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Apr 17, 2008 10:02 AM

Cheesesteaks and other local favorites [split from Midwest]

(Note: This thread was split from a discussion of whether there exists a good cheesesteak in MSP at: -- The Chowhound Team).

I think it is all in the mind. There are both good and bad Phlly cheesesteaks in Philadelphia and the natives will tell you the most popular places in Philly are generally bad. So it is all in the mind as to what is good and bad. Who is to know about buns and meat? Are you saying that Minnesota in the heart of where the beef and wheat come from cannot produce both better? For heaven's sake we probably have better provolone too and Cheese Wiz is not exactly a gourmet food. There is not a lot of knowledge and science going into making a Philly cheesesteak sandwich. There can be several places serving as good if not maybe better than your average Philly cheesesteak in the Twin Cities only your mind is not going to let you believe it.

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  1. The same can be said for a pork tenderloin or walleye sandwich.

    5 Replies
    1. re: MSPD

      Yes it can. Iowans will swear by their pork tenderloin sandwiches and the Hoosiers the same. I get recommendations from people who think they know where the best is and very often the information can be disappointing. But they believe it because it is in their minds theirs is the best. The same can be said for Chicago style pizza, NY style pizzas, beer and the Philly cheesesteak. What one forgets is in this sophisticated and connected world there are few secrets anymore. Anyone with their mind set to it could put together ingredients better than the original source. I doubt most places bought the best ingredients possible when selling sandwiches cheap. So defenders fall back on things like you can't duplicate the dough because of the water or the sourdough starter, etc. Maybe people don't try to duplicate a cheesesteak sandwich to make it taste like something in Philadelphia but try to create a unique taste they think people might like, and if you gave people a blind taste test they might like the newer.

      Right now I am sipping on a retro formula Schlitz beer and yes it is exactly as I remember it from the 60s when it was my choice of brew and it is quite different from today's BudMillerCoors generic popular brands today. But it is also not up to speed with the great craft brewed beers we have today in my opinion. It is all in the mind.

      1. re: Davydd

        I know someone who is convinced that there's something special about the way the griddle at the Nook has been seasoned over the years that makes their burgers so unique that they can't even be replicated by the same owners using the same recipes at Shamrock's on West 7th. The more specific the food you seek, i.,e. not just "Twin Cities Jucy Lucys" but, "The Nook in St. Paul's Jucy Lucy" the more likely there is something that truly may not be replicable elsewhere. And as soupkitten said in another thread, (paraphrasing) often when people are seeking out the food of their homeland (homestate, homecity...) the ideal they have in mind against which they compare everything is not the generic, but a specific version of the pizza/bagel/cheesesteak/pork tenderloin.

        I don't know about pork tenderloin but the thing about the sourdough starter being uniquely local in taste is real and based in biology. Yeasts are different all over the world and local wild strains and how they feed on the sugars can absolutely change the way a bread tastes. This is why bakers guard their starters fiercely and mother them like infants.

        But, don't take my word for it as it's an experiment you can try yourself in about 2 weeks if you have a starter from San Francisco and then bring it home to St. Paul with you and bake bread daily from it. After about 2 weeks, you have a completely different loaf in terms of the tang because you have a whole new generation of yeasts by that time. It should theoretically work in the other direction, too, by the way, if you took your St. Paul starter to SF with you.

        Other food products can have local character, too. For instance, milk--or even the beef flesh-- tastes different depending on what the cows have been grazing on, and this isn't unique to cattle--it works for all kinds of flesh; oysters and their diet of algae comes to mind . Honey tastes different depending on what the bees have been into. Any home cook can tell you that altitude and moisture affects baking. Mineral content affects the way water tastes. Even a cast iron griddle or a wok could impart different flavor depending on how it's been seasoned.

