Norman Van Aken's A Word On Food
8:00 am
Sat August 10, 2013

Gee Whiz! Philly Cheese Steak Sandwiches

When I go to a city as a guest chef, our hosts usually take great care of us and routinely offer to take us to one of the fancy or “Four Star!” restaurants in town.

I thought that was the best for a while but now we thank them and ask them to take us to a place with a more casual or even funky setting, or if that’s where the local “Flavor Gods” cook. And it usually is.

We were in Philadelphia a few years ago to do a dinner. As is too often the case, once our obligations were over, we had to high-tail it to the airport and get back home in time to cook dinner service at the restaurant.

Our still NON gratified need for a famed Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich was haunting us when we suddenly spied a place advertising them within the airport. Desperate, we chanced it!

I have had very good Italian Beef Sandwiches in Miami, (birthplace Chicago.) Very close to perfect Pulled Barbeque’s Pork, (I won’t venture to start that ‘provenance’ argument!) but never a proper Philly Cheese Steak down our way. The origin of the lusty-meaty-cheesy dish goes back to two Philly brothers named Pat and Harry Oliveri who began to serve steak on hoagie rolls in the early 1930’s near South Philadelphia’s famed Italian market.

Our airport situated ‘Philly Cheese Steak Chef’ got our order for “two cheese WIT” which, if you have not been indoctrinated into the specific drill for how to order in one of these places, automatically indicates you want fried onions and sweet bell peppers.

The chef launched the meat onto a griddle, tossed a split open-faced hoagie roll near it... and scattered the onions and peppers around. The beef steam-griddled for a few moments and then all hell broke loose!

It was American-Urban-Black Man doing a Japanese Benihana-like riff using two spatulas instead of Japanese knives as he drummed and chopped that meat into a delicately texture pile, now jumbled with the sweetly charred onions and bell peppers. The noise he created was yet another part of what made me stare and take extra notice. Whacketa-Whacketa-Whacketa!

At the end of this ballet of mallet and meat, he rolled the sandwich shut with the cheese melted underneath the meat. We dug in. Hey! Pretty good for an airport based meal we agreed!

The famed sandwich was originally made without cheese! And the first cheese to bless one was likely to have been was provolone. The gent given credit for that move was one Joe “Cocky Joe” Lorenza. I have to marvel at how in a town that brought us some major cocky guys this Joe got the nickname with it. But Joe’s cockiness was undone. It took a food scientist who invented the concoction that goes on 95 percent of all Philly Cheese Steaks now. And you already know,  but my ‘journalistic responsibility’ commands me to say it aloud; Cheese Whiz!

We got the chance to go back to Philadelphia and went to ‘Pat’s King of Steaks.’ Despite a pretty frigid setting that day we huddled on the sidewalk and waited. Philadelphians with much more cold weather tolerant constitutions stood with their jackets open nonchalantly beside us as we waited for our order to be filled.

When it came, we lifted our sandwiches and it was good. But... Shhh! I’d be run of Pat’s if they ever heard this, but that guy operating his Philly Cheese Steak place at the airport? He was right up there with them.

Cheese Whiz is a leveler.

RECIPE

I like my version spicier than some so I used poblano chilies versus green bell peppers. You can go the more traditional route of course.

Serves 1

1/2 Cup thinly sliced red onions

1/3 Cup thinly sliced poblano bell pepper

4 Tablespoons olive oil, kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4-5 ounces thinly sliced raw top round beef

2 slices Provolone cheese

An 8-to-10 inch Italian roll or French baguette

1 Tablespoon Italian Giardiniera pepper relish, (optional)

Sauté the red onions and poblano peppers separately in small saucepans with 1 Tablespoon olive oil in each until soft, stirring often.  Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Split the roll open. Toast them if you like. Set aside. 

Heat the remaining 2 Tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over high heat. Put the meat in and season with salt and pepper. Turn after 30 seconds more, place 2 slices of cheese over the meat, remove from the pan with a spatula, and set aside. Spoon the onion and poblano on the roll. Put the meat and cheese on top. Garnish with the giardiniera.

Related Program