Sacramento cheese-steak showdown

Cheese Steak Shop Incorporated

4581 Century Blvd.
Pittsburg, CA 94565

(925) 706-0625

Philadelphia Cheesesteak Co

8963 Folsom Blvd.
Sacramento, CA 95826

(916) 362-6445

In the universe of food, it’s a question on a par with the existence of God and the meaning of life. And, like those timeless puzzlers, a definitive answer can be elusive. Perhaps, like the Holy Grail, the quest is more important than ultimate success. So who really serves the best Philly cheese steak? A final answer won’t be found below, but the results of some preliminary questing will.

As to an appropriate yardstick, partial but not necessarily slavish adherence to the time-tested combination of thinly chopped steak, grilled onions, bell peppers, mushrooms and cheese on a roll is required. Gruyère instead of Cheez Whiz or provolone certainly does not constitute grounds for disqualification. However, linguica or lamb in lieu of steak—any cut, not just the traditional top round or rib eye—means a swift and final outta here. An eatery receives no demerit for being part of a chain and, on some level, is expected to perform better as a Philly specialist—opposed to a place that includes Phillies merely as part of a broader array of entrees.

Must it be a soft Amoroso’s Baking Company roll? No, it can be something flakier but not mushier. Is there balance to the ingredients? Is the amount of mushrooms de minimis or de maximis? Are the peppers paltry or profligate? Is the entwining of all flavors mellifluous and memorable?

Several decades ago, the local Philly gold standard was Philadelphia Cheesesteak Co. Today, the faux-wood wainscoting seems unchanged, as do many of the sports pennants. Joe Montana posters have been traded out for today’s crop of quarterbacking marvels. Now operated by a Korean couple, the place still remains in the pantheon, cranking out Phillies with the “works” and cheese sauce (Cheez Whiz), provolone or American—plus a soda—for less than $10. There are free, industrial-sized dill-pickle chips but the A1 Steak Sauce, sometimes needed for moisture and a flavor boost, is hoarded behind the counter. Time from counter order to consumption is relatively quick. There’s a reason business still booms for the company. Make a pilgrimage.

The Cheese Steak Shop, meanwhile, appears to be a chain. Its white-tile and red-trim interior is clean and bright. Amoroso’s is the roll of choice, signs proudly boast. A standard 10-incher costs $6.59 and includes onions and hot or sweet peppers.

Adding accouterments such as roasted whole garlic cloves or pizza sauce and mushrooms ups the ante to $6.99. Adding spinach tastes better than it sounds. Fifty percent more meat and cheese—feel the arteries hardening?—ups the price to $7.99. There’s also a kids-eat-free deal on the weekends and a choice of four salads, although none seem to represent a major ratcheting down of calories.

Like the Shop, Wild Bill’s Cheesesteaks & Grill adorns its walls with photos of vintage Philly joints including Pat’s King of Steaks, where the phenomenon began 80 years ago. Here there are 16 variants including the antithetical Vegi with spinach, mushroom, lettuce, tomato, mayo and mustard. Out of the competition.

There’s a fine selection of free sweet or hot peppers. Frank’s hot sauce, the star of the Buffalo, doesn’t drown the other flavors. Most of the 16 choices are in the $8.75 to $9.50 range.

The Dad’s on J’s downtown spot meanwhile, retains the heart of the menu from the eponymous J’s, Cafe which formerly occupied the space. The Philly, $7.95, is overdrawn at the mushroom bank with a taste reminiscent of stroganoff. The chef’s wondrous habanero-infused salsa gets lost in the heavy flavors of the sandwich, which is served open-faced and disintegrates quickly when eaten by hand.

Another 75 cents substitutes the steak fries with a romaine salad generously studded with tomato, cucumber, olives and red onion. Try the citrus dressing.

Of these four Philly contenders, the grizzled veterans of the Cheesesteak Co. get the gold. The rest are in a close three-way tie with Dad’s trailing by a pug nose, although it excels in other areas of its menu. Suggestions welcomed for a second batch.