Monday, September 11, 2006

Jim's Steaks

I was in Philadelphia on Thursday, and that meant cheesesteaks for lunch. Our host, the inimitable Rob Armstrong, is a Philly native, and he offered to serve as our guide, driving us through a maze of narrow one-way streets down to South Street. Jim's Steaks is at the corner of South and 4th.

It's a great old art deco building, a small, two-story place with a floor of tiny white and black tiles and larger white tiles on the wall. The downstairs is narrow. To your right as you walk in the door is a single row of stools along a narrow counter for dine-in customers (there's more dining space upstairs); to your left is the line where you order. And the whole place is filled with the fantastic aroma of sizzling beef.

The most impressive thing about Jim's is the grill--griddle might be a better term, since it's a single long metal surface. As you stand in line preparing to order, you're right in front of it and can watch the griddleman working the steaks. The meat is piled up along the griddle from left to right (from the customer's perspective), starting with a huge mound of paper-thin sliced top round. Using a giant flat spatula, the grillman works the meat from the left side of the griddle to the middle, flipping, turning, and chopping it with the spatula, moving it gradually as it cooks over to the right side of the griddle, where the fully-done meat nestles next to a massive pile of sauteeed onions. And, at the far left, is the classic emblem of the cheesesteak joint: a gallon-sized metal can of Cheez Whiz, its top removed, set right on the griddle to keep warm, a big ladle sticking from the top, ready for scooping. (Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me, but the images at the Roadfood site capture this experience well.)

Armstrong helped guide me through the proper lingo for ordering. You have a choice of Cheez Whiz (which should be ordered just as "whiz"), American, or Provolone cheese, and can add onions, peppers, mushrooms, lettuce, and tomato. Onions are special and are ordered via shorthand. If you want them, you don't say "with onions"; you just say "with". So, a Provolone cheesesteak with onions and mushrooms is a "Provolone with and mushrooms"; a Cheeze Whiz with no onions is a "Wiz without".

Much has been made about the ordering rules at Philly cheesesteak restaurants, with writers offering dire warnings that you'll be thrown out on your ear if you breach the protocol. In realilty, you just have to remember that Philadelphians are usually in a hurry and are not overly constrained by good manners. As long as you order quickly and don't hold up the line you'll probably be fine. But, saying "gimme an American with and peppers" is just fun.

Sure, CheezWhiz is available at every cheesesteak place, but I suspect that's some kind of cruel joke Philadelphians like to play on tourists. Armstrong got his with American cheese, and I followed suit. (American, in this case, is a thinly sliced white American cheese--much, much, much better than that yellowish Kraft cheese food stuff.) And it was GOOD.

"The thing that makes a great cheesesteak," Rob Armstrong said as we tore into our steaks at the little dining counter along the wall, "is not the meat or the cheese or any of that. It's the bread." And, I have to agree with him on that. Jim's uses 7" Italian sandwich rolls from Amoroso Bakery--itself a Philadelphia tradition--that are delivered fresh daily. And the bread is definitely different than the kind of soft hoagie rolls you get in the supermarket. The outside is slightly crusty, and the inside nice and chewy. It makes a perfect platform for soaking up all the juices from the steak and the melted cheese without getting mushy.

I washed my cheesesteak down with a Dr. Brown's Black Cherry Soda and was a happy guy.

Philadelphians argue over which joint has the best steaks. Pat's and Geno's--located on opposite corners of 9th Street and Passyunk Ave. in South Philly--often win high marks, but they also get tagged as "tourist spots." Jim's is right up there, too. Rob Armstrong confided that as good as he think's Jim's is, he actually prefers Geno's which "doesn't go through me as fast, if you know what I mean." (Like I said, he's inimitable.) But, I had no issues with it. Uncorrupted by any exposure to a Pat's or Geno's steak, I'm voting for Jim's.

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