Philly Cheesesteak Showdown…

It’s the iconic sandwich the City of Brotherly Love is known for, and although glaringly cliché’ I wanted to eat a handful of these delightfully greasy gut bombs during my weekend in town.  While most visitors are immediately drawn to the vaporous neon glow of Geno’s and Pat’s, I wanted to find something beyond the usual tourist traps.  I’d been to of those places before, and while it may be blasphemous to any native Philadelphian, I found them completely underwhelming and substandard.  I’d love to hear a counter argument in favor of any dining establishment that espouses the use of “cheese wiz” on anything they serve.  So during my quick weekend in Philadelphia, I endeavored to find the real deal.

Three places emerged to the top of my research: Dalessandro’s, Jim’s and Tony Lukes. While each of these may be well known to Philly natives, they are not as familiar to outsiders.  In order to give an accurate comparison to the three contenders, I ordered the same sandwich at each – a simple cheesesteak sandwich with American cheese and grilled onions.  Why that combo?  Because I like it, that’s why.  And, it’s simple, and these are simple, working class sandwiches after all.

Tony Lukes – My first stop on Saturday morning. Hustling through the industrial wasteland part of town, I skirted past the beckoning entrance of Ricks Cabaret & Lounge – an adult entertainment club touting “divorce parties” and pulled into the red and white checkered confines of Tony Lukes.  A few yellow lights and some flashes of stainless steel trim round out the décor of the simple sandwich stand.

Tony Lukes2Whatever anticipation I held for the sandwich to come, however, was quickly extinguished by the gruff counterman who could barely be bothered to take my simple order.  Conveniently, Tony Lukes also refuses to provide water for customers, so I had to order an overpriced soda.  As if the dirtbag service and water miserliness wasn’t enough, Tony Lukes doesn’t have any heating in the dining area (in December) or provide public restroom facilities of any kind.  What a complete dump.

Fear not, however, because the sandwiches at Tony Lukes are thoroughly craptastic as well!  The french roll is chewy, and instead of being mixed into the steak, the meager cheese allotment is tossed uncaringly onto the top cold.  Even the steak itself is lazily sliced (not finely chopped) into lifeless, grey, gristly slabs of rubber that left my jaw feeling like I just went a few rounds with Rocky.  I made sure to take a good look around before leaving Tony Lukes, because I’ll never see this place again.

Tony Lukes 1 Tony Lukes3

 Jim’s – I visited Jim’s late on Saturday night after spending the entire day fighting off the blustering cold mist in Lincoln Financial Field during the Army Navy game.  Chilled to the bone, and thoroughly exhausted, I probably could have eaten the ass end of flattened roadkill – an option that still sounded better than a second sandwich from Tony Lukes.

Jims 2Fortunately, Jims fared much better.  Here, you watch the cook through a glass window, deftly whacking away at a pile of steak on the steaming cook top.  He chops the steak up finely, lays a few slices of American cheese into the bun, and tops the sandwich with a few caramelized onions.  Though I would have liked to see the cheese mixed into and melted across the steak, overall this was a solid sandwich.

Jims 1 Jims3

If I can think of one drawback to Jim’s, it’s the agonizing lines and wait time for a sandwich.  Located in center city Philadelphia, a bustling part of town on a Saturday night, throngs of hungry revelers lined up around the block for upwards of a 30 minute wait for a sandwich.  I don’t know if the wait times are always that bad, but it’s something to consider.

Jims Website:

Dalessandro’s – My final cheesesteak trial, I optioned for a breakfast at Dalessandro’s on Sunday morning before catching my flight out of Philly.  Making the fifteen minute drive to Northwest Philadelphia, the tiny corner shop is located a few miles outside the downtown Philadelphia area.  I line up promptly at 11AM, sliding into one of their counter stools soon after they opened the doors for business.  Not long after arriving, the place is jammed with takeout orders, clearly a popular neighborhood spot.

Dalessandros2Of the three, Dalessandro’s was finest offering of the classic Philly Cheesesteak.  The steak was finely chopped and browned, with the cheese completely folded in and melted across the steak.  A handful of onions garnished across the top, and the roll had a nice crunch on the outside but chewy inside.  It was well executed simplicity.  The perfect start to Sunday morning.  

