Douglas Han - June 6, 2013
Merion Golf Club just outside Philadelphia is hosting the 2013 U.S. Open. For TheTeeSheet’s Clubhouse Kitchen, that means only one option: sautéed ramps and white-wine braised morels in a light cream sauce over some orecchiette pasta... wait, what?
Yo, I'z is only kiddin' youze: we’re talking Philly cheesesteaks!
In Philadelphia, the only other options were something using the eponymous cream cheese or a cup of raw eggs.
While we love the raw eggs, it does not exactly require the skills and attention of an Iron Chef -- so we decided to go with the Philly cheesesteak and that's great.
Like the Masters’ pimento cheese sandwich, despite the white-shoe country club locale, the best food to watch the golf and feel connected to this year's U.S. Open is not highbrow food. It’s a hearty sandwich with humble working class origins. It is fitting because after all, to quote Roy McAvoy, the U.S. Open is the biggest and most democratic golf tournament in the world. The humble cheesesteak seems especially apt to help you get in the gritty spirit the Philadelphia sports fans (who are famously known for having booed Santa Claus).
Philadelphia has prided itself on its working class roots like many American cities. Like other old cities on the east coast like New York and Boston, a great benefit is the raised level of enthusiasm when the blue-collar crowd is mixed in with a typical golf fan. The U.S. Open at Bethpage has also managed to bring that American vibe.
We recognize it is summer and that often means the outdoor grill and barbecue. However another benefit of the cheesesteak is that it brings us back into the kitchen and house on a hot summer day (assuming you have AC). The television is typically inside so why not settle in with Johnny Miller and the U.S. Open coverage with a couple Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, an Arnold Palmer (homemade only please! super-easy...) and a couple of Yuenglings (for those of you not from the U.S. northeast, that's a lager from America's oldest brewery ... not Philly slang for teenagers ... and Yuengling is in Pennsylvania not far from Merion so it seems apt).
Before we get to the test kitchen, it’s important to consider a brief history of the Philly cheesesteak.
HISTORY OF THE PHILLY CHEESESTEAK
It is generally accepted that the Philly cheesesteak was created in South Philadelphia by hot dog vendor Pat Olivieri in 1930. It became a hit with taxicab drivers and Olivieri eventually opened Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philadelphia. Pat’s is still family run and still there today open 24 hours a day (often with long lines) serving cheesesteaks. The other famous locale is Geno’s Steaks across the street from Pat’s. Geno's has competed with Pat’s for over 40 years with each claiming to have the best in town.
Of course a look at reviews across publications and the Internet reveals varying opinions including the general consensus that the best cheesesteaks, from a pure culinary standpoint (and thus favored by locals), are not from either Pat’s or Geno’s. Critics point to various other places across the city like Jim’s, Campo’s, Dallassandro’s, Chink's (don't mention this one to Sergio), Tony Luke’s or other local favorites. We're not here to get into that battle but simply to make the best home version we can.
ESSENSE OF THE CHEESESTEAK
Let’s start with an obvious observation: the Philly cheesesteak is not fancy food but it is delicious. It pointless and unfair to criticize a place like Pat’s or Geno’s as being tourist-driven and thus not as good as other places. While this is probably true, just like the pimento sandwich at the Masters (itself not immune to recent recipe controversy), these simple foods are more about time and place than culinary excellence. There are many great beef-based sandwiches, say, a Shake Shack cheeseburger, a corned beef on rye, a beef burrito or a roast beef French dip, just to name a few. Depending on your mood, you may prefer any of them to a Philly cheesesteak on a subjective or even purely objective level. That is not the point.
The point of making and having Philly cheesesteaks for the U.S. Open at Merion is to make a connection with the event. Good news: they're also fun and delicious.
Because there are all kinds of steak sandwiches, the Clubhouse Kitchen set out some basic rules:
With these simple ingredients, there is no reason we can’t make awesome tasting cheesesteaks at home. It is also fast and easy which is key for television viewing.
