So here we are, 1,730 miles from Philadelphia, and we're gonna argue about cheesesteaks. What is this, 1975 at the Jersey Shore? I think my flip-flops are broken.
The winner of the Best Cheesesteak award in the Best of Denver 2002 was Santoro's Brick Oven Pizzeria (9500 Heritage Hills Circle, Lone Tree), a perfectly respectable spot that serves good pizza and even better cheesesteaks. Santoro's uses thinly sliced sirloin, chopping it up on the grill with onions and provolone, then jamming it into a long, slim, homemade roll. It's greasy in a good way, dripping with cheese and juices, and the onions -- a key element in a top-notch cheesesteak -- are cooked until limp and soaked with beef juices. This is one truly awesome sandwich.
But that undeniable fact hasn't stopped folks from calling into question my cheesesteak-eating credentials and, hell, even my heritage. For the record, I'm from Pittsburgh. My family went to Philadelphia every summer for fifteen years to visit relatives, and we'd also stop in that city to grab a bite to eat on our way to our annual vacation in Wildwood, New Jersey. I know from cheesesteak. And hey, I didn't say that Santoro's was the most authentic cheesesteak in town -- just the best.
The way some of my critics see it, there's only one way to make a cheesesteak. But do you think all the people in Philadelphia got together and agreed on a recipe? Fuggedaboudit. The cheese-steak at Pat's Steaks (a South Philly spot that calls itself the "King of Cheesesteak" and claims to have invented the sandwich) is very different from the one at Mike and Carol's (a take that comes close to heresy, since it uses lettuce and tomatoes), or the version at the long-gone Fat Max's, or the sandwiches at hundreds of lesser-known joints that all claim to make authentic cheesesteaks.
Part of a cheesesteak's allure, of course, is the same thing that makes it special to eat a slice in New York or suck the head out of a crayfish in New Orleans: an authentic setting. At any Philly cheesesteak spot, if you don't know the proper lingo, the guys in greasy aprons will verbally push you aside for the next customer. (The experience is almost as terrifying and confusing as ordering your first Chipotle burrito here.) Then you take your "cheese with" and stand outside on a sidewalk covered with food detritus and splotches of oily beef juice, vying for elbow room with bums and businesspeople trying to keep their sandwiches from permanently accessorizing their clothes. Colorado's cheesesteak-serving eateries are much cleaner than any I've visited in Philly. Or, as a friend who's eaten his way through that city says, "Only a place that's closed down regularly by the health department serves an authentic cheesesteak."
Since the Best of Denver 2002 came out, I've heard from a dozen people, all allegedly from Philly, and all claiming to know what a bona fide cheesesteak should involve. (Except for Jimmy, who never gave his last name and called me something normally reserved for women who try to cut too close to the PennDot workers along the turnpike.) According to Janeen King, the correct recipe calls for provolone and thick-cut beef, while Robert Elliott says only cheap American cheese and chopped-up bits of chuck roast will do. Alice Jennings doesn't care about the cheese as long as the meat is super-thin and greasy, and Joey Castellano -- okay, he probably is from Philly -- pronounces: "It's the trio of steak, cheese and onions that makes it real."
Several people describe the sort of sandwich I was introduced to as a kid: a long, thin loaf of Italian bread lined with salty steak as thin as those frozen Steak-Umms from the grocery store and just as cheap and bad for you, topped by onions cooked on the grill with the meat until they turn medium-brown, with everything held together by a gluey, molten mass of white cheese that has the texture and flavor of Cheez Whiz. Each of these folks has a favorite Denver-area cheesesteak spot; I've been to them all, and they all serve a worthy cheesesteak. Just not the best.
Famous Philly Cheese Steak (850 South Monaco Parkway) is within walking distance of my house, and my kids and I have spent many a meal munching happily on their sandwiches, which came very close to being my Best Of pick -- until I ate at Santoro's. Famous uses rib-eye imported from Philly, an ideal amount of provolone, and thinly sliced onions, all served on a crusty-edged Italian roll. Not too far away is the austere Pat's Philly Steaks & Subs (7419 East Iliff Avenue), which may not be related to the original Pat's but still does a very good cheesesteak, although it's a bit on the dry side. I also think the onion-heavy cheesesteak at Taste of Philly (2432 South Colorado Boulevard) is a contender.
Falling into a totally different category -- and more like places in Philly that have tried to "uptown" the sandwich -- is the Philadelphia Filly (16th Street Mall at Broadway), a past Best of Denver winner for its delish version. Owner Sally Rock is from Philly, and she and her husband, Dale Goin, dish out massive cheesesteaks featuring chopped sirloin (get the "dubba dubba," with double meat and double cheese) from an old-fashioned quilted-metal cart on the Mall. Don't tell Sally she doesn't know cheesesteaks, or you'll be looking at the business end of a grill.
Bested of Denver: Sirloin is the meat of choice in this year's Best Burrito, an honor that readers once again thought should go to the aforementioned Chipotle. But anyone who's tried the steak burrito -- really, other than putting them in a cheesesteak, this is the best thing you can do with grilled strips of meat -- at Benny's Restaurante y Cantina (301 East Seventh Avenue) would be hard-pressed to think there's a better food out there, period. The popular Denver Mexican eatery rolls up tons of cheddar cheese along with the succulent beef, then smothers the whole thing in a wonderfully hot green chile. This is one of those dishes I can't go very long without.
There are many, many opportunities to have a Chipotle burrito, however, since the homegrown chain has just opened its 200th store (they're now in eleven states, including California, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Missouri, Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio and Virginia, as well as Washington, D.C.). The Front Range is still Chipotle's biggest market, with 31 stores; Chicago is second, with fifteen. The newest Denver-area Chipotle is the one at 951 East 120th Avenue in Thornton, which just opened last month.
One of the most interesting things visionary Chipotle owner Steve Ells has done since he sold a piece of his company to the McDonald's Corporation a few years back was hook up with Niman Ranch, an Iowa-based pig farm that has the blessings of the Animal Welfare Institute because of its humane treatment of the animals. Niman doesn't use hormones or antibiotics, and the pigs graze on sustainable land.
According to Chipotle spokesman Jim Adams, the connection between Chipotle and the ranch has led to more farmers using Niman's methods. "When we started out, Niman had seventy farmers," Adams says. "Now they have 200. There's a correlation there between their growth and ours, and Steve wants that to continue. It just makes good sense, for us and for this country's agricultural industry." Ells has been looking into chickens produced the same way, Adams adds, and is talking to Tyson Foods about their work with chickens raised on a totally vegetarian diet.
I can certainly vouch for the flavor of Niman's pork, which goes great in a burrito. In a cheesesteak, though...now, that would be something completely different.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.