Friday, July 27, 2012

Cassiopeia, Epic Systems 1979 Milky Way, Verona, WI

Known to some as the conceited Queen Cassiopeia, known to many more as that one constellation that you find using the Big Dipper, and known to all as my workplace's celestial cafeteria, Cassiopeia has become as commonplace in our culture as Cab Calloway or Khloe Kardashian. The day is July 10th when the stars of this stupidly-shaped constellation align in what this cheesesteak connoisseur has since dubbed, “my birthday.” I turn 22 this day, and the coincidences are hard to ignore. It may be a simple convenience that 22 is the exact number obtained when you subtract the year of my birth from the current year. It may be a simple convenience that Philadelphia was ranked the 22nd most dangerous city in the US in terms of crime, or that 22 is the percentage of Philadelphian females householders with no husband present. It may be a simple convenience that 22 is the sum of 5 (number of stars in Cassiopeia), 6 (for 6th President and Philly-lover, John Quincy Adams), and 11 (sum of the digits in 9/11). Overlooking all this, one would be elated when, come lunchtime, the Epic cafeteria is serving the 22nd most-requested Subway sandwich, The Philadelphia Cheesesteak. Unlike other sandwiches, which must glom the demonym of entire countries to achieve brand recognition (see: French Dip (1)), the Philly Cheesesteak is championed in cafeterias across the nation.

Bread [5/10]:

In this cruel world, it is not easy to find high-quality, mass-produced hoagie buns. This is one of the facts of life that torments the thoughtful Philly-ologist inside all of us, and the tender Philly-ologist inside of me is no exception. The buns surrounding the hearty meat on my cookie-cutter cafeteria tray were just another barbed whip to the back of my inner Philly-phile. Plain and airy, this sandwich's money-maker was hardly shaking. The only thing these buns did right was stay out of the way and that's enough for a failing grade of 5 out of 10.

Steak [9/10]:

Beyond the bun, my taste-buds are disoriented in a whole new world of unexpected flavor. As the always-effervescent Ayn Rand would say, “Bad steak is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims.” The second part of that quote seems to have gotten away from her a bit, but the crux of it is this: a steak mistake can make or break a lunch break. On the day when this phrase faced its greatest barricade, my cake day, the steak came through in spades (2). One point must be taken off for the meat eventually cooling to room temperature as I ate, an issue which needs addressing. The basic laws of thermodynamics are against us fellow Philly-philes, do not bend to their will!

Cheese [3/10]:

Here at the Philly Cheesesteak Review International Headquarters, or PhChRIHq, our expansive team of consults rewards risk-taking. Sure, the luddite Cheesesteak reactionaries will criticize us endlessly for pushing the boundaries of sandwich-making, but we don't exist to please those Liberty Bell-riding, brother-loving chalk-biters. We have a vision where all cheesesteaks can unite in a glorious hoagie parade that spans the globe. Oh, what's that? Your bread is a little soggy? Join the parade brother! Oh, your beef is organically raised? March on comrade! But as with every parade, a line must be drawn, and here at PhChRIHq we mark that line in processed dairy. This starry-eyed sandwich wants to join the parade, but it is clearly made with (brace yourselves) shredded cheese. How do I know this? The cheese wasn't even melted! The criminal record on this cheddar is longer than a cheesesteak parade (which can be literally yards long). The mildly parmesan-esque shreds did little in comparison to the bold seasoning of the meat and called to mind images of the stale bags of shredded cheese in my refrigerator at home.

Sandwich [8/10]:

At this point you must be wondering, how can this smorgasbord of lack-luster ingredients coalesce into a sandwich deserving of 8 points? Patience, my friends, you have much to learn. What carried this sandwich 7/8ths of the way was that deliciously tender meat. The bread served as a blank canvas, allowing the meat to go all Jackson Pollock on its bitch-ass with flavor. So, where does the extra point come in, completing this unholy octet? You careful observers may already know. That's right, it's those perfectly sauteed vegetables, filling out the food pyramid perfectly. Onions and green peppers and red peppers, oh my! What perfect accomplices for this delectable escapade. Two points were lost for the lack of cheese in this choice combo.

