Serious Eats

Fast Food: Subway Big Philly Cheesesteak

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

I don't own a grill, which is nice because it makes me ineligible for copout gifts of redundant meatfire-tending accessories and reduces the odds I'll be cast as a lovably doltish sitcom dad. But along with these benefits, the ungrilled lifestyle comes with the significant downside of limiting my access to red meat.

I'll break out the skillet and the steak and the short attention span to produce a few indoor juice fires a year, but I'm largely dependent on the kindness and competence of others for my beef. In the summer this means I'm reduced to groveling for backyard barbecue invitations, and in the winter it means taking the even less dignified path of searching for credible fast food steak.

The first stop on my winter 2011 cheap-steak hunt was Taco Bell, where the disappointment was predictable but the specific strengths and weaknesses were surprising. The Triple Steak Stack's bread was terrible, but the steak itself was pretty good.

If a noted beef miscreant like Taco Bell can get the steak close to right, then maybe anyone can. And if all that's missing is decent bread, then isn't the Subway Big Philly Cheesesteak the next logical sandwich to investigate?

Subway's bread is iconic for its smell. Of course iconic smells are not necessarily good smells—consider, for example, the telltale aroma of an actual subway—and a vocal minority of the fast food community holds the sweet-weird bread aroma against Subway.

I think the bread is pretty good, even if the smell's a bit overpowering and quite possibly engineered more for nasal marketing than for sandwich-enhancing. But I don't think Subway needs the 10 bread varieties listed on their website, because in my light hopscotching through the options, I haven't found anything better than the basic white Italian, which is what I chose for my Big Philly.

(Let's not get into whether this sandwich has any right to call itself "Philly." I went into this looking to evaluate a fast food steak-and-cheese sandwich, not a Philly cheesesteak.)

My memories of Subway steak are not fond; maybe it was just my preconceived notion that precooked steak is not for me, but I haven't eaten it since noticing years ago that there's no grill at Subway. My recent Taco Bell experience suggests that discount qwiksteak science has come a long way since the 1990s, though, so I was cautiously optimistic about the four ounces of cold, cooked steak that amply lined the six-inch Italian roll.

Subway lets you choose your cheese, and I picked American because it's bred to melt. The sandwich assembler tossed two slices atop the steak and then put the Big Philly into a convection oven for about 30 seconds.

It looked pretty good coming out of the oven. The outside of the roll was lightly toasted, as was the inside on the rare square millimeters not covered with meat and cheese.

The cheese did nothing more than its job: it melted into the steak. It was so lacking in flavor that I didn't even notice the usual fast food oversalting, but it did contribute a surprisingly dairyesque smell.

The steak more than made up for the lack of perceived sodium in the cheese; it would have been too salty to eat by the handful or on a stick, but when tempered by the cushiony bread and the cheese, the flavor was acceptable. It tasted beefier and less adulterated than the Taco Bell version.

The Subway Big Philly Cheesesteak can't compete with a freshly cooked rendition from a good corner sub shop, but I've had worse. The improved steak combined with Subway's good-enough bread makes for a fine fast food steak-and-cheese sandwich before you even get to the customizing (banana pepper rings!!!).

About the author: Will Gordon loves life and hates mayonnaise. You can eat and drink with him in Boston or follow him on twitter @WillGordonAgain.

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