        I do believe that these kinds of food products, when used as ingredients, could have a subtle impact on the way a sandwich or a bagel or a loaf of bread or a can of beer might taste and that there are some people out there who can tell the difference. (I'm not sure I'm one of them in every one of these cases by the way. I'm just saying I believe it to be true.) But, I also believe that technique and recipes and tradition have an impact, too, and maybe Davydd, those are the kinds of "all in the mind" factors you're alluding to. I do agree that in this increasingly global economy that "local" specialty ingredients are easier to share (hence MSPD's point about "sustainably" not being able to replicate a cheesesteak sandwich)--although, I would worry at some point, that craftsmanship could suffer when you've gone global and mass market.


        1. re: The Dairy Queen

          TDQ, I am very much aware of all those variables. What I am saying is that in Philadelphia alone there are numerous examples of cheesesteaks ranging from good tasting, to OK, to so so, to bad. They don't all get their buns, meat and cheese from the same sources. If their beef came from Texas, their cheese from Wisconsin and their wheat from Kansas what would make it unique? So for someone to say they can't find a good cheesesteak outside of Philly is hooey. And I would be willing to bet that with a blind preparation and a blind tasting that even a Philadelphian might choose an outside cheesesteak on taste alone. But if they know where the cheesesteak is from, and obviously when in Minneapolis, it will not be as good no matter what. That is because it is in the mind and like you said, you believe it to be true.

          I can't remember. How did Bobby Flay do in his cheesesteak throwdown with Tony Luke?

          1. re: Davydd

            Just a small clarification about what I believe to be true. I only expressed my opinion about the veracity of whether there can be location-specific differences between how things taste, not the superiority of one kind of taste over another. What said I believe to be true is that some foods --such as the ones I mentioned above--honey and oysters etc. --do take on a uniquely local character (and possibly taste) due to all kinds of factors and that I believe that some people can taste the difference. Different doesn't mean better, it doesn't mean worse; it means different.

            I don't know enough about Philly cheesecake sandwiches to know if any of these "uniquely local" kinds of ingredients could be factor, but, even so I'm not sure it really even matters. I think in these situations people aren't looking for "the best"cheesesteak sandwich (or pizza or bagel or tenderloin), they are looking for one that is "just like the one from the guy on the corner back home." They are looking for the SAME sandwich they remember --often a sandwich from a specific vendor-- and just like my friend (whose ideal Jucy Lucy is at the Nook and compares all Jucy Lucys--even the ones at Shamrock's--to the ones at the Nook and declares them all to be inferior) they probably will never find a sandwich exactly like that and are bound to be forever disappointed. Do I think my friend is being a little nutty about the Nook's Jucy Lucy? Well, yeah. But do I think there's a possibility that the griddle they've been using at the Nook for 3-4 generations of owners might be better seasoned than the brand new one down the hill at the barely 2-year old Shamrock's and, therefore, might result in a subtly different burger and that might friend might be able to tell the difference. Which is better? Well, it depends on your personal taste. But on those days we want a jucy lucy "like at the Nook" we go to Shamrock's. But on the days we have to have a Jucy Nookie, we go to the Nook.

            You know, I have my grandmother's fudge recipe and I'll tell you what, I can never get it quite right. Part of it is that I don't actually have her recipe because she did it from memory every time by texture and taste and she was just never able to relay that to me in a way I could replicate it. And it's not that the fudge I make isn't good--it's just not grandma's, that's all. It might even be better, but I wouldn't dare ever say that.

            People in these threads are never looking for an _____________ better than back home, they are looking for __________ the same as back home. It's because they're homesick and giving them a ________ that is better than back home just isn't going to cut it.


            1. re: Davydd

              part of it is the water. in making any bread product (such as cheesesteak rolls, bagels, pizza dough), the water that's used is a key ingredient, mainly because there are so few ingredients that go into dough. as any baker knows, the quality of the water (not "good" or "bad", but mineral content) can dramatically alter the product.

              so, though anyone can read a recipe on making a bagel, can a bagel produced outside of the new york area taste like one made there? i don't think so.

              and while you mention "...wheat from kansas...", you are implying all wheat is the same. it's not. same goes for yeast. and salt for that matter. much like chardonnay grapes are, well, chardonnay grapes, where they grow can have a huge effect on the final product, as well as how it's handled. no, i'm not comparing a philly cheesesteak to a glass of chardonnay, but the point is small differences in ingredients can translate to huge differences in final product.

