FEATURE ‌ War of the Steaks, Part Two 

Cheesesteaks don't necessarily engender brotherly love in rival shops

click to enlarge A DB's cheesesteak contains seasoned steak, grilled onions, and melted white american cheese on an authentic philadelphia Amorosa roll - LESLIE MCKELLAR
  • Leslie McKellar
  • A DB's cheesesteak contains seasoned steak, grilled onions, and melted white american cheese on an authentic philadelphia Amorosa roll

DB's Cheesesteaks
915 Folly Road. James Island
762-7232

Philly's
4650 Ladson Road. Summerville.
873-0776

A.C.'s Bar & Grill
467 King St. Downtown
577-6742

A smart person leans forward to eat an authentic Philadelphia cheesesteak, a hot cow and cheese sandwich that drips with the slow cadence of a ticking clock, sending drops of goo onto the plate, or the lap -- whatever happens to be below.

Don't ask a native of Philadelphia, the Delaware Valley, South Jersey, or Northern Delaware what a cheesesteak should be without expecting an extended conversation on the finer points of bread, meat, cheese, the melding of the three, and what toppings are, or are not, acceptable and original. The only agreement seems to be that the roll must possess a certain South Philly texture -- not crunchy, but not mushy, a bit soft, slightly browned, chewy, but not tough, and absorbent, so that it can carry the weight of marbled steak dripping with succulent fat. These people are particular.

Most want an Amoroso's roll, the de facto official bun of the Philly steak, stuffed with meat, cheese -- American, provolone, or Cheese Whiz -- and sometimes sautéed onions. At this point all similarities seem to end; differences erupt into verbal assaults at the mention of a rival shop's wares. Allegiances run deep in cheesesteak lovers and they will defend their spot to the end. It seems brotherly love can only go so far. There are respective fans of the most famous Philadelphia spots, Geno's Steaks and Pat's King of Steaks, the supposed inventor of the cheesesteak, and fans whose allegiance runs to some obscure neighborhood joint on a side street in South Philly or out in the Pennsylvania suburbs -- as long as it's not Geno's or Pat's, damn sellouts that they are. There are roll fanatics, meat tasters, "wid" or "wid out" onions people, and an endless rhetorical discussion of the cheese. It is a war and it has reached the Lowcountry.

For years, the only places one could get a "real steak" were Philly's up in Summerville and A.C.'s Bar and Grill Downtown -- and there was room for everyone. Both serve respectable steaks, but recently the landscape has shifted. Newcomers in Goose Creek and North Charleston have edged in on business (appropriating the "Philly's" moniker in other guises), prompting Philly's owner Steve Castellucci and his family clan of cheesesteak purveyors to fight back. After all, cheesesteaks are right there next to liberty bells and Independence Hall for transplanted Philadelphians. Steve gets customers from all over the state -- they drive hours for a bite of the real thing -- and he has to protect his interest lest an imitator move in on hallowed turf with an inferior product. His late father hung the painted sign in his shop that reads "The Public Appreciates Quality," the menu now proclaims:

"Notice to our customers: Many copycat restaurants are opening around the Lowcountry but as of 2006 there is only one location to serve you the original Philly Cheesesteak and that is located in Oakbrook of Summerville."

This doesn't go over very well with diehard fans of the newest addition to the Lowcountry cheesesteak landscape, DB's Cheesesteaks on James Island. Run by the extended family of an award-winning Delaware cheesesteak chain, they serve up what their fans proclaim is the most authentic and their offerings have generated a lively "discussion" on the CP website among fanatical expatriates looking for a taste of home.

The purveyors themselves proclaim deference and respect for each other's wares, alongside definite opinions on why their steak reaches the epitome of authenticity, but the fans are less restrained. First, they must tell you where they grew up, not just the area of Philadelphia or its environs, but the street corner where they were born, and inevitably segue into diatribes about the contents of a cheesesteak and why their place bests the competition.

DB's fans exemplify the "secret-to-a-great-cheesesteak-is-in-the-roll" camp. They decry the heresy of Philly's custom-baked rolls because they come from a local bakery, rather than the tried and true Philly establishment. Philly's steaks cost more, too; the motive is not profit, but quality -- Castellucci believes that a fresh local roll, baked to his specifications, showcases his steak better than one shipped down the Eastern seaboard.

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Philly's fans often focus on the meat there, a slightly shredded pile of tender strips stacked with good, gooey cheese, and object to the extremely shredded, almost ground hamburger texture of DB's highly seasoned steaks, claiming that it results in a dried-out bite and makes for easily hidden, inferior meat. Both camps testify to the quality of the beef, Philly's sourcing a pre-sliced, marinated product from Philly; DB's slicing their own sirloin imported from back home.

Diehard fans aside, perhaps the best steak in town can be scarfed at A.C.'s, the old smoky stalwart of Upper King Street. They've been tossing out delicious steaks for years, and they perhaps have the best of both worlds, the greasy drip of a quality steak coupled with the soft nirvana of an authentic Amoroso. To top all of that off, you can grab a Yuengling or Guinness with that steak and shoot a round of pool while you wait. For the time being, one can snag a pack of smokes and pretend they're in a workingman's bar in Philly itself.

That's really the draw of cheesesteaks anyway. Sure they're delicious, but so are Buffalo chicken wings, New York and Chicago style pizza, and Cincinnati chili -- all priceless reminders of a 20th century immigrant tastes in the industrial North. As we see more people from those areas flow into the Lowcountry, you can be sure that their tastes will travel alongside, and we may all be in for a thousand new tastes. Just make sure you're getting "the real thing."

For a breakdown of the local cheesesteak offerings by a former Philadelphian, visit the cuisine section of www.charlestoncitypaper.com. And if you don't agree with his assessment, log on and make your own case.


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