth. PS is a chain, and therefore has their own mass production way of making bread. But honestly it falls in the same boat as Subway, Potbelly, Jimmy John’s et al, as a universal “loaf.” The chain shops seem to go out of their way, to make sure their bread isn’t “in the way” of the sandwich. It lacks the crunch that shops try to faux by “toasting” it. And something in the water out here has the bread just not getting that fluff you see back East. The end result is something between a Kroger’s Bake-It-Yourself doughy mess and a tortilla.

Strike 1.

Now, there’s the ingredients. Cheese and steak. And the way in which you order them. You see there is a vernacular here. It’s what makes a cheesesteak, a Philly™ cheesesteak. ‘Wiz wit’ or ‘wiz witout’. It’s not complicated. What’s it mean? It means you want your cheesesteak with Cheese Whiz either with or without onions. Can you get them with other things? Like Provolone? Mushrooms? Pizza Sauce? Peppers? Sure. But let’s leave those to the experienced shall we. Rome wasn’t built in a day. And if you can’t get the basics, I’m not putting you in the advanced class.

PS’s default cheese is provolone. Now, this isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just not right. What I have noticed out here in your sandwiches is a lack of detail that often comes in the form of an adjective. For example, I often crave an Italian hoagie. When this happens, I order from a deli at the corner of 4th and Plum (it’s closest to my work). It comes with ham, salami, provolone, tomato, onion and something that I think was Italian dressing. Again, not wrong(ish), but not right. It should be, capicola ham, prosciutto di parma, genoa salami or soprassata, sharp provolone, roma tomatoes, onions, red wine vinegar, olive oil and dried oregano. See what I did there? Adjectives. Very important adjectives. In the case of the PS provolone, it should have been sharp provolone. Correction, it should have been Cheese Whiz, and I should have asked for sharp provolone. Nonetheless..

Strike 2.

And call me sentimental, but there is something about the experience of ordering a cheesesteak at any of the Philly locations, that PS missed out on. You know exactly where people were or are going as you wait online. If it’s 11 am on a Sunday, they are pregaming for the Phillies or Eagles. If their clothes are sweats and their hair is a mess, they were probably at Roy’s or the PoPE way too late and drank way too much the night before. If someone is explaining how to order to someone else, well, welcome to Philly! I hope no one spit on you during your stay. There is a beautiful energy in those moments. Those fabulous line rides of people watching that end in meat. And cheese. And cheese covered fries. The system is so efficient. Just piles of pre-marinated, thinly sliced sirloin, slung onto a Sarcone’s hoagie roll pre-slathered in whiz and topped with onions, handed down the line to a wrapper, all in the blink of an eye as the server yells “NEXT!” At Penn Station, on campus, on a lazy Sunday, mere blocks from frat house row, I stood alone. Listening to SportCenter recaps and watching a grillmaster slop the meat and onions onto the bread, cover it with soft provolone, and then send it through a toaster.

Strike 3.

Now, you might be thinking that it’s unfair to put the “experience” on trial here. As PS just doesn’t have the volume nor are they known for their “cheesesteaks” to such an extent that people travel from all over just to experience the sw-east coast life. To which I say, if you are going to put PHILADELPHIA in your title sandwich, you better damn well represent. Getting the cheesesteak is just as paramount to eating a cheesesteak in Philly. People travel in groups. Families go there together. The camaraderie and comfort in that simple sandwich is what makes ALL the steak houses in Philly equal. You might be thinking, “c’mon dude, it’s a chain. You can’t judge Penn Station like that.” But I have seen this here. In Cincy, at a place you all call Skyline. I’ve heard the wonderful stories, accepted that people crave this stuff, and experienced the mild arguments over which Skyline is better, to which some smart ass always ends with “The Camp Washington one!”. So I know that a chain can bring reverence, and be madly efficient at it (Lord knows Henry Ford himself looks down at both the cheesesteak and Skyline ways with a tear in his eye, and “Finally.” running through his head).

I know it sounds like I am dissing the Penn Station cheesesteak. By all regards it’s an ok sandwich. Price-wise it’s right in line with a Philly one ($10), and served it’s purpose (my hangover was nearly gone upon completing this post). It’s just not a Philadelphia™ cheesesteak. Because of the their name, and the gall of using “Philadelphia” in front of their sandwich (as many chains have before them) they are, by all marketing accounts, the Subject Matter Experts to the thralls of people that haven’t had the experience to compare it to, thus I am going to judge them differently as many here would. And until I can successfully figure out how to get a piping hot, fresh-off-the-line cheesesteak from 572 miles away to do a side-by-side comparison for you, they will continue to be the apex of which all other area cheesesteaks will be judged. However, next time you find out I am from Philly, and ask me to try this or that cheesesteak, know that I’ll feed you a line that I learned when I moved out here.

All bourbons are whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon.

Oh and by the way, the best sandwich Philly has to offer is not even a cheesesteak, it’s a roast pork, but don’t tell anyone, I don’t want those lines to get longer than they already are.

One comment on “The Cheesesteak via Penn Station”

  1. Talking about how the bread matters and I think about people in Cincy talking about artisanal bread. I understand, its awesome.
    But back in Youngstown all the bread was like that and we just called it bread.
    I miss Italians bad sometimes.

Say Something

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *