The Philly cheesesteak is one of the giants of regional cuisine in the U.S. It’s widely beloved and, on the surface, it is a very simple sandwich — it’s grilled, thin-cut steak with cheese and onions, on a roll. You will find it toward the bottom of many pubs’ "Sandwiches" section on their menus. It’s just sitting there, next to the grilled chicken sandwich and the turkey club. So it’s just a sandwich, right? Well, if you know anyone from Philly, a cheesesteak (or simply a "steak," as we call them), is much more than the sum of its ingredients.
I grew up outside of Philly and I’ve eaten cheesesteaks for almost my whole life (blame my parents for not throwing one in a blender and serving it to me as a purée as an infant.) And although I have a "perfect" steak style in my head, authenticity is not as formulaic as you might think. There is room for customization within the realm of authentic Philly steaks, but the expanse between the authentic and fake is vast.
So do you want to know what truly distinguishes McWhatever’s Saloon’s version of the Philly steak from the real deal? Read on…
The Roll: D’Ambrosio. Liscio’s. Aversa’s. Amoroso’s. This may sound to the inexperienced ear like roll call at a South Philly Knights of Columbus gathering, but to devout steak fans, they are the most important building blocks of a proper Philly cheesesteak — these are among the bakeries that provide the rolls for steaks all over the Philadelphia metro area. And for cheesesteak lovers in Philly, loyalty to a bakery often runs just as deep as their loyalty to the joints that serve them. And for this humble reviewer, Amoroso’s roll is the one at the top of the pack. So what makes a cheesesteak roll great? Well for one, it absolutely has to be fresh. It should be soft and tender, but a little crusty and chewy on the outside. It should collapse around the steak with every bite, but not soak through or rip at the bottom "seam." In other words, the roll should contain the grease, but not overwhelm the contents with its mass. (Photo above courtesy of Flickr/Barbara L. Hanson)
The Steak: There’s a bit of variety in the beef cuts used in Philly cheesesteaks. At the lower end of the spectrum, there are "chopped and formed" steaks — pre-formed and sliced "steaks" compiled from a variety of cuts of beef and blended for consistency. These steaks tend to be constituted from leaner bits of beef, making them tougher, and therefore are often marinated. (These "chopped and formed" steaks are much better than accursed frozen patties like Steak-Umms, which are essentially ground beef smashed into thin sheets — they’re like the Pringles of meat products, and not suitable for any cheesesteak.) For the best Philly cheesesteak experience, you’ll want to search for a whole-muscle steak, preferably thin-cut fresh on the premises. (Photo above courtesy of Flickr/JSpatchwork)
The Grill Prep: The steak is not always entirely unadulterated — some shops give their steaks a shot of oil on the grill to add flavor, others add oil and water, and some just use a little water. Cheesesteak pros use everything from Wesson oil to soybean oil to blends of various oils. Salt and pepper are occasionally applied on the grill and in rare cases other spices, such as oregano, may be tossed in. There’s no hard-and-fast rule regarding when oil or seasoning is applied, but most often if a leaner cut is used, the cook will use a little oil. (Photo above courtesy of Flickr/Shinya)