Philly on the Potomac: Cheesesteak from Taylor Charles Steak & Ice

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Far and wide in this country, you find sandwich shops and corner takeouts and bland chain restaurants offering “Philadelphia Cheesesteaks” on their menus. But they’re not real cheesesteaks. Slathering cheese on chopped meat does not magically yield a cheesesteak any more than stuffing cold cuts into a hard roll causes a hoagie to appear. Without proper ingredients, preparation, and construction, you just have a sandwich.

And while I’m capable of enjoying a sub (though always wishing it were a hoagie), I’m incapable of enjoying the faux cheesesteaks that have been foisted upon an unsuspecting populace by shops outside the greater Philadelphia area.

So when the founders of DC’s Taylor Gourmet, purveyors of fine, and authentic, Philadelphia sandwiches, opened their cheesesteakerie, Taylor Charles Steak & Ice at the end of 2012, I was hopeful yet wary. Their hoagies, roast porks, and chicken cutlets could well pass muster on any Philadelphia street corner, but for all their apparent simplicity, cheesesteaks require some significant griddle work. No matter how good your ingredients and intentions, you can’t fake it.

It’s not just chopping the meat while cooking it; there’s a flow to getting the meat to the proper consistency while folding in the cheese and grilled onions and scooping it all into the soft roll. Nailing the cheesesteak requires training and lots of it, and if you’re not moving enough volume over your griddle, you’ll never be able to replicate the “just-in-time” cheesesteak that the premier joints up in Philly turn out in consistently amazing quantity and quality.

My uncertainty kept me from making the trek up to H Street. Plus, they offer a “fixings bar” with mustard, ketchup, hot sauce, and mayo. Just, no. Such condiments never go on a cheesesteak. But once they offered delivery, I knew I had to give them a chance. And they nailed it.

Ribeye wit' Provolone Cheesesteak from Taylor Charles Steak and Ice

Precision is paramount to the Philadelphia sandwich aficionado. As I experienced with my first hoagie from the Taylor team, the proportions and construction of this ribeye wit’ provolone were spot on. Not too many onions, not too much cheese—the steak remains paramount. The cheese was delivered into the roll, coating the soft bread and melding all the flavors, rather than sitting uselessly on top. The good-quality ribeye was chopped finely but not so fine that it lacked texture. The addition of some long hots for a buck helped add a bit of heat and an additional textural counterpoint. (And yes, adding hot peppers to a cheesesteak is quite properly Philly; all the cheesesteak joints up there have them available.)

The roll held up quite agreeably, with a nice, chewy give, and kept all the ingredients together from first bite to last. Not quite an Amoroso, the Philadelphia cheesesteak standard, but a very close approximation.

This home-grown roll works far better than the hard rolls they bake for Taylor Gourmet. My last several sandwiches there were made slightly less enjoyable by those rolls, which impart their own taste, somewhat sweet, into the mix. Hoagie rolls need to be sturdy, blank canvases, and while I would happily eat a Sarcone’s roll alone, significant taste is not their role (only slight pun intended). Taylor’s switch from Sarcone’s rolls to their own recipe makes sense—it’s an understandably unsustainable business model, given the volume and the potential for logistical disaster—but I still long for a more neutral hard roll from them. The soft roll for their cheesesteaks makes up for it, though.

I have it on good authority that the homemade “white whiz” also earns high marks. My culinary counterpart had the ribeye wit’ white whiz and was duly impressed. I’m strictly a provolone guy, so I’ll have to take her word for it.

Simply put, the folks at Taylor Charles Steak & Ice have put together the best cheesesteak this side of the Schuylkill. Good value, great ingredients, careful preparation. All I need now is a gruff voice on the other end of the phone when I place a delivery order and it’s like I’m in Philly . . .

A Philadelphia Sandwich Tour, Part Two

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The first day of the Philadelphia Sandwich Tour, scrumptious as it was, served merely as appetizer. Cue the music from Rocky, because day two is the main event, taking place in Philadelphia’s sandwich epicenter, the Italian Market.

