Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Battle Cheese Steak
"Philly's Best" attempt at a Philly cheese steak in California.
Tania and I have a saying, “The further you get from Mexico, the worse the Mexican food gets.” I dare you to get a burrito in London. Or even Portland for that matter. We’ve even reduced our saying/rule to two words: “black beans.” (Peters and I, in high school, used to have a similar code that meant, “THIS DUDE IS AN IDIOT”: we would just tug on an ear lobe and stick out our tongue—equals “idiot.” We still do it to this day.) Same thing with Mexican food, only Tania and I say, “black beans.” “Black beans” means, “SUCKS.” Because once black beans are in the mix, so are wheat tortillas, fuckin’ fruits and vegetables, and all kinds of other crap that’s NOT MEXICAN! We looked at the menu yesterday at “Frida Mexican Food,” an upscale Mexican restaurant at our new outdoor mall, “The Americana,” (which is curiously crowned with a miniature Eiffel tower?), and Tania found black beans on the menu immediately, “Black beans.” It’s a good indicator of crappy food. We actually sat down at the bar to have a couple margaritas and check hockey scores and drink off the “juicy couture” crap that had stained our brains, and, sure enough, we discovered their food was complete crap. The chips and salsa looked good—there was a green one and a red one, and they each came in their own individual serving boat with a little spoon—but I couldn’t make salsa that bad if I tried. The red one was straight up Spaghetti-O sauce and the green was, well, green. It didn’t taste like anything. I blame this on the black beans. And it’s unfortunate that this kind of Mexican food—Frida started in Beverly Hills… which, as you know, has a large Hispanic community—has infiltrated the outdoor malls of Glendale, California.
We have a similar philosophy when it comes to Philly cheese steaks: if you’re not in Philly, it’s not a “Philly cheese steak.” “Cheese steak”? Maybe. But do not preface it with the word “Philly,” because it’s an entirely different thing out there. I don’t even like Philadelphia. Every time I’ve been there, bad things have happened. The first time I visited I opened up Thomas Campbell’s head with a beer can to his face. The next time we visited we got thrown out of our hotel room in the middle of the night. Bad times in Philly. City of brotherly love? My ass. But I will go back again and again because of the cheese steak. That’s how good it is.
I’ve never been to Geno’s. I always go to Pat’s. One can only eat so many cheese steaks, and so why waste your time on an experiment? Our first time in Philly, our friends said, “Pat’s.” And they were right. It was amazing. So we go to Pat’s. I refuse to believe that Geno’s is better. It’s probably amazing also, but I don’t even want to fuck with the Pat’s experience. If it aint broke, why fix it? So every time we visit, we go to Pat’s. (We’ve been to “Jim’s,” incidentally, and while it was great, it doesn’t match the taste and the experience that is Pat’s.)
So, a Philly cheese steak in California—or anywhere really—is like a burrito in London: just totally and completely wrong. We were surprised, then, when we read in Los Angeles Magazine that “Philly’s Best” won the “Best cheese steak award” in Los Angeles. “Really?” I said. “Philly cheese steaks near my house?” I had to have one.
Apparently there’s one coming to Glendale, but at the moment the closest one is in Burbank. Not far. Strangely, as we were driving there, we came upon another cheese steak house, “South Street Cheese Steaks.” “What the fuck?” we said. That’s weird, two Philly cheese steak places right next to each other in Burbank?
South Street Cheese Steaks. And here is more evidence that Philly is just bad luck: our cameras died when we visited both "Philly" restaurants. So the only photos we have of South Street are camera phone pictures.
We made note of it, and kept driving. It took us a few minutes, but we eventually found “Philly’s Best.” It was in a strip mall and closed. Despite the fact that it was only 7 pm and they were, according to their website, “open.” “Fuck it,” we said and went back to “Geno’s.” They’re so close to each other (only a couple blocks away) that we’ve declared a cheese steak war between the two—our own Pat’s vs Geno’s—if they haven’t already done so themselves.
“Geno’s,” aka “South Street,” isn’t very good. It’s kind of like a Shakey’s pizza parlor, but with cheese steaks instead of pizza. Their cheese steak was totally whatever. The bread was good, but the meat was dry. The one thing they do have going for them is beer. It’s too bright and too friendly and there’s too much goddamn Philly memorabilia on the walls (Eagles, Phillies, Flyers, Rocky), but they have big screen TVs and beer. Philly cheese steak? No. But Philly Shakey’s? Yes. Meh.
The South Street steak (camera phone). Tania gets it with Wiz and provolone.
…and she doesn't like it.
"GRONK WANT CHEESE STEAK!"
A couple weeks later we found our way back to “Philly’s Best” and ordered a couple of cheese steaks. It is not only not in Philly, but it is not it’s “best.” I wouldn’t say “Philly’s Best” sucks, but they make only a close approximation of a Philly cheese steak. Both of thems says theys use the same bread theys uses in Philly, but it’s just not the same. (I fell in love with Guinness here in California, but it’s just not the same as a pint poured in Ireland… some things just aren’t good at traveling.) The cheese steaks here aren’t as juicy, they’re not as greasy. Good buns at both, but the meat is dry. And no amount of Wiz can fix that. There is something fundamentally missing, and I think it’s “Philadelphia.”
The fries at Philly's Best weren't bad. A little Wiz didn't hurt them either. I'll be happy when the Glendale one opens. Plus they have a full menu of hoagies that look pretty good as well.
In the end, both “Philly’s Best” and “South Street” tie for last. Or they tie for second place. (The first loser.) Neither won us over. “Philly’s Best” came closer to making an actual cheese steak, but they don’t serve beer—and that’s just bullshit. The real winner is Philadelphia when it comes to Philly cheese steaks. (I’m tugging on my earlobe and sticking my tongue out.)
Next up: Battle Pastrami.