I never though I'd say it, but I should've gone with the Cheez Whiz. 12-inch Authentic Philly and "Freedom Fries," McGonagle's.
1231 Highland Avenue, National City
I heard some Philly boys were serving up cheesesteaks in National City, so I set my hopes to high and hustled that way, past a half dozen dilapidated mini malls and food chains. Across from a Wal Mart. Honestly, I was just thrilled to find a small business operating in the middle of all that.
These guys have put together a fun place, with beer on tap.
McGonagle's, named for the two brothers who operate the joint, focuses solely on the meat-and-cheese mainstay, which is good considering we lost our city's best option couple years back.
That spot, The Philly Grill, had lured and kept my business with two very important words: sliced ribeye. One can, but should not, make a cheesesteak with anything less, I am told.
McGonagle's does, and is even cheeky enough to adopt the slogan "You can't beat our meat." They also sell foot-long sandwiches for $9 and change, pairing grilled onions and ribeye — or chicken — with any of a variety of cheeses, from American to Whiz. You can add Buffalo sauce, marinara, or bacon. There's a whole flow chart of the ordering process on the television screen behind the ordering counter at the front of the shop.
But you can see the edge of that slice of provolone on my six-inch, six-dollar Authentic Philly. McGonagle's.
When you go to a really busy cheesesteak spot, you typically find a line and a kitchen rushing to keep up with demand. This ensures the sandwiches get made to order — meat, cheese and bun assembled on the grill, with sizzling peppers and onion melting into everything. A couple of the best Philly spots, this happens right in front of you as you stand in line, eliciting a Pavlovian response.
I didn't find McGonagle's busy, and whatever took place back in the kitchen and out of sight, it didn't exactly melt my cheese.
I'd gone with provolone, and opted for diced peppers as well as tomatoes. The green bells hadn't cooked with the ribeye any more than the cheese, and the bread hadn't soaked up any juices. None of the ingredients wound up working together, which left each tasting kind of bland, particularly that ribeye.
Kind of a bummer. It's easy to get worked up for a cheesesteak. But all the ingredients should be fresh and uncooked when you walk in, and merged together with some unholy alchemy of brotherly love by the time you eat it. McGonagles has all the makings of a worthy and authentic cheesesteak spot, they just need to get busy making the finished product live up to its reputation.