      2. I'll respectfully disagree that "it is all in the mind as to what is good and bad." I lived in Philly and tried multiple cheesesteak places while there. Locals pick on Pat's and Geno's, but neither makes a truly bad cheesesteak. And there is such a thing as a bad cheesesteak, even in Philly.

        And not to get high-falutin' on you, since a cheesesteak is not meant to be a fancy food, but there is a terroir thing going on with the bread. All bread does not taste the same and bread made here will taste different from bread made elsewhere. Similarly, cut of beef and how it is sliced is a hotly contested issue in Philly (I like ribeye, thinly sliced). And then you get into the grill...

        So yes, there is a lot of knowledge and science that goes into making a good Philly cheesesteak.

        You could make an excellent steak and cheese sandwich here or anywhere, but if you want to make a "Philly cheesesteak" you need to try to match the Philly flavor. And that's what's so hard.

        7 Replies
        1. re: Uisge

          So, Uisge, if I understand you correctly, it's not that there a special brand of bread that is used in Philly in making a cheesesteak sandwich (the way, for example, a Chicago style dog must be made with a particular brand of hotdog--Vienna beef--to have a hope of being acknowledged by Chicagoans as the real deal), it's just that the bread in Philly has some kind of uniquely Philly je ne sais quoi to it? (I'm not disputing this if this is in fact the case--I'm just trying to understand if TastyKakes are specifically mandatory to a cheesesteak



          1. re: The Dairy Queen

            Would you say it's like how only a bagel in NYC tastes like an NYC bagel -- the water supply, the practiced expertise and the tradition itself are all brought to bear in one lunch stop?

            My biases that Mickey's is for latenight and walleye is more about fishing than fish are in the same vein, probably. I can have that diner chili or a fried fish dinner without 'em but really, I know what I'd be missing.

            1. re: KTFoley

              I'm sure, KTFoley, that's part of it. Or how only sourdough starter that lives in San Francisco can produce true SF-style sourdough bread because of the particular strains of yeast that grow in that microclimate... The Boudin Bakery in Chicago, for instance (not that it's a shining example of the best SF-style sourdough bread), has to have a new batch of yeast flown from the mother store in SF every two weeks...any longer than that and the yeast has turnedover enough generations that it would produce Chicago-style sourdough instead of SF style...

              But I'm still trying to understand if Tastykakes itself is a requirement for an authentic Philly cheesecake or it's just an example of the type of bread that is a requirement.


              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                Tastykakes aren't bread for the sandwich. They're dessert to go with the sandwich. The real ones are wrapped in waxed paper.


                1. re: The Dairy Queen

                  This should clear things up:

                  Tastykakes are another Philly delicacy, often craved by those who crave real Philly cheesesteaks. Tastykake doesn't actually make any of the ingredients for the cheesesteaks.

                  1. re: Danny

                    Thank you, Danny and KTFoley, for clearing that up! HAHAHA! I thought Tastykakes was a pretty funny name of a sandwich bread...but, well, you just never know! I guess Tastykakes are to Philly what Salted Nut Rolls are to St. Paul...


                2. re: KTFoley

                  Yes. Like that. The bread for my preferred cheesesteaks comes from Amarosos, a local bakery. Not something I sought out originally, but as I was trying lots of cheesesteaks and narrowing down my preferences, I noticed that that's where the bread was coming from (the packages are usually visible in the stand).

            2. Since I was one of those harping on the bun, I thought I should chime in.

              Your point seems to be that a reasonable answer to "is there a great Philly cheesesteak in the Twin Cities" would be "yes, try the Jucy Nookie at the Nook," were we just open-minded enough to accept that vast truth. (Beef, cheese, wheat, fire. Yum.)

              A Philly cheesesteak is a specific style of sandwich, and the textural quality of the bread is part of the style. To believe otherwise is to also believe that good sushi can be made with basmati rice. Sure, you could put something in basmati rice, and wrap it in something else, and dip it in a third something, and find it delicious, but that won't make it good sushi.

