I usually know when a Philly cheesesteak sandwich is going to be good even before it gets to my table.
I want to hear the clink-clank of metal spatulas banging the grill as the cook chops the meat – preferably thinly sliced ribeye or some equally tender beef – into a delicious pile of bite-sized pieces with just the right amount of crispness from the grill.
Next, I want to hear the sizzle of veggies hitting a hot grill, and more clink-clank as the grill cook mixes and dices the trifecta of my cheesesteak perfection: meat, onions and peppers.
My other hallmarks of a great cheesesteak: just the right ratio of meat to peppers and onions (three parts meat, one part peppers and onions is my kind of sandwich). The grill cook should let the cheese – make mine provolone – melt on the meat pile on the grill, rather than placing it in the sandwich cold (yuck). Sturdy, chewy rolls provide the best base for my perfect cheesesteak.
Pictured here: Joe McCollum, owner of Philly Joe's with the imperial cheesesteak sandwich. Photo by Dean J. Koepfler/The News Tribune
Web sites and culinary groups are dedicated to cheesesteak perfection, and Philly natives usually have an opinion, or 40, on the subject of Cheese Whiz, Amoroso's rolls, sweet, hot or green peppers and mayo.
Were the South Sound cheesesteaks I sampled for this report pure representations of Philly cheesesteak sandwiches? I'll let Philly natives dine there and judge for themselves.
Your turn: Where do you go to feed your Philly cheesesteak craving? Comment here, please.
5640 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma
The imperial steak sandwich ($8.95) hit all my cheesesteak criteria at Philly Joe's – a sit-down diner-esque joint that also serves breakfast. Thinly sliced, tender beef paired crispy-meaty against sweet, chopped green and red peppers, fragrant slivers of onions, and shards of 'shrooms. The mix, all chopped up into bite-sized pieces (with just the right clink-clank heard from the kitchen), swelled in the roll, which was of sturdy construction and offered good chewy resistance. A swipe of melted provolone oozed along the base of the sandwich, offering alternating bites of meat and cheese. The imperial is a big, juicy sandwich and required a fork to hollow out the meat trench before the sandwich could fit in both my hands.
Served with a choice of sides, this sandwich was the best bargain at the three restaurants sampled for this report. Golden-brown fries were crunchy-crispy, but battered, fried and deliciously sweet onion rings were my favorites. A side salad also can be substituted, but what cheesesteak lover would order that?
I didn't see sweet or hot peppers offered on the menu (and I didn't ask). Cheese choices are American, Swiss, pepper Jack and Cheese Whiz (though they were out the day I visited).
DelBrocco's Pizza, Steak & Hoagie
3908 Sixth Ave., Suite B, Tacoma
The traditional cheesesteak ($7.99 ) was a decent sandwich offering at DelBrocco's, a tiny sandwich and pizza shop with just four tables and a Philly attitude. The sandwiches here start with a foundation of chopped rib steak (I heard just the right amount of clink-clank from the grill), with a choice of sweet, hot or green peppers (my choice: green). My sandwich was beefy with chopped, tender steak, but I wanted more green peppers and onions to supply a supple sweetness against the meat. The sandwich was not mammoth, but nicely filling. More provolone would have been nice. The bun, which the store touts as being imported straight from a Philadelphia bakery, was sturdy, but also stale, which made for a dry sandwich in need of a moist-maker ingredient like mayo. Maybe a squirt of Cheese Whiz would have helped.
The mushroom cheesesteak ($8.49) was a bit less dry than the traditional cheesesteak, but had the same problem with scant mushrooms. Sandwiches here are solo; sides cost extra. The garlic fries ($3.99) were deliciously pungent with garlicky punch – French fries are deep fried, then tossed in a pan with olive oil and dried garlic.
Koto N Philly
14803 Pacific Ave. S., Tacoma
I'm still confused by my Philly cheesesteak experience at Koto N Philly. While my tablemates feasted on sushi and teriyaki, I sampled the Philly cheesesteak. It's a strange intersection of food at Koto N Philly. I wondered if it was some kind of kitschy take on Japanese yoshoku restaurants – where chefs put Japanese spins on Western foods. But, no, this is just a restaurant that serves Philly cheesesteaks and teriyaki. And sushi. And has a koi pond in the middle of the dining room.
The Philly cheesesteak ($6.59) was a big sandwich filled with a pile of meat, but it was sinewy and the texture really chewy. It had the right amount of peppers and onions, but the roll was far too much bread for the ratio of meat inside. The grill cook committed Philly cheese blasphemy by slapping a cold piece of provolone cheese on the sandwich. I couldn't hear any clink-clank in the dining room. I'd stick with the maki or teriyaki instead.