Miscellaneous [10/10]:

  • Presentation [2/2]: 

I can't fault consistency, and there is unwavering consistency with the paperboard food-boat in which Epic serves all of their sandwiches. It's nothing fancy, just a beautiful sandwich against a red and white checkered pattern, classic. If that doesn't scream Philly to you, I'd bet you've never even visited the place.

  • Value [2/2]: 
At $4.75, this sandwich clocks in as the cheapest Philly Cheesesteak I've eaten to date. Then, I saw that the Smoked Salmon Plate with Caper Mayonnaise, Grilled Lemon and Rye Crisps was only $4.00, and I was a bit taken aback. That was, until I realized that Epic's values are in the right place. They know, as do I, that even a finely smoked seafood delicacy with accoutrements can't hold a candle to Philadelphia's finest. Recommendation: double the price next time, to really show the salmon who's boss.

  • Atmosphere [2/2]: 
When it comes to cafeterias, you can't beat Cassiopeia's stellar style (lol). The entire Epic campus is outstanding and yes ladies, the nerds are nerdly. Swish! It's a two-pointer!

  • Sides [2/2]: 
To be honest, this sandwich would have gone great with a side of fries. Now, I know they have fries, but that's only if I am willing to shell out the extra bucks and I am NOT willing. That being said, I did get a card and a box of fancy chocolates, which is more than Arbys gave for all my birthdays combined (take your beef n cheddar and shove it), so I'll have to give them at least one point. Oh right, and they offer free milk all day. All right fine, you got me, 2 points.

  • The Extra Mile [2/2]: 
They gave me a job there.

The Grand Total: 35/50 – An Average Cheesesteak
Calling this an average cheesesteak was a tough pill to swallow, but I did it and the effects are kicking in. On one hand, 35 is the highest score ever given, out of all the sandwiches I've reviewed (the other ones were 33 and 34). That is quite an achievement and I expect to read all about the proud team of chefs responsible for this tasty sandwich, in next month's newsletter. On the other hand, it was my birthday, and I had high hopes for, “An admirable cheesesteak,” or even, “A titillating cheesesteak.” This letdown is my burden to bear until the next cheesesteak comes my way. And no, it won't be Subway, stop with the emails people.

“Now all I gotta say to you wannabe, gonnabe, pussy-eatin' cock-suckin' pranksters, when the shit jumps off what the fuck you gonna do. Damn it feels good to eat a sandwich.”
- Geto Boys

Monday, November 23, 2009

Big Red's Steaks 610 University Ave. Madison, WI 53715

While every Badgers football game is a victory in the metaphoric sense, a few times every season our victorious efforts are realized in what sports fans call, "a double-u" (1). So after wooping it up at the last Badger's home football game, I could not think of a better way to celebrate a triumphant UW victory than by gorging myself on a philly cheesesteak at Big Red's Steaks. I have made a fair number of good calls in my life, but this one is up there with saying no to crack and resisting the temptation to say "what" again to Samuel L. Jackson (2).

Bread [5/10]:

Like an eager child on a snowy Christmas morning, I peeled back the wrapping on my sandwich - and just like on Christmas, I was immediately disappointed. No Bionic Bunny walkie-talkies this year. In fact, socks. The bread was soggy on one end, a cardinal sin in any sandwich maven's book. I soon discovered after a few bites why this was; the bread held absolutely no crunch. With every bite, I felt the airy loaf deflate between my intrepid incisors. While it tasted good, I felt like I was eating the arm of an appetizing couch, not a philly cheesesteak. Not to mention that one bite of this hoagie's end contained only bread and air, the second occurrence of this unforgivable mis-steak (lol)!

Steak [6/10]:

In contrast to the bread, the steak was not easily bitten asunder. While resilience is an admirable quality, every tough guy must have a soft side (3) and this is what Big Red's failed to deliver. Eating a philly cheesesteak should be a breezy little vacation getaway for your mouth, not a workout. All sinews aside, this steak was pretty average in taste. There was no bold meat savor, which was disappointing considering the abundance of steak juice (culprit of the soggy bread caper). Standalone, the meat could have used a little tenderness and a double dose of flavor, but did not lack in sheer volume, where Charley's fell short. This hoagie was nearly packed full, the way the good lord intended.

