Great food comes in all shapes, sizes and grease-gradients. While I'm still a sucker for foie gras and a nice pinot noir, I still can't resist getting dirty and wrapping my hands around a greasy cheesesteak. For me, it's the ultimate comfort food and I can't think of another cuisine that actually tastes better the worse it looks. When a cheesesteak is frothing - almost seemingly vomiting - cheese and onions out of its sloppy, wet mouth... well... I know I'm in for a special culinary treat. This recent Onion Headline seems to share the same sentiment.
For me, the Philadelphia cheese steak is the perfect microcosm of the city itself. It's dirty, in-your-face, and maybe even a little uncivilized, but I'll be damned if it isn't loaded with tons of character (and cheeze whiz!). Only in a place notorious for booing Santa Clause could a sandwich so unrefined be the boast of the city. Say what you may about the blue-collar folk of Philadelphia, they're not afraid to get their hands a little messy, and without 'em, we wouldn't be having debates about chopped or sliced, whiz or provolone.
On our last excursion to the city of brotherly love, we ambitiously downed world famous cheesesteaks from Pat's, Geno's and Tony Luke's. This time around, I tracked down what's commonly received as the best cheesesteak in town, and trekked the forty-five minute drive down the Atlantic City Expressway to find the best offerings from the Jersey Shore.
John's Roast Pork
Content not to compete in the volume wars with the big dogs (Pat's, Geno's, Jim's, etc.) John's is open literally a few hours every day for a slammed lunchtime rush. At 2:30 every weekday, they shut down the grills and shutter up the windows, and you won't find the doors open at all on the weekends. Not only does John's make a roast pork sandwich so delicious that pigs dream of cannibalizing themselves (photo above, right), they're particularly known for their cheesesteaks- a sandwich so good that WIP recently named it the best cheesesteak in the city, and Philadelphia Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan topped his list of the best 22 cheesesteaks in the city with it.
To acquire this supposed champion, I tried to beat the Friday lunch rush and failed miserably. Twenty minutes after the doors had opened, there was already a line forming out the front door. Once inside, I tried to figure out the method behind the mayhem. What initially seemed like a free-for-all actually was a fairly efficient system, but with such a small grill, the bottom line was if you wanted a cheesesteak, you were gonna wait. Every ten or fifteen minutes, they'd take several orders for steaks, grill them up, move the customers out, and move on to the next batch.
Sent in with explicit instructions to order cheesesteaks for every member in my family (a hungry group of several people eagerly awaiting lunch an hour away at the beach) I quickly started to realize I should've phoned my order in ahead of time. As I waited, an anxiety took over. Was I really going to order nine cheesesteaks and force the unruly mob behind me (a mob that actively showed that their lack of patience matched their lack of personal hygiene) to wait an extra fifteen minutes on account of me?
Then I started to wonder if the loud-mouthed locals behind me were really my biggest concern. On the wall at John's is a signed photograph of the Soup Nazi, which got me starting to wander, perhaps it wasn't just the guys behind me I should be worried about, perhaps it was the guys behind the counter. As I got to the front of the line, with the words 'No Cheesesteaks for you!' echoing through my brain, I talked myself down to just three cheesesteaks and then braced myself for rejection. The guys behind the counter didn't even blink. There was no clamoring from the peanut gallery. As they threw the beef onto the grill, I kicked myself for not asking for a couple more.
Sometimes I wonder if it's the process and anticipation that makes food taste better. Where there's a line, there's people who will stand in it, and when standing in line we tend to build things up in our minds, if for nothing else, our own validation. After battling the line for half an hour (including the guys behind me who threatened to kick somebody's ass who accidentally stepped out of line and back in) I couldn't help but wonder if the daunting task of surviving John's line would perhaps kindly flavor the cheesesteaks in my subconscious.
Whatever the case, I loved my cheesesteak (above), which is served with the same caliber of quality meats I've come to expect from any credible Philly cheesesteak institution. What distinguishes it from the rest is its superb sesame roll from Carangi's, a warm loaf of South Philly's finest. Certainly, comparable to Philly's other top contenders, I think any eater would be hard-pressed to find anything notably better.
The Roast Pork (above) required no additional wait, so I grabbed a few of John's trademarks for the road as well.
White House Sub Shop
Who knew that Atlantic City had a White House to call it's own? This presidential estate may not be home to the Obama family, but its subs and cheesesteaks are good enough to have acquired an even more impressive rolodex of celebrity clientele.
There isn't a square inch of wall space that isn't plastered with some celebrity's signed picture, but the picture below is the only endorsement the restaurant really needs.
We only waited for a few minutes for them to have a table ready. The White House's service style is more of a sit-down restaurant than the assembly lines I'd grown accustomed to in Philadelphia. Our server came by with a handful of waters as she took our order.
The cheesesteaks (below) were a little different than I'd grown accustomed to as well. The roll had a different consistency than many of its Philadelphia cousins, and I felt like the meat was a little under-represented. While it's a slightly different interpretation, the White House cheese steak is proof that good cheese steaks do exist outside of Philly... but not that far outside of Philly.
The great thing about the bread is that it's usually only a few hours removed from the oven. White House pulls its Italian loafs straight from the Formica Brothers Italian Bakery across the street and makes all of its sandwiches on the fresh bread. You can try their most heralded sandwich, the White House Special or go for any combination of cold cut meats, like the mouth-watering half Turkey submarine (below).
So, I've crossed off a few more cheesesteak spots off my list, but there are so many left to try. Hopefully the future allows a few more Philadelphia eating adventures, but Angela insists that next time we go back, we're actually going to sample some of the amazing, non-cheesesteak options that Philadelphia has to offer. Stay tuned...