I'm lost in the lore of cheese steak, adrift in a sea of sine qua non.
Like all good American sandwiches, it's shamelessly meaty. Like anything worth eating at 3 a.m., it's usually slick and shiny with grease. Like any food with a good origin story, it's rooted in place — a place with soul, that still plays host to a little bad blood.
In Philadelphia, it's the reason for the beef between cross-street rivals Geno's Steaks and Pat's King of Steaks. Geno's owner Joey Vento claims a superior product, while Pat's owner Frank Olivieri Jr. — or his great-uncle Pat, rather — was first to the party in the '30s.
It's a sandwich that's apparently derailed whole political campaigns: Presidential hopeful John Kerry visited Pat's in 2003, and ordered the cheese steak with Swiss cheese and raw veggies, then consumed with caution — an egregious enough faux pas to prompt the Philadelphia Daily News' Don Russell to write, "So the man who would be president of the people was photographed delicately gripping the sandwich with his fingertips like he's some kind of Boston blue blood playing the piccolo."
(Meanwhile, one Barack Obama hit Pat's on his campaign trail, went "Whiz, wit" — Cheez Whiz with onions — and killed it with the crowd.)
So it's with a sense of responsibility that father-and-son duo Tim and Chris Cortinaz opened City of Philly three months ago in a tucked-away corner at the intersection of Academy Boulevard and Flintridge Drive.
Chris, a 23-year-old Colorado Springs native, is probably the nicest guy I've ever met. His voice is loud, filling the sparse room painted in red, white and yellow, and he smiles big. He's usually found out front ribbing his customers, while making sure they remember to get their loyalty-card punches.
And he cooks a pretty mean cheese steak (8-inch, $4.95; 12-inch, $6.95). It's fresh ribeye, shaved and chopped, with optional mushrooms, squared chunks of bell pepper, onions and a choice from the typical cast of cheeses (including the all-important Cheez Wiz, which I couldn't bring myself to eat). With white American cheese reverting to a thick cream sauce at the bottom of a chewy roll shipped from Philly-based Amoroso's Baking Company, it's worth the oral third-degree burn that comes gratis. The Chicken Philly is also tender and moist, but falls a little flat with just the default onions. Add some of the available peppers, pickles, jalapeños, olives or banana peppers.
In addition to the above, City of Philly offers hot or cold hoagies, hamburgers ($5.20 to $6.50), kids dishes ($2.99), salads ($4.50) and sides like cheese fries ($2.25) and onion rings ($2.75). The prices are ridiculously cheap for such good-quality food. The half-pound, hand-formed burgers are juicy with crisp bacon, lettuce and tomato; the salads overcome iceberg lettuce with ham and turkey shaved in the kitchen; and the cheese fries, hand-cut French fries covered in nacho cheese, scream, "Gut bomb!"
On the downside: City of Philly serves a pretty meek Italian sausage hoagie. The standard marinara was all well and good, but killed any flavor the links may have imparted.
Still, even if his cheese steaks hadn't melted my face off (literally and figuratively), Chris had me when he offered a steaming pile of fries while I waited. It's like he told me: "We're not in it to make a bunch of money, we're in it to satisfy everybody."