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Steaking a claim: A recent trip to Pennsylvania found me falling in love with the cheese-steak all over again. I didn't get to my favorite place, Pat's Steaks in Philly, but I hit several good copies and pinned down what makes a cheesesteak work. For me, at least.
Even though Pat's probably started the thing, everyone has his own cheesesteak of choice. Pat's uses cheap cheese (think Cheez Whiz), cheap meat (frozen sandwich steaks) and plenty of dripping-with-grease onions. The roll is often the most contested ingredient--Pat's are slightly crusty on the outside to keep the sandwich from falling apart but soft enough inside to soak up all the juice. From those basics, the possibilities are as varied as the crowd that hangs out in South Philly.
Here in Denver, two new cheesesteak shops promise the real thing--and both are owned by former Philadelphians. Famous Philly Cheese Steak, at 850 South Monaco Parkway, fired up the grill in March. I stopped by recently for a fat cheesesteak sandwich ($3.29) filled with perfectly cooked, marinated rib-eye meat imported from Philly, just the right amount of provolone cheese and thinly sliced onions. My only beef was that the crusty Italian roll didn't hold up.
The roll was much better at Taste of Philly, which opened last December at 2432 South Colorado Boulevard. But this cheesesteak ($2.75) had way too many onions--it was more like a cheese-onion sandwich with meat, albeit good knuckle meat. I later realized the menu promised a choice of cheeses, but I wasn't offered any; manager Ken Brown says I probably got white American, "the only cheese to put in a cheesesteak." He himself doesn't eat cheesesteaks anymore, he adds, "because then I'd be as big as a house."
Since I'm not quite there yet, I hit a few more spots in town. The place that claims it's been serving cheesesteaks the longest, the Philadelphia Filly, at 1585 South Pearl Street, started out thirteen years ago with tenderloin on its "gourmet sandwich," which is what part-owner Sally Rock calls their "Famous Filly" ($5.95). "From the beginning, we never claimed it was authentic," says the Philly-born Rock. "We wanted it to be upscale." And mine was. The hoagie-style roll worked well with the chipped short-loin meat, which the Filly switched to because they thought it was more tender than tenderloin. It was.
There weren't enough onions in the cheesesteak at Acappella's, but there sure was a lot of meat--about six ounces of shaved rib-eye in its medium-sized sandwich ($4.25). This eatery at 1336 East 17th Avenue is styled like a beach shack, an atmosphere that goes well with such a monster-sized, messy meal. The award for the biggest cheesesteak, however, goes to Tommy's Terrific Subs, at the corner of Quincy and C-470 at the edge of Morrison. Well worth the drive out there, this big boy ($4.50) contained a half-pound of chopped, choice rib-eye on a roll that part-owner Tommy Hill, also from Pennsylvania, says took him months to find. "We were looking for that right combination of soft inside, crisp and chewy outside." They found it--the roll was sturdy enough to hold in the avalanche of melted provolone cheese and the drippy onions, but not so tough it broke teeth. "I get two guys from Philly who come here almost every week," Hill says. "Each of those guys puts away one and a half of the large cheese-steak, which weighs about two pounds.