Cheese [9/10]:

Props to Big Red's here for offering a choice between Cheese Whiz and standard American cheese. Often called the cheese for people who don't like cheese, the great melting pot, somewhere between Colby and Cheddar, American cheese has rightly rectified itself as a mainstay in the cheese world. If there is one thing I found that Big Red's knows how to do, it is American cheese. The classic white (not that tainted yellow garbage) was melted perfectly over the sandwich's innards, wittingly avoiding an oily texture. The cheese had an instant and lingering flavor that was tucked inside the bun for a punch of much-needed brio with each bite. Hip-hip-huzzah to a well-deserved 9 in this category!

Sandwich [7/10]:

To give due credit, this sandwich was much more evenly and heartily portioned than previously-reviewed cheesesteak(s). I entered the establishment hoggishly hungry and I left contently plump. The meat was admittedly tough, but this served to play off of the bread's fluff. However, every bite left a lonely cheese aftertaste, absent was the crucial meaty zest. Fortune smiled on Big Red's Steaks, because the cheese was delicious, otherwise this could have been an even more costly category.

Miscellaneous [6/10]:

  • Presentation [1/2]:

For god's sake man, this is a Philadelphia Cheesesteak, not a damned Subway Club! Do not hide the sandwich away in paper wrappings, celebrate it's beauty in the open air. Inside its paper tomb, the sandwich actually closely resembled the fictitious representation you might see on a picture-board menu, besides the visibly moist bread.

  • Value [2/2]:

At $6.50, this sandwich was impressively large and filling. Additionally, onions, mushrooms, and/or peppers could be included on the sandwich for what I assumed was no extra cost. Not a bad price for a decent meal.

  • Atmosphere [2/2]:
As Jenny of The Milkshakes and Pancakes Review (4) put it, "The lamps are pretty cool." Indeed they were, as were the various framed tokens and posters from the City of Brotherly Love. Needless to say, it felt good to be back in faux-Philadelphia again; well done Big Red's.

  • Sides [1/2]:

The menu at this establishment offered à la carte sides, most of which were various fry options which cost about $3 each. I did seize the opportunity to witness a neighboring consumer eat his cheese-drenched fries and I can't say that I was tempted in the least to indulge myself. However, the fries were an appropriate side option for such a place and were in good supply.

  • The Extra Mile [0/2]:

Always on the lookout for those nuances that make an eating experience unique, I left Big Red's empty-handed and heavy-hearted. Most notably, was the weak drink selection (I settled for cola) and when I asked for a drink, the cashier without asking charged me for and served me a large cup. Is this type of deliberate malfeasance standard practice? My bowed-in-shame head hopes that it is not. There was an interesting wall with painted graffiti, which almost earned the restaurant a one in this category, but as it is, congratulations on the Philly Cheesesteak Review's first zero!

The Grand Total: 33/50 – An Average Cheesesteak

My cheesesteak at Big Red's Steaks made up points where others have failed by serving a fully-portioned, respectable-tasting sandwich. However, the flaws of the individual ingredients and the restaurant itself chipped away at the score, landing the sandwich right in the middle of the abundance of mediocrity in the cheesesteak business. If you're looking for a quick bite to eat on the road, Big Red's is not bad, but it is certainly not, "the new home of Wisconsin's Best Cheesesteak," as it claims to be.

"Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of a sandwich. Love, love, love, that is the soul of the Philly Cheesesteak."

- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Monday, November 9, 2009

Charley's Grilled Subs 644 State St. Madison, WI 53703

If neon signs could read my mind, the alluring sign in front of Madison's “little slice of Philadelphia” would be Sylvia Browne herself (1). Yes, Charley's Grilled Subs knew exactly what I needed after a beautiful 60-degree day spent lakeside, and so I headed inside. My second time gracing this establishment, I was physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared to evaluate my sandwich on a 50-point deliberately-articulated scale. The game was on and, as Elton John melodically maintained, “Saturday night is all right for biting.”

Bread [6/10]:

The starch in this hoagie was easy to evaluate as the first bites on either side of the sandwich were pure bread. An audibly dry crunch resounded and my hand shot for my drink as the first mistake in this sandwich was realized: The bread to meat ratio was overwhelming. The reason a hoagie doesn't have crust is so that the consumer doesn't have to eat around the bullshit. Unfortunately, this is exactly what I had to do to get to the meat of the sandwich. Besides the ends, the bread provided a chaste balance between crunch and give. If the bun had been filled out and warm, this category could have been a big win for Charley's, but as it was, I was left unsatisfied.

