Since 2004, Portland's Only Bar Trivia That Matters.
This began as a reply to my dear old friend's inquiry about a place here in Portland called Steakadelphia, but it turned out I had a lot I needed to say about the Philadelphia Steak Sandwich (which as a matter of totally-objective, hard scientific fact, is tied with the Philadelpia Roast Pork for the greatest sandwich ever created, by at least 800 billion times). Some of it I've said before in another blog here, but so be it; I can't exactly use footnotes.
Steakadelphia is where I go when I want to get reasonably close to the real Philly deal (and so far the only place I have ever found out here - since 1995 - that I'll go back to). Ya just gotta coach them a bit.
First, the Plusses: 1) They have hot cherry peppers, not those lifeless banana things that sadly even tons of places in Philly use these days.
2) They have actual Amoroso's (merely passable but standard there, a godsend for here) that they have shipped frozen. My mom swore they were only useful if you ran out of toilet paper, and luckily did not have to live through the demise of Vilotti-Pisanelli - but unlike me she was kind of uptight about food. This is the only reasonably authentic Philadelphia Italian roll I've ever had west of of SE PA. Ever. They turn to rubber in a day (or about an hour if you make the mistake of putting them in a plastic bag), so they must be frozen to stay good. Amoroso's exports these absolute dogshit rolls in a bag to "Philly" places all around the country so they can put the logo in their window, but it's no closer to the home product than King's Hawaiian (the most revolting thing ever baked, because it's from...California!). These are at least their real Philly product. (I know because of course I conducted an interview before my first order.)
3) If you get the extra-meat one, it will actually have sufficient steak (also unheard of). It's 12 BUCKS(!!) instead of 6, but that's still a better inflation rate than the standard $25 Portland shit pizza. 4) They actually know that white American cheese (a somewhat-sharp variety, far less bland than that completely-flavorless "provolone" and NOT "cheese food", extremely difficult to find out here) is the most commonly ordered in Philadelphia, and not Cheez Whiz - that frat-boy vomit peddled by Geno's and other shit-holes that is a minority variation there and NOT the gold standard that absolutely all media will claim, as if they never bothered asking anyone who lives there, because they didn't). In my experience, there are more people in Philly who are enraged by Whiz than who swear by it.
Minuses: 1) Like everyone else outside Philly, they did not get the memo that steak sandwiches should never have anything on them but grilled onions (and hot peppers for some), because it's an insult to Philadelphians and it ruins the sandwich. Everyone outside the Philadelphia area insists on adding bell peppers. And although there may be some statements I will make here with which many in Philly would argue, this is not one of them: bell peppers are anathema to the sandwich, and the #1 sign that the person making it has absolutely no idea what they are doing.
All ya gotta do is stand in line at any Philly spot and listen to people. I think these satellite proprietors just assume that people can't accept the simplicity of it. So at this spot they put their steaks on the menu with mayo (I just literally trembled) and something called "Steakadelphia sauce" (a mystery I will never solve because I'm afraid to look or ask). Scratch those, of course.
2) They cook the steak about 48 times to long, and overchop the shit out of it. Steak sandwiches should take about 3-4 minutes. The sound of this chopping was like a jackhammer to my mother's heart, and she'd actually direct them to stop it and take her steak off, and then never go back to that shop again and rage against it to anyone who'd listen until the day its doors were shuttered. She ruled. My obsessiveness about food is positively relaxed compared to the way she was. Her official cause of death was "congestive heart failure by chronic fatigue over ruined sandwiches".
Like many older Philadelphians, she and my Grandmother had complete disdain for even putting cheese on steaks at all (a practice that did not develop until the 60s, and didn't fully dominate until the 80s - 50 years after the invention of the sandwich). You can read articles by a thousand "experts" who'll tell you Pat Olivieri invented the ""cheese"steak in the early 30s, but all you have to do is ask ONE old Philadelphian to discover that is complete bullshit (if you can understand them, that is). I just read a GQ article by Alan Richman that made me want to own a flamethrower. I've written about this issue in my blog before. This is why most of the signs in Philly say just "Steaks" instead of "cheesesteaks".
Okay, so here's how to get a surprisingly-close-to-authentic steak sandwich in the staggeringly sandwich-ignorant city of Portland:
1) Drive down 39th Ave so you can scoff at "Shut Up And Eat" as you pass it*, turn left on Powell, and go to Steakadelphia. Order the extra meat option, with extra onions (not mandatory, but I think they go a bit light on them). Just say you want ONLY steak, onions and cheese, no condiments (so it's really clear and you don't have a panic attack later). Then comes the part that will make you uncomfortable. Ask if they could please cook your steak light and quick. I don't say "rare" because it's so thin it's fully cooked in about 80 seconds - which begs the question of why they continue to chop the living shit out of it for about 3 and a half hours. The thing is, though - even if you can't bring yourself to do this, it's still pretty damn good somehow. But bear in mind that I've conditioned them over the last decade to be quite accepting of such oddities (as any place should be when it attracts the hyper-opinionated Philly diaspora).Also they're just super nice and eager to please anyway - which commands a good tip and brings my experience to around 14 bucks (gulp). Of course, if someone here made perfect steaks for $30, I'd buy them.
Oh - hot peppers are mandatory. Well, let's just say you should get them. If you're a bit sensitive they'll put them on the side (and charge you fifty cents extra!) Cooked in they do pack a bit of a bite, which I love.
That's it. If I've been away from Philly for more than a few months, it hits the spot nicely. And there are countless shitty steak shops even around the Delaware Valley that I would actually eschew in favor of Steakadelphia.
Oh - I almost forgot this excellent option for vegans! Stop malnourishing yourself and your children, and believing cows live in a magical Disney-like fairy world where they have discussions about their own mortality and the cruelty of man. It is stupid.
(*) This is not a blanket condemnation of Shut Up And Eat. As I wrote before, they actually have some excellent sandwiches (the chicken cutlet rules!). And once I got a really good (if not Philly-proper) steak sandwich there, but then I tried twice more and they sucked.