Where to find a good, authentic cheesesteak in Los Angeles? It's a question that sparks heated debates among Philadelphia transplants. And who better to put the issue to rest than Carolyn Wyman (pictured). This food historian sampled more than 50 greasy sandwiches in and around Philly to write The Great Cheesesteak Book, a guidebook full of stories, tips and recipes (including cheesesteak soup). She's in town to give a 50-minute PowerPoint slide talk tonight at Santa Monica's The Shack, alongside family members of late cheesesteak inventor Pat Olivieri. (The 5:30 p.m. presentation will be followed by the Phillies vs. Giants game on the big screen.)
Last Thursday, Squid Ink accompanied Wyman on a five-hour cheesesteak drive. After the jump, find the list of the places where we ate, in alphabetical order.
Retro-diner decor at this Southern California chain mimics Jim's Steaks, a Philadelphia institution where you can gather supplies for a Philly Taco (aka a cheesesteak wrapped in a slice of pizza). There's lots of outdoor seating, albeit facing a strip-mall parking lot.
The verdict: While not our favorite, this place has the right idea, shipping frozen rolls from Amoroso's Bakery. Wyman concedes that they might actually taste better than fresh Amoroso's rolls in Philly. She finds the chopped rib-eye slightly watery, but it still has a "nice flavor."
1419 W. Olive Ave., Burbank; (818) 840-8700 (one of about 20 locations)
You will not find Cheez Whiz at this tiny bar, but you will get a dribble of marinara sauce, pizza-steak-style, unless you specify otherwise. Owner and chef Mark Lifland grew up in Allentown, an hour outside of Philly, and that's the way he ate steaks as a boy. He uses thinly sliced rib-eye and gets French rolls from an undisclosed bakery in Santa Monica. "I would never ship rolls from Philly," he says. "They've gotta be two to three hours old."
The verdict: Philly West makes a well-balanced steak (if a li'l light on the meat). The combination of American cheese and marinara comes out incredibly creamy, but not gooey enough to sog up the fresh bread. "A little bit of grease but not too much," says Wyman. "It's a damn tasty sandwich."
1870 Westwood Blvd., Westwood; (310) 474-9787
It's debatable whether this raucous Phillies bar is better known for its cheesesteak or its massive "Shack Burger," which is topped with a Louisiana hot link. Go with the former, but beware of diced cherry peppers. When owner Patrick Good moved to Santa Monica from the Philly area, "nobody knew [what a cheesesteak contained]. That's the way I like it. People can take it off if they don't."
The verdict: This hefty cheesesteak benefits from bigger-than-usual pieces of onion, and the peppers give it a welcome, if nontraditional, little kick. Best of all is the rib-eye. "This is the greasiest so far," says Wyman. "Not in a pejorative sense. That's how it should be."
2518 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 449-1171
This cheesesteakerie-on-wheels debuted last September, headed by cousins Jonathan Salvatore and Scott Springfield. They grew up in South Jersey and try to stay true to their food truck's name. "People come up expecting green peppers," says Springfield. "I'm like, 'no.' I never had green peppers growing up." To help confused customers, they recently stuck up detailed how-to-order instructions.
The verdict: Amoroso's roll. Nicely fried onions. Huge amount of chopped rib-eye. Considering its girth, you might expect this monster to require the "Philly lean" (holding a cheesesteak at arm's length to avoid greasy spillage on shoes). Instead, it's succulent, but not enough to give a stomach ache. "We're dealing with a healthy crowd," notes Wyman. "If they saw actual grease they might be frightened."
Track location at http://twitter.com/Southphillyexp.
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Want music with your cheesesteak? Show up Friday or Saturday night for karaoke and pitchers of beer. This longtime favorite recently closed its popular Westwood branch, but at least the Burbank location has more space and an open kitchen where you can watch meat being chopped.
The verdict: The standard sandwich comes with finely chopped rib-eye and a "melted blend of provolone and white American" (i.e. one slice of each) on an Amoroso's roll, all of which is highly decent. Says Wyman, "It tastes like beef onion soup."
117 N. Victory Blvd., Burbank; (818) 563-2211 (also in Dodger Stadium)
Cheesesteak Day, Mon., April 26, 5:30 p.m., free, The Shack, 2518 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 449-1171.