Dalessandros1 Dalessandros3

Dalessandro’s Website:

In the end, Dalessandro’s was a clear cut winner based on my criteria. Jim’s, however, would be a perfectly serviceable option if I found myself in the downtown area with a hankering.  But in case you missed it, I’d sooner eat three year old sofa pizza before returning to Tony Lukes again…

The Little Zagreb – That’s a spicy meat-a-ball!

“Order the garlic rolls, the spicy meatballs and the petite filet.Don’t get the full size filet, it’s just not as good.Use a full pad of butter for each of the garlic rolls, and get sour cream with the spicy meatballs, you’ll need it.I know it sounds weird, but trust me.”

My recommendation to the Little Zagreb came with those precise directions courtesy of my friend, and loyal Hoosier alum, Gordon.While many folks might bristle at blindly following such a directive, I tend to be grateful for informed recommendations.When those recommendations include house made meatballs and tender slabs of beef, little additional persuasion is needed.I repeated Gordon’s words verbatim to Katie, the cheerful waitress, before she even got a chance to hand me the menu.She ratified my decisive selections and tottered into the kitchen, menu in hand.

Glancing around the interior, the Little Zagreb is simple and unadorned.Pine paneled walls display a handful of bright crimson Indiana banners, a few IU basketball team pictures and red and white checkered tablecloths tie the rest of the unpretentious décor together.My order arrived a few minutes later, full family sized portions plunked imposingly on the table.Katie snickered at all the food in front of me, sarcastically plopping a “to go” box on the table before I even started.She would later return that same box to waitress station, empty and defeated.Learning the hard way that my appetite is nothing to be trifled with…

The garlic rolls were bursting with salty garlic, and, in a subtle act of brilliance, had been toasted on the grill before serving, picking up a hint of charcoal flavor.The spicy meatballs lived up to their fiery reputation.A healthy dose of cayenne pepper was the only secret Katie was willing to reveal, but the heat kept me dunking them in sour cream and reaching for the water glass regularly.Finally the filet arrived, perfectly medium rare, tender, and gently seasoned to perfection.The steaks here are imparted with a robust charcoal flavor from the open flame grill, a technique that forms the elusive and prized crust on a properly charred steak.

It’s not a cheap meal, to be sure, and expect to pay full steak dinner prices.But Janko’s Little Zagreb is a place not to be missed in Bloomington, and if you find yourself there now, you won’t even need a menu…

Special thanks to Ken and Gordon for the insider tip on the Little Zagreb, in addition to a handful of other recommendations in Bloomington that I hope to visit next time around…

Polito’s Meatball Subs – Still perfect…

I wrote extensively about the virtues of the meatball sub at Polito’s two years ago HERE. With changes afoot seemingly around every corner of South Bend, I’m happy to report that is not the case at Polito’s.

The meatball subs here remain the same gooey treasures they were two years ago, overflowing with spiced meat and mozzarella. Untarnished by the meddling hands of change, they’re worth the trip every time. I don’t know why this place even has a menu…

The Airliner – Touching down in Iowa City…

Most great college towns have one. An institutional bar that has been around for eons and serves as a beacon for all returning students and alumni to congregate, reliving the glory of their undergraduate revelry. At Iowa, that bar is the Airliner. A 67 year old relic that has marked the passage of time for generations of Hawkeyes. Since 1944 they have been slinging beers and dishing out their renowned pizza, and I wandered my way through the Pedestrian Mall to give it a try.

In a nod to history, the Airliner is located directly across the street from the Pentacrest, a historic collection of five neo classical buildings found on the National Register of Historic places. The centerpiece building being the gold topped dome of the old Iowa State Capitol, rising out of the pristinely manicured lawns. While waiting for my table, I watched a girl getting her wedding pictures taken among the classical stone columns, dress draped across the granite steps.

Given the wait for a table, an expectation you should be prepared for on a game day, I killed a few minutes at the bar with a couple pints of Leinenkugels. While I may draw the ire of my Midwest friends for this, Leinenkugels may be one of the most overrated beers around. They tend to be weakly flavored, and overly dependent on superfluous fruit additives. Contrasted to the craft Blackhawk Stout from Court Avenue Brewing that I had next door at Shorts Burger, the Leinenkugels was meek and watery. Hardly discernible from Miller Lite.