Truth be told, the Italian Market is only nominally Italian these days. As we walked along South Ninth Street, we saw tons of Asian and Hispanic markets, including a live poultry shop, and had our gustatory purpose been less narrowly defined, we’d have eagerly stopped in a taqueria or a dim sum restaurant. But this is not a Philadelphia Burrito Tour, so on to the sandwiches!

We took SEPTA’s Broad Street Line to Ellsworth-Federal and walked a few blocks down Federal to one of Philadelphia’s most famous hoagie shops, Chickie’s Italian Deli. Rick Sebak’s Sandwiches That You Will Like, the Citizen Kane of sandwich documentaries, profiled Chickie’s, and I was afraid that it would be crowded from the get-go, but given the cold weather, we were the only customers when we arrived around 11 A.M. on a Saturday morning. I hadn’t counted on the shop being quite so small—really just a narrow aisle upon entry where you place your order, with the rest of the shop given over to the food preparation area. So, we sat outside, in the cold. We sacrifice for our art.

VIP Seating at Chickie's Italian Deli!

The owners and staff were busy making catered sandwich platters, but they gave our order priority when we walked in. Given the number of sandwiches that we would be eating throughout the day, I opted for small size, and person behind the counter gave me a look and pointed to the sample roll for the small size—not a seeded Sarcone’s roll cut from a larger loaf, like the medium and large sizes, but a plain, single-serve roll. I must not have had enough coffee, because I still picked the small size regardless. Don’t order the small at Chickie’s! The roll is so important to a proper hoagie, and I made a rookie mistake.

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A Philadelphia Sandwich Tour, Part One

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Broad Street Subway or Best Sandwich Subway?

Let’s call it what it was: a pilgrimage.

Along with my intrepid travelling companion, I recently ventured up to Philadelphia for a three day Sandwich Tour. From Fishtown to the Italian Market, we hunted down the whole range of Philadelphia sandwich archetypes: roast pork, cheesesteak, chicken cutlet, and cold cut hoagie, with a few meatball hoagies thrown in for (mostly) good measure.

Seven stops, eleven sandwiches, and one birch beer. Follow along, and apologies in advance if you get hungry.

Our first sandwich stop: By George! Pizza, Pasta, and Cheesesteaks in Reading Terminal Market.

Most of the destinations on the tour were pre-planned; By George! was an impromptu stop, because we were hungry after the drive to Philadelphia. Our hotel was close to the Reading Terminal Market, making it an easy first target. But I didn’t think to have a camera on hand to immortalize the sandwich, a Provolone Cheesesteak with Fried Onions. And that’s fine, because the cheesesteak wasn’t quite worthy of immortalization. I’m not a cheesesteak guru, yet this one was adequate, verging on fine, but no more.

The steak, though plentiful, was chopped nearly to shreds and lacked much in the way of taste. The provolone and onions didn’t add much to the sandwich either. The onions and provolone should almost melt into the steak, but they were practically non-existent in this cheesesteak. Still, By George! gets major points for using a fresh Sarcone’s seeded hoagie roll rather than the typical Amoroso’s-style soft roll in which most cheesesteaks are served. The crisp crust provided good textural contrast for the soft meat inside. That’s a trend I’d like to see more of.

Thus fortified, we moved on to the first planned sandwich tour stop, a sentimental favorite: Tommy’s Pizza on the corner of Girard and Palmer in Fishtown.

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Planning a Philadelphia Sandwich Tour

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This humble sandwich acolyte has decided to make a pilgrimage to Philadelphia this year, to worship at the various shrines of Philly’s four signal contributions to world sandwich cuisine: hoagie, roast pork, chicken cutlet, and cheesesteak.

Photo of Chickie's Italian Deli by Benjamin Haas on flickr.com, via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike License.

My aim is to limit each sandwich type to one or two purveyors maximum, in the city proper, both for logistical and gustatory reasons. A guy can only eat so much!

So, where do I go?

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