However, just recognize that like the pimento sandwich recipe test, this simple sandwich is also about time, place and attitude. No matter what beef you use (even if you used rib-eye from Luke Donald’s $80,000 cow), nothing will match having a Philly cheesesteak while physically in South Philadelphia at the birthplace of the sandwich. Instead, we’re making the best Philly cheesesteak we can at home to make the connection.
A FEW EXTRA WORDS ON BEEF
Preliminary research suggests that Philly cheesesteaks were originally made using the rib eye cut of beef. If you’ve ever gone shopping for steaks or ordered at a steakhouse, you’ll know the rib eye is an expensive cut. It is not surprising that various places in Philadelphia do not use rib eye for their cheesesteaks. In my local supermarket, rib eye goes for almost twice as much a sirloin or eye round. Pat’s, the originator, has suggested eye-round is also used and acceptable. The simple eye test is revealing. A look at rib eye shows it is much more marbled with fat and thus not surprising it is more expensive (because it will be that much more tender and delicious).
If we look at a screenshot of a YouTube review of Pat’s, it doesn’t really look like they use rib eye anyway. Pat’s themselves indicate that eye round is also used. Geno’s claims to use rib eye and the picture I was able to find from Geno’s does seem to confirm they use rib eye (looking at the pattern of the fat marbling).
All this being said, you don't have to use rib eye to have a great Philly cheesesteak sandwich.
We experimented with rib eye, eye round and sirloin. It is fine not to use rib eye for several reasons: (a) it is more expensive; (b) if you want to cut in larger flat rounds, your local butcher/supermarket may only have bone-in steaks which is more difficult to slice; (c) you tend to cook the meat all the way through because it’s so thin -- so the tenderness and marbling is not as big an issue as it would be for a steak (i.e. you don't order a Philly cheesesteak “medium rare”); and (d) you’re likely going to slather it with Cheez Whiz (or processed American or provolone) anyway. All that said, if you have and use rib eye, the cheesesteak will taste a bit richer.
INTO THE TEST KITCHEN
The Philly cheesesteak needs thinly sliced beef. While we have a deli-style meat slicer in the Clubhouse Kitchen, we realize not every kitchen has one. Also, it is not really necessary and we want to spend the day watching golf and eating, not setting up a motorized slicer (nor do you want or need to slice it so thin you can't even see it). All the testing below was used with beef sliced thin with a very sharp knife
As a quick aside: the most helpful and general kitchen advice I can recommend is that you get the best sharp knife you can afford. It is critical for all purposes beyond cheesesteaks. Once you use a proper sharp knife in the kitchen, it is difficult to use anything else (or even imagine it). You don’t have to spend $1800 on a Bob Kramer signature carbon steel knife or even $500 on a fancy Japanese or German knife. You can do very well with a $150 German or Japanese steel knife like a Shun or a MAC. It is even possible to spend less that $30 for a decent sharp knife if you're really on a budget. Trust me, one sharp knife in the kitchen is as critical as your putter and driver combined on the course. It is your best friend in the kitchen.
The basic trick to cutting beef thin is to freeze or partially freeze the beef first. Put the beef in the freezer for several hours and it will make all the difference in the world. Beef from the cold fridge will be too soft to cut thin even with the sharpest knife. You don’t want the beef rock hard but you will be able to feel with your finger when the beef is freezing. It should still give a little when you push it with your finger (you can kind of feel the ice/water component in the beef crackle when you push). At this point, take the beef out and slice thin. You will be amazed how thinly you can slice the beef.
There is some personal preference to how thin you like the beef sliced for a Philly cheesesteak. After our experimenting, I tend to prefer the beef quite thin (i.e. about as thin as a paper match) but some people like it a bit thicker so there is a bit of pull when you bite into it. It's up to you.
So let’s get started.
We broke it down into three categories covered in the pages to follow: