Featured Food The Eater

In search of cheesesteak

by Kirk Ross

If you’re serving a dipping sauce on the side, well, you’re doing it wrong.

As frustrated as Diogenes would be in D.C., The Eater has wandered the streets here of late in search of an actual cheesesteak.

It’s one of the simplest, purest sandwiches on the planet, a variation of the meat-bread-cheese medley perfected in Philadelphia – a working-class sandwich that’s a meal crammed onto a bun. A cheesesteak is not health food, but the cut of meat used, often rib eye or top round, is a heck of a lot healthier than hamburger.

In this column’s ongoing search for a decent $10 lunch downtown, cheesesteaks were often among the menu items that came in under the mark. The only question was whether these sandwiches were really cheesesteaks or not. Unfortunately for all youse, it was mostly not.

The two most important ingredients for any cheesesteak are the right bread and a grill. The roll has got to be able to hold together without being a chore to chew. The grill is important because making a good cheesesteak is all about the process.

The meat goes on with a light oil at medium heat and gets slammed and chopped a bit with the edge of the spatula. If after you order a cheesesteak you hear a clanging sound out of the kitchen, that’s a good sign. At some point provolone or another mild white cheese goes into the clump of beef and gets mixed in while more clanging ensues.

The wet, savory mix of cheese and meat topped with grilled onions or green peppers has been at the heart of any good cheesesteak since its origin in the Italian Market in Philly in the 1930s. After the introduction by Kraft Foods of Cheese Whiz in 1953, a cheesesteak with Whiz has become the preferred variation in its native habitat. There have been reported cases of occasional attempts at this around the Triangle, but overall we seem to have dodged that bright-orange bullet. Most of what’s offered uses provolone, but, unfortunately, few places really get that the meat and cheese has to be melded, and what was offered up as a cheesesteak was actually a steak sandwich with melted cheese on top. A couple of places also served au jus, which seemed just plain nuts until the dryness of the bun and what was inside it became evident.

In the end, the best place for a cheesesteak was also the least expensive, a testament to the working-class origins of the meal.

In downtown Carrboro/Chapel Hill, the gold standard has long been Italian Pizzeria III on West Franklin, where you can hear the aforementioned clanging and obtain a perfectly serviceable cheesesteak for $5.95. And if you head down the hill on Franklin Street, you can also get a nicely loaded-up, real-deal cheesesteak at Tedesco’s for about a nickel more.

Official start of oyster season
Most proclamations by government officials are pro forma moments in honor of some worthy person or cause.
But down on the coast, when Louis Daniel, North Carolina’s director of the Division of Marine Fisheries, issues a proclamation, people pay a little more attention.
Last week, Daniel proclaimed that at sunrise on Monday, Oct. 15, the oyster beds of the state of North Carolina will open. That proclamation, which was followed by a list describing in detail the dozens of oystering areas up and down the coast, means the state has deemed the waters safe and the oysters in the areas of proper size and health. It’s an interesting and kind of wonky insight into what it takes to manage the seafood harvest, spelling out the rules, sizes and the bed boundaries by GPS coordinates.

Oyster season starts this month in North Carolina. Photo by Kirk Ross

If you want to learn a little more about oyster culture and enjoy a freshly steamed bucket of the local harvest, you’re always welcome at the state’s annual Oyster Festival at Ocean Isle Beach. This year the festival, which is located next to the Museum of Coastal Carolina, runs Oct. 20-21.
Also, next month is The Eater’s annual oystering column. If you’ve got any interesting recipes or techniques send them on to this newspaper.