After settling into a table, my buffalo chicken pizza arrived in short order, the handmade “Airliner” crust piled with cheese and chicken. With the exception of the crust, perfectly crisped but still buttery and pliable, the pizza was pretty straightforward – as one would expect.

While the Airliner is an Iowa City landmark rich in tradition, to a newcomer you would never know it. Extensive renovations have been made to the interior, varnish and fresh paint abound, erasing some of the worn charm that comes from decades of use. From what I could tell, the only original piece remaining is the iconic stained glass mural of a biplane. Regardless, yellow and black sweatshirts were piled into every corner, patrons of all ages enjoying some pre-game festivities, connected in the spirit of Hawkeye Football. It’s just one of those places you have to go.

Airliner Website

Shorts Burger & Shine – Going Local in Iowa…

Although not as heralded as Iowa City landmarks like the Airliner and Hamburg Inn #2, Shorts Burger and Shine turned up as a place of interest during my research. Located a few steps north on Clinton Street in the shadow of the Airliner, it has quickly become one of the more reputable burger joints amidst the mass of pubs nested into the Pedestrian Mall area.

With a dedication to local foods and beers, Shorts features an impressive array of taps lining the dark bar inside. All the draughts are exclusively Iowa breweries; Millstream, Mad House and Old Man River to name a few – none of which I had heard of either. With a burger on the way, I opted for the darkest beer in the house – a Blackhawk Stout from the Court Avenue Brewing Company located a stones throw down the road in Des Moines. Pouring like motor oil out of the tap, the robust Oatmeal Stout was laden with roasted chocolate notes, and paired nicely with a spicy burger.

Appropriately, those burgers are sourced locally as well. 26.5 miles to be exact, they are shipped in from Ed Smith Farms in Columbus Junction, as Shorts proudly displays on their menu. The patties are never frozen, the buns baked locally, and the fries hand cut. Although slightly overcooked, the burger was well formed and heavy handed with the bacon (always a good thing). The fries were crispy golden brown, and expertly cooked. I salute any dedication to local foods and craft beers, and Shorts Burger and Shine is no exception. The burgers are solid, and the beers are far better than their watered down mass produced brethren you’ll find at most of the other taps in town.

Shorts Website

Hot Brown Sandwich – The Louisville Legend

There are a handful of towns across the country known for having a signature sandwich, a dish that likely started as an oddity, and has now become an icon for that particular city. The cheese steak in Philadelphia and Italian Beef in Chicago are a few of the obvious examples that come to mind. In Louisville, that offering is known as the Hot Brown Sandwich. While it may sound like something out of the Urban Dictionary, the Hot Brown is one of those elusive cultural standalones that I seek out during my travels. Epic sandwiches are a challenge I simply can’t resist.

Ground zero for the Hot Brown, as I discovered, is the opulent Brown Hotel located in the heart of downtown Louisville. The hefty offering is served open faced on toast points, consisting of roast turkey slathered in Mornay (cheese) sauce, and topped with a couple slices of crisp bacon. Its origins can be traced back to 1923, when chef Fred Schmidt made the sandwich for late night party goers, looking for an after hours snack. It has since become a staple throughout the city of Louisville, but there is something to be said for the original.

Carving into a few bites of my Hot Brown in the classically appointed Brown Hotel, harkens images of a 1920’s flapper scene. Surrounded by marble and ornate frescoes, it’s like being transported back into an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Gooey, indulgent and greasily satisfying, you might say that the Hot Brown sandwich is the original drunk food. Eating one at the Brown is like connecting with our hard drinking forefathers…

Hot Brown Sandwich History

Maid Rite – Just about right…

One of the oldest franchises in the U.S., Maid Rite is a quick serve chain unique to the upper Midwest with about 70 locations scattered throughout the area. They have been dishing out their signature “loose meat” sandwiches since 1926, and this particular location in Marshalltown has been in continuous operation since 1928. Little has changed in that time, as the menu has remained blindingly simple throughout the years, consisting of little more than a single beef sandwich option, drinks and shakes.

