3501 30th Street, San Diego
Wowee. It feels like Back East, Back When. Like, before “calories” became a dirty word. I’m standing outside Lefty’s, the Chicago pizza outpost where Windy City refugees come in droves, desperate to escape anorexic-thin New York pies. I’m tempted to go straight in, except, across the road, this li’l ol’ house calls. It looks like a sanctuary for the City of Brotherly Love — and its famous sandwich.
Talking about the Philly cheese steak, of course. Calories aside, I love that whole idea of frizzled beef with onions and Cheez Whiz and maybe some ’shrooms. Easy-eatin’, not greasy-eatin’, like burgers. Plus, I like how they have a religious fervor about making them as real as “back in Philly.” They even fly the rolls in from Philly. So, hey. It’s night, I’m famished, and I’ve already tried Lefty’s a couple of times. Time to boldly go Back East to the city of Brotherly Cheese Steaks. I cross over and head for the oval red neon sign that says “Eddie’s Philadelphia, steaks/hoagies/burgers.”
Hoagies: that’s Philly for subs, heroes, po’ boys, right? I make my way up the steps and onto the house’s deck. Huh. Jes’ like visiting grandma’s place. I notice a couple of guys leaning against the wall in the shadowy porch area, slurping beers and eating. Cheese steaks, by the looks and aromas.
“Mmm…” says one. His name’s Sean. He’s taking down a mushroom and onion Philly cheese steak. Says it cost $8.25. “There are other places that do Philly cheese steak around town,” he says, “but this is more legit.”
Legit. That’s a powerful word. Like “street cred.” Now I’ve gotta try one. His buddy Joe’s lunging into some buffalo chicken, cheese, and onion special that cost him $9.99.
I head on in to a big room that looks like it was two rooms, once. Like they ripped out a dividing wall. It’s painted chalky blue on one side, lime green on the other. If you didn’t already know the owners were from Philly, you’ll know it in here. “Philadelphia 76er” pennants hang everywhere, a highway sign from North Philadelphia reads “I–95,” and a big plaque says “Philadelphia Cheesesteak Eating Champion.”
Kevin, the guy who takes the orders, comes out from the kitchen. I look at the giant printed menu hanging from the ceiling behind him. Lawd. Plenty of stuff apart from the Philly steak choices. Appetizers (chili fries are $6.75), salads (starting at $4.99 for the House), hoagies (the meatball one’s $7.50), standard cold and grilled sandwiches around $7, half-pound burgers starting at $6, and “white plate dinners” like spaghetti and meatballs for $12.99.
But we’re talking Philly steaks here. I hear the chop-chop-chopping going on in the kitchen. That’s good news: it means they’re preparing their own meat, not thawing frozen hockey pucks from Nebraska, the way some places do. A plain rib-eye beef steak sandwich — and that’s good-sounding meat — costs $7.25. Cheese steak and onions, $7.75. If you’re really hungry, you can order the double meat, cheese, and onion steak sandwich for $13.99.
“Decided yet?” says Kevin.
It’s 9:15. There’s noise in the line forming behind me. Mostly guys, from all the bars around here. I almost go for the pizza steak and onions with cheese and marinara sauce ($8.25) because I’d like to know: What da heck’s pizza steak? In the end, it comes down to the mushroom steak and onions with cheese ($8.25), just because I like the idea of a whole layer of slip-slidey ’shrooms juicing up the meat.
And what strikes you when it comes (on red-and-white-checked paper in a red plastic basket) is how danged simple it is. Meat, cheese, mushrooms, in a six-inch sandwich. That’s it. No lettuce, pickles, whatever, but, oh, my giddy aunt: dee-freakin’-licious. They must’ve been marinating that meat since morning.
Or, maybe it’s the cheese. I ask Kevin if he put Cheez Whiz in my sandwich. “No, White American. Most people seem to prefer it,” he says.
The roll is from the famous Amoroso bakery in Philly. It tastes fine, nice and soft, but I wouldn’t have picked it. Flavor, texture-wise, it tastes to me like, well, a roll. Then again, what do I know? “Philly people can tell,” says Kevin. “They must have it. The flour, the softer water back there. You can’t fool them.”
My only complaint is that when I finish I still have space for more. And this is when I make my wisest decision. I order the mushroom burger ($7.50), medium-rare. I know, I know. The bloating of America, whatever. But it turns out to be one beautiful burger. The big juicy patty with sautéed mushrooms has a pile of lettuce, tomato, pickle, and sliced raw onions beside it to jam in there if you want, plus a pot of brown sauce. That’s a kind of gravy. I put everything in and pour the gravy over just before each bite. It’s a mess. A luscious, slathering, savory mess.
“Certified Black Angus,” says Kevin. “Eddie insists.”
So, Eddie turns out to be real, and really from Philly. Also a singer-songwriter. Eddie Lenhart. Has his own website. He has three CDs out. This night job is his day job. “My family always had Italian restaurants back in Philly,” he tells me. “It’s in my blood.”
’Course, have to finish off as I’ve heard a true-blue Philadelphian would. I get a $2 pack of Tastykakes Butterscotch Krimpets. Rich, gunky little spongecakes. Just as I thought: from Back East, Back When. Probably the health revolution hadn’t raised its ugly head in 1930, when Butterscotch Krimpets were invented. But, no worries. Tomorrow I’ll get on the nuts and twigs. Soon as I get back to California. ■
The Place: Eddie’s Philadelphia Steaks, Hoagies, Burgers, 3501 30th Street (at Myrtle), 619-296-6325
Type of Food: American
Prices: Chili fries, $6.75; tuna salad, $8.99; meatball hoagie, $7.50; tuna melt, $7.25; half-pound mushroom burger, $7.50; rib-eye beef steak sandwich, $7.25; cheese steak, onions, $7.75; mushroom steak with onions, cheese, $8.25; double meat, cheese, and onion sandwich, $13.99; spaghetti and meatballs, $12.99
Hours: 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., daily (Sundays, they close at 9:00 p.m.)
Nearest Bus Stop: 30th at Myrtle