The cheese factor
Henri and Colette get down and dirty with cheese steak
The Cheesesteak Shop995 Nord Ave.
Chico, CA 95926
“Better than sex?” Colette said. “Did you hear that?”
She’d taken my Édith Piaf record off the turntable and had tuned the radio to some new station—actually broadcasting the sounds of pigs grunting. Très tacky. They’d just played a song by Emmylou Ronstadt or someone and were running a spot for the Cheese Steak Shop. “Impossible,” she said, shaking her head.
She opened a bottle of 2002 Silver Oak Cabernet. “They’re sandwiches, for God’s sake,” she said, pouring a couple of glasses. “From a franchise in a strip mall, and they’ve got some bimbo claiming they’re better than sex?”
I sliced a baguette and arranged the pieces attractively around a wedge of Cambozola on a Dansk serving plate.
“Besides,” she said, “just the idea of a cheese steak isn’t all that appetizing. Now if it were made with a good brie, or with this Cambozola … “ She trailed off. “But better than sex? Not!”
“Maybe I’ll check it out by myself then,” I said, pouring another glass of wine.
“Perfect,” she said. “Just like … “
“Don’t even go there,” I interrupted.
“On the other hand,” she said. “We were talking about going out to lunch tomorrow, and sandwiches sound good.”
“They do,” I agreed, “and I haven’t had any in a while.”
She looked over the top of her wine glass, grinning. “I know.”
Chico’s Cheese Steak Shop is one of 23 in Northern California, with several more scheduled to open soon, including one in Reno. The company started with a single store in San Francisco in 1982. The sandwiches are made with either a chicken breast or a slice of sirloin steak, chopped on the grill and cooked with cheese and a range of add-ons—bacon, garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes—then stuffed inside a soft hoagie-style roll (imported from Philadelphia). Choose from the 7-inch ($3.69-$4.59), the 10-inch ($4.99-$6.29), or 15-inch ($8.19-$9.99).
Since it was my first time with a Philly cheese steak, I decided to go basic: plain chicken. Colette ordered the chicken with bacon. We both got the works: grilled onions and both hot and sweet peppers. Now, I can’t vouch for the authenticity of these sandwiches, Philadelphia-wise, but I can say that they were pretty tasty—better than I expected, especially recalling the less-than-enthusiastic review last year by my esteemed colleague Christine LaPado. The peppers provided a tasty edge and crunchy texture.
“What do you think of the bread?” I asked, finishing my last bite.
Colette wiped the corners of her mouth with her napkin. “Not bad,” she said, “but nothing like a roll in the … “
“Hey!” I said. “Inappropriate.”
On the way out, Colette got that twinkle in her eye, and I knew exactly what she had in mind: My dear sister was already planning to stray, to cheat on the Cheese Steak Shop.
“I can’t help it,” she said, shrugging. “You know me.”
So it was the next day we found ourselves at A Taste of Philly, which, despite also being in a strip mall, beats The Cheese Steak Shop hands down for character. The little restaurant has a decidedly neighborhood feel, its walls showcasing local artists, whose paintings and photography are for sale. When I asked if it was a franchise, the man who took our orders said, “Nope, just me and Josh back there.”
We also liked the sandwiches better. For one thing, they’re made on crunchy sourdough rolls (7-inch, $4.29-$5.29; and 14-inch $5.99-$6.99). Also, the pieces of sirloin—they don’t serve chicken—are bigger, and the sandwiches come with mushrooms, in addition to the peppers and grilled onions.
“Here’s another reason the better-than-sex thing is a joke,” Colette said later that evening. She’d been looking at the Cheese Steak Shop’s Web site. “It says here the 10-inch cheese steak has around 1,000 calories, over half of them from fat.”
I didn’t know what she was getting at.
“Don’t you remember, mon frère?” she asked. “Sex burns calories!”