Steak [8/10]:

Soldiering on through my first bites of bread, I reached the meat of the sandwich and was gallantly rewarded. The meat was thinly sliced and had a rich juice that was saturated with delicious zest. The meat would yield to my dental advances, but with every bite came a hearty countersurge of flavor. If there had been a filling portion of this meat, perhaps a nine would be in order, but this was not the case and so, blue balls (2) in hand, let us move on to cheese.

Cheese [5/10]:

Madison-area restaurants should note that my personal favorite cheese on a good Philly Cheesesteak is provolone, but of course I'm open-minded about variations. Luckily I could close my mind firmly with Charley's spot-on selection of this Italian delicacy. The restaurant was set up so that you could actually watch your sandwich being prepared on the flat-top grill. Besides being awesome, this allowed me to observe the cheese melting before my very eyes. The provolone cheese was melted just about perfectly and was in bountiful supply compared to the meat portion. I was left disappointed by the lack of zip in the cheese. As you may be able to see, there were onions on this sandwich and the onions did most of the legwork in adding spirit to this sandwich, or as I put in my notes, “Onions to the rescue!” The cheese shouldn't need this helper friend in the flavor department and so points were deducted for this flaw.

Sandwich [6/10]:

Besides the decent balance between the onions and steak, there was little that was harmonious about this sandwich. Eating around the clown-shoe bread to get to the meat was an annoying task and once I got there, the cheese was all but lost in the medley. The steak was the Michael to the cheese and bread's Tito and Jermaine (3). Another consideration was that, despite seeing the sandwich cooked, the sandwich was hardly warm. Unless your name is Nelly, your grill should not be cold, Charley's (4). Overall, the sandwich was good, but a Cheesesteak is so much more than just steak and onions and so crucial points were lost in this category.

Miscellaneous [9/10]:

  • Presentation [1/2]:

Getting to see the sandwich prepared was a major boost to this subcategory, but I simply could not award a full two points to a sandwich that did not even vaguely resemble the sandwich pictured on the light-up menuboard. To call the menu illustration generous is an egregious understatement.

  • Value [2/2]:

It doesn't get much better than this, the regular sandwich was priced at $4.99 and green peppers and mushrooms could have been added FOR NO ADDITIONAL COST. While the portion could've been bigger, a large Cheesesteak was only $7.49. Not a bad value at all.

  • Atmosphere [2/2]:

The first thought walking into Charley's was that I'd apparated to a restaurant in the heart of Philadelphia, that was until I saw the six-foot Bucky Badger painted on the wall. I do appreciate a restaurant that knows exactly where its focus should be, and with the random black-and-white photos and memorabilia, I was whisked away to a simpler, glorified time nearly 1000 miles away. Yes, sweet home Philadelphia.

  • Sides [2/2]:

This category was not easy, because my sandwich was a good value as it was and so did not come with any sides. However, I can take into account the bonus onions, which proved crucial, as well as the optional peppers and mushrooms. Fries were also available as part of a combo meal and, having gotten them before, are delicious. So for these efforts, besides providing a value that did not even call for a side dish, I awarded Charley's a full 2 points.

  • The Extra Mile [2/2]:

You might think that this is where I would take points off for Charlie not spelling his name right when he started this franchise, but I am above this. Free refills and decent service overcame my instinctive urge to deduct points. Not to mention, and this impressed me most of all, while preparing a sandwich on the grill, some of a meat portion fell onto a perfectly clean table. Did the grillmaster return the meat to the grill and finish making the sandwich? No, he threw away the meat and started again, undaunted, with a fresh meat portion. A definite boost for cleanliness at Charley's, and a boost in points for going The Extra Mile.

The Grand Total: 34/50 – An Average Cheesesteak

Charley's main source of points was the miscellaneous category, but look beyond this gimmickry and their paramount Philly Cheesesteak fell short in multiple ways. It is said that quality comes before quantity, but here, the poor budgeting of the ingredients left my expectations far above what I was presented. With more meat and a tastier cheese, oh, what could have been. If you are walking around State Street or one of Charley's 370 other locations, do not be drawn in by the standard-issue Philadelphia memorabilia and neon sign, this sandwich is nothing beyond ordinary.

