What Bite Takes You Home - The Hundred Foot Journey
I was born and raised in Philadelphia but moved to northern California when I was 20 so I’ve lived here much longer than I did in Philadelphia and call California my home. But my tastes were shaped in Philly and whenever I go back there I can’t help but search out my favorites and my most favorite is the Philly cheesesteak.
In Philadelphia there is a pizzeria or steak shop on every neighborhood corner. Like small family restaurants everywhere they vary in quality. Some years ago on one of my visits to my parents in Philly I decided to indulge in some serious cheesesteak research. I’d eaten my fair share of cheesesteaks when growing up but found that this was one impossible to obtain sandwich in California. Since this was the early days of personal computers the internet was barely up and running so I was confined to print media. Thankfully my mom and dad were voracious readers and there were plenty of years worth of Philadelphia Magazine and their annual Best Of Philly articles stacked up in the basement. I went through years worth of articles and also used the local newspapers to compile a list of restaurants. Armed with my list off to culinary over indulgence I went. I quickly found that the most famous cheesteak places, Pat’s and Geno’s in South Philadelphia where I had eaten as a child were also among the worst today. They may have invented the cheesesteak but these places are now tourist traps serving greasy, tasteless sandwiches. A good cheesteak is never greasy but rather juicy from fine quality, well seasoned meat and cheese.
Slowly over several years I ate my way through my list, adding and subtracting restaurants and coming up with some great results. You can’t go wrong at places such as Cosmi’s Deli, Delassandros, Tony Luke’s, Jim’s Steaks and Steve’s Prince of Steaks but the best of the best for me turned out to be just about the ugliest little shop imaginable in an industrial part of South Philadelphia called John’s Roast Pork.
Now John’s Roast Pork specializes in, of all things, an incredible roast pork sandwich but their cheesesteak is what I went there for and it’s the best or among the best according to Philadelphia Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Food Channel and the Travel Channel just to name a few. John’s also won the James Beard Award for Culinary Excellence and is routinely on top ten lists of Philly cheesesteaks everywhere but this national attention all happened years after I discovered the place. When I would visit Philadelphia I would take a red eye flight so I could get to John’s just after they opened at 6:45 in the morning and have a cheesteak for breakfast on my way from the airport to my parents’ home in northeast Philly. On my way home I would also arrange my flight so I could have another cheesesteak on my way to the airport to fly back to California. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
I like my cheesesteak simple and traditional, just meat, cheese and onions although most of the chains in California think you need mayo, ketchup, peppers, mushrooms, pizza sauce, etc., on your sandwich. You can certainly get that in Philadelphia but that isn’t really the way a cheesesteak should be.
So just what makes John’s so good? John Bucci Jr. the son of the founder of John’s Roast Pork still man’s the grill. He does a few things differently than the normal cheesesteak shop. First off rather than use the traditional Amoroso bakery roll that most shops use John uses Italian rolls from the Carangi Bakery, a local Philly bakery, that are a little crustier than the normal roll and are seeded. He then removes a bit of the interior bread so as to better hold the 12 ounces of top quality, paper thin, sliced beef loin plus fried onions and cheese that he piles onto the sandwich. Most cheesesteak places will have a pile of lovely, browned chopped onions waiting on the side of the grill to grace the sandwich but John starts off with the raw sweet onions on the grill and then tops them with the beef so that the caramelizing onion flavor permeates the steak. He then seasons the meat and leaves it alone for a couple of minutes to brown up. Then he chops up the steak and onions on the grill and again does something different by toping the steak with chunks of extra sharp provolone cheese, waiting a moment for it to melt a bit and then chopping the cheese into the steak so that with every bite you get cheese, perfectly seasoned beef and onions in a mouth watering combination. A regular shop would put slices of cheese on top of the browning steak, let it melt for a moment, scoop it on to a roll and add onions. These simple differences in ingredients and technique are what I think makes John’s cheesesteaks the best.
I’ve heard tell you can get a good cheesesteak in Los Angeles but here in northern California it just doesn’t exist. You can forget the chain cheesesteak places. They simply don’t use quality ingredients. There are a couple of places in the south bay area where you can get what I would consider a decent neighborhood cheesesteak but nothing approaches the rarified heights of John’s Roast Pork or any of the other places I mentioned above. This is the one food I miss from my childhood and this is the one that takes me back to the place I was born.