When I told my friends and family I was going to Philadelphia for the Eat Write Retreat food writing workshop, the most popular response was "Are you going to try a Philly Cheese Steak?", to which my response was "Hell, yes!"
But the weekend was packed with engaging sessions and activities without a spare moment to slip away and try the iconic food of this historic city. I began to grow concerned, would I miss the opportunity to sink my teeth into a cheesy, gooey pile of beef? I knew it was out there waiting for me, but where and when...
Never should I have feared, as after an evening appetizer gala event at R2L Restaurant where we enjoyed panoramic views of the Philadelphia skyline, a local gal, BA Haggerty of Food Marriage leaned into our small group of Canadians and said "You guys still hungry? Want to go grabs some cheese steaks?"
She was barely finishing her sentence before we were ushering her to the elevator and dashing across the street in high heels and party dresses to the promised land - Steve's Prince of Steaks at their Center City location.
We were first taught by BA on the appropriate protocol for ordering a cheese steak as we looked over the surprisingly extensive menu. I listened carefully, being a Rhode Islander on my father's side and knowing the importance how to properly order the local classic Weenie from a very young age , sitting proudly at the counter with my dad and Uncle Harold.
But back to the cheese and steak... "With. Whiz." our local friend quietly assured us. 'With' indicates you want fried onions with your steak (uh, yes please!), 'Whiz' indicates the kind of cheese, your choice of American or Cheese Whiz. I bucked the trend of our group and went 'With. American.' (as I find American Cheese hilarious and forbidden territory) and moved over to watch the cooking process begin.
A group of scruffy-looking yet attractive young guys were running Steve's grill station with laser precision, it was obvious they knew how to throw down for huge crowds, so it was nice to get there early for a front row view of their skilled meat-flippage and sandwich making. The process itself is as simple as you'd expect - thin slices of well-marbled rib-eye slapped on the grill, onions caramelizing in fragrant piles beside the meat. When the steak is cooked through but still tender, it all goes inside a long crusty roll and gets smothered in cheese. There was a nice looking toppings bar with pickles and peppers of all varieties, but we all decided to go naked to experience the classic flavour for our first tasting.
We dove into our sandwiches teeth-first, and there was no talking around the table for several minutes other than the occasional "Mmmmm" and "Damn, that's tasty!" mumbled through full mouths. The American cheese was milder than I thought it would be, and it melts into almost a bechamel-esque sauce over the steak. And then my friend Heather Lang, food blogger at The Tasty Gardener, kindly offered to switch half for half so she could try the American and I could try the Whiz... and oh, that Whiz! Our local was so very right, something strange and magical happens when you combine sizzling hot beef and onions with the tangy orange lava flow of melted Cheese Whiz. I will crave this for years to come, I already know it.
So there you have it, this Canadian's first tasting experience with with a Philadelphia classic, thanks to the fine young gentlemen of Steve's Prince of Steaks (who, by the way, stuck their heads out of the kitchen to ask if we were enjoying everything. Nice touch - and we were!). I can now proudly confirm that the Philly Cheese Steak is, indeed, the delicious guilty pleasure it's cracked up to be and well worth the fame and fortune it continues to receive.
Here's an great article about the Steve behind the Prince of Steaks and his story. And here's another article that explores the history of the Philly Cheese Steak and why it remains so deliciously famous.