Those of you who know me are probably aware that I grew up in Philadelphia and spent a few years working in a cheeseteak and hoagie shop (“The Original Steak and Hoagie II”, now closed). I take my cheesesteaks and hoagies seriously. Possibly too seriously.
As a field organizer I have the opportunity to do some traveling, and I’m often curious about what gets passed off as a cheesesteak in other cities. Inspired by a couple of epic wtf-this-is-not-a-cheesesteak experiences, I thought I’d start cataloguing some of these “Philly cheese steak subs,” or whatever it is they get called in different cities.
Primanti Bros., Pittsburgh, PA
Primanti Bros. has been recommended to me as a must-go location, an excellent representative of the Pittsburgh tradition of putting fries on sandwiches. And on salads. And, by the looks of it, on the fries. What I’m saying is that if you go there and order anything you’re probably gonna be eating fries one way or another. Oh, they also put coleslaw on the sandwiches. I guess it helps make up for the paucity of meat.
Following a CFI Institute at the University of Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, I was fortunate to end up at the Oakland Primanti Bros. location. And, what ho! Their menu has the following item: “PITTS-BURGHER CHEESE STEAK #2 best seller”. Exciting!
I asked the waitress for a brief description. She said it wasn’t her favorite. I was in the mood for something simple, so I decided to go with a different sandwich, the Roast Beef & Cheese.
Funny enough, the waitress brought out the Cheese Steak, because she’d accidentally made the wrong sandwich. She offered to make the other one, but I figured hey, why not go for it anyway? It was in front of me, it was food, and it was ostensibly a Cheese Steak.
Cheese Steak? It was a mis-take. It was terrible! The “steak” was the worst effing piece of maybe-meat that I’ve EVER had. It was like meatloaf, if meatloaf were made out of shitgrease.
I’ll break down what was going on with this sandwich. (It’s not marketed as a “Philly cheese steak,” so I wasn’t expecting one. I’m not going to evaluate it as such. Considering the theme, however, I’ll point out how it compares to cheesesteaks as I understand them.)
Bread: A “Philly cheesesteak” would be on an Italian (hoagie) roll. This was on two pieces of white bread. The bread was thick enough to keep the tomatoes from leaking through, but it wasn’t flavorful. There’s not much else that can be said about it.
Cheese: Was there cheese? I couldn’t tell. Maybe it was overwhelmed by the fries.
Steak: The worst. More like a low-quality hamburger or meatloaf patty. It was small, thin, and greasy. There’s no use comparing this to the Philly style. It’s not even useful to compare it to steak.
Extras: The sandwich came with coleslaw, fries, and tomatoes. The fries weren’t very flavorful either. We were there at the end of the night, so I’m guessing it’s likely that the fryer oil was old and dirty. The fries certainly tasted like that was the case. On the other hand, the slaw was delicious: crunchy, excellent texture, with a nice zing.
I don’t know if there are other places in Pittsburgh that follow this style or if it’s just a Primanti’s thing. And I’m not saying anything negative about the establishment in general. I enjoyed the giant beers, the service was friendly and quick, and it was a nice casual place to hang out with a group of people. If I’m in Pittsburgh again and want a slaw-and-fries sandwich with a schmear of meat to accompany my massive glasses of beer, I might dare to try a different sandwich there—maybe years and years from now when I don’t care as much to have meat on my meat sandwich. (I wasn’t surprised to learn that the sandwich was created during the Great Depression.) Otherwise, when it comes to their “#2 best seller,” ten thumbs down.