              And to me, about the bread, the importance is not the source of the texture in the bread, as argued elsewhere, but the source of the bread with that texture. And, simply, there is no local source.

              There's obvious philosophical difficulty with comparing the best here versus average there. Mainly, it's not chowish. Those of us craving a Philly cheesesteak aren't thinking about that so-so place we stopped at in Uwchlan, PA, only because it was nearby and open late. (Sadly, being me, I can recall that particular sandwich, maybe nine years ago. Chewy hoagie bun with slashed top, sirloin cooked on a too-cool griddle so it steamed, gloppy white American cheese, and *shudder* sweet pickled green peppers and canned mushrooms.) No, not that. We're craving a great cheesesteak. (The last one, for me, was this place at the back of Reading Terminal Market, which I think has since closed. I think they had a hot spot on the griddle, because the grill man would slap down the meat in that spot each time, and it would come off with perfect caramelization -- the Maillard reaction, to introduce some cheesesteak science -- and then would move it over to (I believe) a cooler section for finishing because, among other sciencey thingies, the casein in the cheese would coagulate at high temperature. The timing of everything for his particular working space, as well as simple things like how to put the filling into the bun, are important cheesesteak knowledge.)

              The question isn't even whether a perfect cook could make a great locally-sourced Philly cheesesteak. Sure. There's probably a food scientist at the U who could produce the perfect bun. You could job out the resultant recipe to, hmmm, not rustica, no, maybe turtle bread? No, somewhere even more lowbrow. A la Francaise? Find a butcher willing to slice frozen boneless Thousand Hills ribeye to your specifications, pitting his deli slicer blade in the process. Find an aged Wisconsin provolone with great flavor and the perfect melting properties. With this sandwich you could make a Philadelphian weep twice. Once for the sandwich, once for the $30 price tag.

              No, the question is whether you and I can buy a great Philly cheesesteak locally, and by Philly cheesesteak I mean steak and cheese cooked on a griddle and served on a bun, in the style preferred in Philadelphia and environs, with quality exemplified for each person by their own particular preference and experience in Philadelphia and surrounding towns. And the answer seems to be a resounding "no." At the very least, there isn't enough demand to produce the economies of scale necessary to sustain such an operation.

              Can you buy a tasty steak-and-cheese sandwich? Yes, sure, that's what I wrote about that the place on University @ Dale, and others have mentioned their favorite steak-and-cheese creations.

              Is it in "all the mind"? Of course. I can't speak for everyone, but that's where (I assume) I do all my thinking, remembering, comparing, analyzing. And of course, enjoying a meal happens in the confluence of the senses and the mind.

              Is it that "only [my] mind isn't going to let [me] believe it"? It's a reasonable and interesting question, judging by the number and length of responses. I truly think that it's not just in my mind. That's the point of chowhound, to discuss specifics about specific dishes, with reference to external standards and specific sensations.

              If you wanted to extend your point, then a reasonable thread would be "What's the best beef/cheese/wheat sandwich in the Twin Cities?" And we could argue the relative qualities of our favorite sandwiches. Just don't expect a local Philly cheesesteak to show up to that horse race.

              1. Whoever said a cheesesteak is a "gourmet food"??? It is no doubt comfort food, polar opposite.

                2 Replies
                1. re: DrJon

                  But who said "comfort food" and "gourmet food" need be polar opposites?

                  1. re: Geo in MSP

                    IMO, by definition they are opposite. Comfort food is simple food or drink. Gourmet food tends toward the complex, in terms of presentation, preparation, and ingredients. I am sure one can imagine a comfort food dish that is gourmet, (French onion soup comes to mind) but it would require a different preparation, the addition of cognac, or perhaps homemade consomme, fine cheese, modification of technique carmelizing the onions, fresh bouquet garni etc... but this would be the exception rather than the rule.
                    Compare my preparation of the dish to taking some onions, adding some canned beef stock and some dried herbs topping it off under your broiler with some white toast/swiss cheese..not the same, not gourmet.