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Philly Fan

Harry Kalas died."

"What?"

"Harry Kalas died."

"Who?"

"You're an idiot. Harry Kalas. Announcer for the Phillies? He died. I'm going to get cheesesteaks."

Harry Kalas wasn't just the announcer for the Phillies over 39 seasons; he was an institution. He was the voice that generations of Philadelphians grew up with on their radios and in their heads. Whether you were a fan of the Phillies or not — fans of baseball or not — if you spent any time in Philadelphia over the past four decades, you knew who Harry Kalas was. Laura is not a baseball fan and she knew his name. I am not a baseball fan and didn't do anything more than marry a girl from Philly, and, after some prompting, even I knew who Harry Kalas was.

And now he was dead. On April 13, Kalas walked into the clubhouse at Nationals Park (where the Phillies were scheduled to play against the D.C. team). He got the lineup and made his way up to the press box, preparing to call the game. He collapsed right there in the broadcast booth, died before the first pitch was thrown.

Laura heard the news and told me the details over the phone: the press box, the broadcast booth, a bad ticker. She was in mourning.

"At least he died doing what he loved," I said — classic emotional defense for a guy who hopes to go down himself someday under a landslide of pancakes or be nuzzled to death by pigs.

"Yeah, I guess..." A pause. "So, do you want anything?"

She was going to Philly's Cheesesteak Grill (3333 South Wadsworth Boulevard), a place that isn't much to look at from the outside — just another strip-mall cheesesteak joint in a city (oddly) full of strip-mall cheesesteak joints; a casual, counter-service restaurant that's never been too well known outside its neighborhood or outside the rabid cadre of East Coast transplants who would rather eat their own feet than some godawful, ham-fisted, bar-room quote/unquote Philly cheesesteak all gunked up with fancy cheese and bell pepper and mushrooms.

The cheesesteak — like the white-hot, the beef-on-weck or the po-boy — is a very particular thing. There is only one base: an Amoroso's roll, straight outta South Philly. There is only one kind of meat: sliced sirloin. There are two kinds of cheese, depending on your character: Are you a white American kinda guy, or do you like yours with Whiz? And then the only other question is whether you're eating your cheesesteak with or without onions. Four ingredients, one man, one grill — that's all it takes to make a cheesesteak restaurant. A few cans of black cherry Wishniak in the cooler, a couple of old packages of TastyKakes on the counter, a poster of Rocky running up the steps of the old art museum, and you're golden.

Philly's does what I now consider to be the best cheesesteak in the area. More important, it's what Laura considers to be the best cheesesteak in the area, and she grew up on proper Philadelphia cheesesteaks.

Philly's uses Amoroso's rolls, as it should, and shaved sirloin, as it must. Fresh off the grill, the meat just melts across your tongue. Philly's slings white American cheese rather than Whiz (which is a rarity outside of those charmed Philadelphia zip codes anyhow), but I prefer the white American. And while it will do a cheesesteak with peppers, with mushrooms, even with melted blue cheese or bacon and barbecue sauce, you have to order one of those sandwiches by name — thereby opening yourself up to smirks and sneers and open ridicule from the people behind you in line (particularly if I'm the guy behind you).

The short galley also does a couple other things. Meatball sandwiches, good (though not great) hoagies in all the requisite varieties: ham, ham, ham and Italian. Stuffed baked potatoes — a little weird. Wrap sandwiches. Salads. And then, just when you think Philly's is going all hippie and strange, it comes up with funnel cakes. Funnel cakes topped with all manner of whipped cream and chocolate sauce and cherries and M&Ms and God only knows what else. Who doesn't love a friggin' funnel cake?

So in honor of Harry Kalas and in the name of dying doing what you love, Laura loaded up with everything she could get her hands on at Philly's: righteous Philly-style cheesesteaks and thick hoagies dripping with sandwich oil, TastyKakes and sodas, fries with bacon and cheese. We ate everything over the course of an evening, her thinking about home and summer baseball games on TV, me thinking about death and wondering how many pounds of bacon-cheese fries one man can eat before his heart just quits, and both of us thinking of Kalas and how lucky he must've felt for all his days, right up until that last moment in the press box.

Leftovers: Last month, Tom and Marna Sumners, the owners of Cafe Star (3201 East Colfax Avenue), announced that they'd be closing that restaurant and repurposing the spot as a second location of Trattoria Stella. And doing so quickly: The turnaround was accomplished in about a week, and the east-side Stella is now open.

 
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