Stepping into the Marshalltown Maid Rite is a journey to a bygone era. Stools surround a U-Shaped vinyl counter, and the service is quick and efficient. Waiting customers line up against the windows, hovering over diners, poised to pounce on abandoned seats. At least half of the business caters to takeout orders too, I quickly surmise. I witness handfuls of standing patrons yelling out orders, scurrying off moments later with grease stained white paper bags tucked beneath their arms. Wanting the full serve experience, I straddled an open stool and flagged down the counter waitress in the midst of her busy hum.

The sandwiches are simple fare, little more than spiced ground beef scooped out of some kind of giant hot box, and piled onto a soft white bun. I ordered mine with the works, which included cheese, onion, pickles and mustard. After unwrapping the greasy paper and diving in, the taste was remarkably similar to a fast food cheeseburger – which is basically what Maid Rite is. It’s not going to change your life, but it’s a timeless classic in Marshalltown and for $3.75, pretty hard to beat.

Coffee Cup Cafe

After a five hour morning ride, I eased into the town of Sully, Iowa with an appetite for a late breakfast or early lunch, depending on the mood of the cook. Massive steel grain bins marked the end of the street, and I circled the grassy town square before parking. With a population scarcely over 900 people, pulling up to the curb with Texas plates drew a couple of raised brows from the two old timers settled into a bench out front. Donned in faded denim overalls, they chatted back and forth about the weather, one of them cradling a tiny white West Highland Terrier, oddly out of place in this otherwise quintessential Midwestern archetype.

“Are you fellas the valet”? I chided, approaching the door.

“Sure. Toss me your keys.” One of them shot back with a grin.

Returning the sarcasm, I double clicked my alarm dramatically and proceeded on into the tiny café. Originally built in 1917, the Coffe Cup Café has been a staple in Sully for nearly a century. The location as it stands now was built in 1970 after a handful of different fires and owners throughout the years, but the attention to home made classics remains.

On the recommendation of the waitress, I ordered up their staple hot beef sandwich. It arrived a few moments later, a tower of tender, slow cooked beef piled between two extra thick slices of white bread. The whole creation smothered in savory brown gravy, this was a fork only event (no knife needed).

Between the Texas plates and curious picture taking, the owner made a special trip out of the kitchen to say hello and chat for a few minutes. Despite normally eschewing dessert, during our short conversation she did a remarkable job of selling me on a slice of their home made pies. Made daily, completely from scratch, the Coffee Cup has garnered national recognition for some of their pies. With strawberries in season, and a fresh batch acquired from a few miles away, I opted for the strawberry pie. Remarkably fresh and simple, the flaky crust gave way effortlessly and the pie soon disappeared.

Unfortunately for you, they don’t mail order their pies (and yes I asked). So if you want a slice for yourself, you’ll have to make the trip to Sully on your own. And it might be worth it for the pie alone…

Cessy’s- California Burrito parte dos…

The only thing better than one trip for a California burrito, is a second trip for another. Though I certainly rave about the fare at Santana’s, some of my other San Diego friends insist that there are other options out there. My sister took the liberty of doing some deep market immersion research, and Cessy’s emerged to the top of the yocal recommendations. With limited first hand knowledge and no website to speak of, I cast a discerning older brother eye on Rebecca’s recommendation, but for the sake of a burrito I put any protest aside and sauntered in.

Located a stones throw from the beach in Carlsbad, Cessy’s features the typical lineup of Mexican favorites in a no frills dive décor. After only a token glance at the menu, I ordered up my usual tortilla cylinder and waited impatiently for my number to be called before scurrying anxiously back to the table with my chipmunk like prize. The burrito at Cessy’s obviously features the same lineup of familiar ingredients, but with the key addition of guacamole. Not bad for five bucks. True to form the burrito was meaty, starchy, filling and delicious, and the guacamole added a nice extra touch. Cessy’s certainly delivered on my fix, and any initial reservations I had were quickly wiped away after the first bite. Well done sis!

In the end, like you have heard ad nauseam on this blog, the beauty of the California burrito lies in its simplicity. Elegant, five dollar simplicity. It’s nearly impossible to screw up a combination of steak, French fries and cheese, and you don’t have to be Anthony Bourdain to figure out why the simplest things are often the best.

Special thanks to Rebecca for finding Cessy’s and enduring yet another round of my San Diego burrito obsession.