This year, I've been tasked with heading the Best Cheese Steak category forNew Times'
edition -- a monumental challenge if there ever was one. I mean, cheese steaks are one of those foods that people are furiously passionate about. Those from Philly claim that their version of the sandwich, adorned with neonCheez Whiz
, is the only one that's earned the right to be called by its proper name. Then, there's everyone else, a schizophrenic subconscious that abides by no rules in particular and answers to no one. So sorting through all that mess to find one sandwich that will rule all -- at least for a year -- is a dangerous proposition. Heavy is the head...
My search for a sammich worthy of accolades has brought me to eateries all across Florida -- places like Sonny's Famous, Spanx, Mr. Nick's, and now Big Al's, an import direct from Philadelphia that serves its steak sandwiches according to a strict code.
Steak sandwiches, as they're known in the City of Brotherly Love, can be called that only if they conform to this unwavering code. The principles are few but important: Use genuine rib eye, sliced razor thin so that it cooks quickly while retaining its beefy flavor. It must be served on a hoagie roll that is both durable and elastic, with a fresh, yeasty nose and a toothy bite. Toppings are allowed, typically the addition of onions (known as "wit," short for "with"), peppers, and, in some cases, tomato sauce (the pizza steak). If cheese is to be added, it becomes a cheese steak -- but only with the addition of Cheez Whiz, that neon-orange, jarred cheese sauce. Other can cheeses be used, but it's not an authentic cheese steak.
There are also two divergent schools of thought in Philly: the Pat's way or the Geno's way. Some may call it a war, but in the end, the differences between these two styles come down to either chopping the rib eye up (Pat's way) or leaving it in whole strips (Geno's way).
Big Al's hails from the Geno's school, meaning the thin slices of imported rib eye that adorn its sandwiches are left whole. When you bite into the sandwich, you get the impression you are biting into a piece of meat, not a hash of chopped, fried bits. To further the Philly effect, Big Al's trucks in its bread direct from the city. It also serves its cheese steaks with Cheez Whiz, though you can ask for American or Provolone.
So the million-dollar question: Is Big Al's Best Of worthy? Well, it is one great steak sandwich. The whole pieces of meat give your teeth something nice and thick to sink into, but they're tender enough that you don't have to work harder than you need to. And the bread is undoubtedly great -- it flattens along the sides of the meat and almost conforms to the insides of the sandwich yet retains an elasticity that's quite nice. Still, I've tasted bread that's different but just as good in sandwich shops all across America, and I'm just not convinced Big Al's Philly imported stuff is worth the 2,000-plus-mile trip.
True to its roots, Big Al's steak sandwich is also extraordinarily greasy. It's so dripping with yellow-tinged fat that it does get a little heavy -- and that's coming from a guy who loves his fare share of grease. Still, Philly's sandwiches are known for their grease, so it's hard to fault Big Al's too much for that.
Will it win the Best Of? I just don't know yet. Although I very much respect any food culture that's put so much time and effort into creating an established set of rules for greatness, I can't say I've never had a non-Philly cheese steak that didn't offer an attractive counterpoint to the rigidity. But one thing is for certain: Big Al's has passion for its product, and it shows.
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