When tourists think of Philadelphia, a handful of iconic images are bound to come to mind; be it Rocky Balboa running through the streets in the early morning, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and of course, the cheesesteak.The cheesesteak was believed to have been created in the 1930’s by Pat Olivieri, a hot dog vendor from South Philadelphia. One night, looking to eat something different for supper, Pat grilled up some ribeye steak, and threw it on a crusty Italian roll. A hungry cab driver who happened by asked if he could get one too, but Pat, unprepared to sell it, simply gave him half of his sandwich. The word spread to the other drivers, and by the following day, Pat was getting dozens of requests for his creation.
I had fully intended to visit Pat’s location, until I got word from a large number of locals that it’s come a commercialized tourist trap. Given my limited number of hours, and more importantly, my limited stomach space, I aimed to choose my cheesesteak carefully.
Going to Tony Luke’s wasn’t on the itinerary, but fate intervened when I happened upon one of their franchise locations inside the King of Prussia Mall. It had been a few hours since I’d eaten the life-changing roast pork sandwich from DiNic’s, and it was time to give a try for my first authentic Philly cheesesteak.
The shop, standing inside the food court, was eye-catching, using bright colors to attract the attention of passers by. A cardboard cutout of charismatic owner, Tony Luke Jr., sat next to the cashes. The cutout features Tony pointing towards his other hand, which is empty. This seemed odd, as I had no interest in ordering an Empty Hand, but given some time to think about it, I’ve assumed there was a cheesesteak in his hand, but now he’s pointing as if to say “hey, my cheesesteaks are so delicious that I couldn’t even wait for my promotional photograph to be taken before I devoured it”.
The prices were reasonable, with two Junior sandwiches and a drink costing us less than $15. I wanted matters to be as authentic as possible, so I got the traditional cheesesteak, with onions, and topped with mild provolone. Real enthusiasts insist that Cheeze Whiz is the only way to go, but historically, the original cheesesteaks were actually served with American cheese. The choice of cheese is yours. I had the option to add bell peppers, hot peppers, and various sauces – but at that point it would have been more of a hoagie and no longer a true, one of a kind cheesesteak.
I sat down and dove into my first bite and … well, I was kinda let down. I was expecting an explosion of steak-filled goodness, complemented by the nutty dry flavor of provolone, but somehow it was the onions that took center stage. I was about to discover that Tony Luke’s, as well as most cheesesteak places, don’t season their meat! And that’s not to say a ribeye isn’t a delicious cut, but it’s a sin to leave it naked and not accentuate it with some basic salt and pepper. Suddenly, the cult use of Cheeze Whiz made all the sense in the world – it’s a super salty “cheese”, and mixed in with the steak likely enhanced the flavor of the meat. I say likely because I had chosen provolone – and theirs was very mild, not hitting me with the sharp, nutty flavor I expect. I hadn’t listened to the experts, and I wound up fumbling the ball like Michael Haddix.
On the other side of the table, my wife was working over a Chicken Steak, which she’d got topped with marinara sauce, bell peppers, and onions. The marinara was a very well seasoned sauce, and she was powering through what she would later declare as the best sandwich she ate on our entire weekend excursion. She offered me a bite – and it was very tasty. The large pieces of chicken were heightened by the addition of nicely grilled vegetable pieces, and it used the salty marinara to bring it all together. More often than not, my wife is left wishing she’s ordered what I ordered – but in this case, she came away the winner.
I made a rookie mistake – and I’ve learned my lesson. Tony Luke himself is a fanatic of “Whiz Cheeze”, calling it liquid gold, and if there’s one thing you should never ever do, it’s to question the owner of a successful restaurant chain. More often than not, they know best.