Monday, July 24, 2006

Tasting history in Philly

The gang took in a doubleheader at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia last year, and before the game we gazed upon a truly historic site.

Oh, we went to Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, too. But I’m talking about Pat’s King of Steaks, a southside eatery where the infamous Philly Cheesesteak sandwich was invented.

It was an awesome experience, recalled this weekend when I read that Harry Olivieri, 90, who founded the shop with his older brother Pat, passed away.

We're talking about a legendary food-city linkage here, like poppy seed bagels and the homeland. Here in Michigan, they try to claim a "coney dog," in greasy spoons they call "coney islands" with lower case letters for reasons I can't understand. It's basically a nasty hot dog with nasty chili sauce, cheese and onions piled on top.

I've tried to explain to people here that nothing like that is served anywhere on Coney Island, lest you want to see it again on the second drop of the Cyclone. They give me blank stares and insist I'm wrong. Hey, I tried.

But we were excited about getting an authentic taste of Philly on our road trip.

Pat’s was not easy to find, tucked in kind of a gritty neighborhood of shops and row houses. It’s on an island in the intersection where 9th Street crosses Wharton and Passyunk avenues.

The exterior does nothing to alert you to the glories within. It’s two-story brick building with white awning on most of the sides, and the strong aroma of sizzling beef and onions wafting in all directors. There might have been an actual grease cloud hovering overhead, hence the awning.

It was understated, at least compared to the giant Geno’s restaurant with the huge, colorful illuminated cheesesteak sign down the block. Geno’s is a tourist trap, we were told. Pat’s is the real deal.

The line was long, but moved along quickly. The placed pretty much served cheese steak and little else, but there were a lot of variations. You needed to say "wit" if you wanted onions, and there were assorted cheeses and other add-ons.

You moved along until you got to a window, where you encountered a guy who was all East Coast attitude. I loved it. The conversation did not start with "Welcome to Pat’s, what can I get you?" You were expected to order and order quickly — there were instructions printed on the wall — then move along to the other window, where you placed your order for drinks and fries, in case you didn’t get enough grease.

The space between was filled with a large, steaming window that separated you from the grill. It offered a view of dozens of thin steak strips sizzling in what seemed like three inches of juices and grease.

The wall above the window was lined with black and white photos of celebrities who dined on cheesesteak, and on the floor in front of the drink window was a slate reading that Sylvester Stallone stood on that spot while he filmed a scene in "Rocky."

I picked up my sandwich — plain with provolone, "wit-out," playing it safe — and then confronted a metal serving cabinet with all different kinds of peppers and sauce. Some of these peppers were round and the size of golf balls. I don’t know how you could possibly put them on a roll, and goodness knows how hot they would be.

We then grabbed one of the round tables and after posing for assorted photos, took out first bites.

It was amazing. Like nothing I have ever had. So good that I wanted another, but figured that might not be wise considering that we were headed to a doubleheader.

Then just over our shoulder there was a commotion. A woman at the window claimed she gave the attitude guy a $20, and he only gave her change for a $10.

This got louder and louder, and the cashier wasn’t budging, ending with "LOOK LADY, I DON’T MAKE MISTAKES. Move along, I got sandwiches to sell."

Needless to say, that’s become one of our catch phrases. I don't think she got her $10 back.

It was all-attitude, all-Philly. Everything made sense. I could understand why these people booed Santa Claus and cheered as Michael Irvin lay sprawled motionless on the turf.

It’s like trying to describe Nathan’s at Coney Island to the Michiganders who have never been.

Later on at the ballpark, we encountered numerous stands selling Philly cheesesteaks. I was tempted, especially after there were no, um, consequences from the experience earlier in the day.

But I figured there is no way anything sold at the stadium could come close to Pat’s.


mike said...

sounds alot like All American Dave. Order and step to the left.

mets_grrl said...

Those in the know are boycotting Pat's, since they will only serve people who speak fluent English, and had a sign in their window referring to such.

Geno's across the street put up a sign saying that they would be delighted to serve the many diverse members of the Philadelphia community.

And that is authentic South Philly attitude.

I never had a preference - we used to choose based on line or if someone needed a bathroom (Pat's no, Geno's yes), but now I do.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Whoa! I had no idea about the boycott, and the sign wasn't there last year when we attended.

We did notice the lack of restrooms -- a significent worry given the grease content of the meal!

Cyberlibrarian said...

Intellectually, I support Pat's (from what I gather, the boycott is not quite as successful as some may think), but gastronomically, I support Jim's. The first place I visit whenever I go back to Philadelphia (where my French and German forebears learned to speak English) is Jim's. I don't get down there as often as I'd like, so I can spend up to 2 years at a time craving their steaks.

One last thing -- I lived in Cincinnati for 2 of the longest years of my life and can say without hesitation that Cincinnati chili is nauseating. The onions, hot dogs and other items they put on their "coneys" don't make that stuff any easier to get past my tonsils.

matt and andy said...

Actually, Michiganders claim the Coney Island dog was actually invented in Michigan (Some say Flint, others Detroit, others Jackson). Its name is a mystery, but has almost nothing to do with Coney Island the geographic location (other than, possibly, the hot dog's origins there). Being a transplanted Iowan myself, I don't have a particular fondness for the concoction, either. But boy do the folks here love their coneys.