Fast Food Cheesesteak Challenge
If "cheesesteak" comes up in a word association game, chances are you'll say "Philly." But, unless you're in the City of Brotherly Love, it's often hard to find a decent cheesesteak—or find one at all. As a lifelong cheesesteak fanatic and native Pennsylvanian (though from the west side of the state), I decided to see how some of the big sub chains would stack up in the cheesesteak department:
Normally, I think of a cheesesteak as only found at non-chain restaurants like sub shops and hoagie places. Many of us have a local favorite—mine is Santoro's, a small shop in Wakefield, MA, near my old office park. Everyone has a style they like; I prefer my steak grilled to order. Raw meat is placed on the grill with the mushrooms, peppers, and onions. They're all cooked together, and chopped up, then the cheese is placed on top of the mixture and allowed time to melt.
But once you get into the fast-food word, styles vary—so I decided to evaluate each sandwich terms of how good of a cheesesteak it was, but also how good of a sandwich it was.
Much to Jared's chagrin, Subway (pictured at top) actually makes a fairly tasty cheesesteak, even if it's not a great example of the form. They don't grill their steak; instead, pre-cooked meat is dumped onto a sub roll, which is layered with cheese and placed in their toaster. The pre-cooked meat is rather dry, and doesn't exactly re-moisten in the toaster. It needs a little sauce. Crisp green peppers and toasted bread make for a good experience, which feels healthier than a greasy, juicy steak sub—though the grilled mushroom and onion flavor is missed.
Located only in New England, D'Angelo is a regional chain of sub shops. They're famous for their Number 9, a cheesesteak with onions, peppers, and mushrooms. What distinguishes them is the fact that their sandwiches are made to order. It may slow service down a bit, but what you get is a sub full of hot, meaty steak and totally melted cheese. Theirs is a cheesesteak the way it's supposed to be: juicy meat chopped on the fryer; grilled peppers, mushrooms, and onions that release their flavors into the meat; and gooey cheese intermixed with everything. The bread is great, too, with a flaky outer crust, despite being a bit chewy. I loved every bite.
Quiznos, Subway's big rival, doesn't grill their steak to order, either; pre-cooked meat is dumped onto a sub roll, which is layered with cheese and placed in their oven. Quiznos' pre-cooked meat is juicy, and they add grilled onions. Their toasted bread tastes better than Subway—a bit more salt, more flavor, and less chew. Their meat, though, tastes more like brisket than traditional cheesesteak meat. The cheese is also unremarkable. I found myself enjoying it, but less as a good example of a cheesesteak than as a sandwich.
The most disappointing showing was from Blimpie, a chain I don't frequent. Blimpie's sub certainly wins an award for the strangest preparation. A sealed packet of meat in juice is cut open and placed in the microwave. The preparer then sticks cheese slices into the open packet, and nukes it again. Odd, but understandable in the fast food world. Though it has moister meat than Subway, the total sub package is terrible. The bread wins no awards, the cheese never melted, and the steak resembled tough roast beef in bad gravy more than steak 'n cheese. Though I was hungry at the time, a few bites were all I could muster before tossing it in the garbage.
By far, the best cheesesteak came from D'Angelo. It is truly my ideal cheesesteak. It reminded me of a sub-shop cheesesteak on the Jersey Shore, or any corner Mid-Atlantic hoagie joint. Both Quiznos and Subway offer tasty enough sandwiches they call cheesesteaks; however, they're more like variations on a beef sandwich than actual examples of the form. Quiznos certainly wins out over Subway; Subway feels too dry and "healthy" to be a true cheesesteak, and none of the flavors come together. But it's still better than Blimpie, which was absolutely abysmal. It's down there on my won't-eat list with the Angus Snack Wrap.