"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em. I am of course not speaking of the Philly Cheesesteak at Charley's."

- William Shakespeare

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Brief and Annoying Aside

It has come to my attention that a copycat blog called The French Di Preview has been trying to shamelessly promote itself in the comments of my weblog. I want everyone to know that I have no beef (lol!) with Mark Irish, and to ease any unnecessary tensions, will link to his blog now for any sandwich enthusiasts looking for an inferior product:

Now that this is behind us, our focus shall be on the Philly Cheesesteak - the true breakfast of champions!

"What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the Philly Cheesesteak in my stomach."
- Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Rating System

Just as standardized tests have spurred American education to unforeseen heights, this blog hopes to catapult the Philly Cheesesteak to transcend classification as a food and become a historical, cultural, and sexual landmark, the likes of which have rarely been achieved (1). This system consists of five main criteria: One for each of the Cheesesteak trifecta (bread, meat, and cheese), one for the overall blend, and a criterion for miscellaneous extras. The steaks are high (lol), but would you expect any less? Let's dive right into it!

Bread [10 points]:
In a true Philly Cheesesteak, the only acceptable bread is an authentic Amoroso sandwich roll. However, because I do not live in Philadelphia, this is unheard of and will simply result in an automatic one-point deduction from every sandwich I eat, meaning no sandwich reviewed on this site will achieve the full 15 points possible (2), sorry Ciabatta, even you are not exempt. What I expect from the bread is a radiating warmth and a delicate balance that is neither too crunchy nor too mushy. I expect both structure and pubescence.

Steak [10 points]:
The heart and soul of any great sandwich is the meat and this sandwich demands no less than the best... steak! It's in the name and it's in the mind of any great Cheesesteak connoisseur (3). The meat should be sliced thinly for easy penetration, but hearty enough to get a good mouthful. Browning is key, too light or too dark and you're already losing points. I expect both substance and vim.

Cheese [10 points]:
Cheese is the third necessity for a good Cheesesteak and this ingredient leaves the most space for creativity. While the cheese needs to be melty and taste like cheese, any variation from American to Mozarella to Provolone to Cheese Whiz is acceptable. The flavor and texture of the cheese is what is important here. I expect both smack and luxury.

Sandwich [10 points]:
Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of simple interactions - and the Philly Cheesesteak is so much more than just the sum of its parts. In this category, I judge the sandwich as a whole, how the ingredients play off of and compliment each other. All ingredients must make themselves known, but they cannot overpower the sandwich (4). I expect both gusto and harmony.

Miscellaneous [10 points]:
This category includes 5 subcategories, worth 2 points each.

  • Presentation [2 points]:
A Philly Cheesesteak should be both mouth-watering and eye-watering. Any good chef is an artist and I expect to feel that just by looking at my dish.

  • Value [2 points]:
Intrinsic value aside, the Cheesesteak is a meal and should provide you the desired sustenance without breaking the bank. I'm not expecting a free sandwich (contact info in the sidebar) or anything, but I would like to get my money's worth.

  • Atmosphere [2 points]:
Cleanliness, comfort, and courtesy - The three essential C's for any restaurant desiring a welcoming environment. Take note restauranteurs! This category, while worth only 2 points, can influence the mood of the entire experience, causing points gained or lost across the board.

  • Sides [2 points]:
“Man cannot live by Cheesesteak alone.” This infamous Bible passage is undeniably false, but it does open the gates for a category involving any extra or bonus food that comes with the sandwich. Be it fries, fruit, cloe slaw, or corn, this category is for those side-dishes that should compliment the meal, but not draw attention away from the main attraction, the Philly Cheesesteak.

  • The Extra Mile [2 points]:
This is a category for bonuses that must be earned. Whether it's the abundant beverage selection or the complimentary wetnaps, going the extra mile is something any restaurant serving a delicious sandwich should strive for. Do not settle for mediocrity Cheesesteak devotees!

This system has a potential for 50 points, 10 from each main criterion. Each Cheesesteak will be given a grade based on its score. The grades are as follows:

48-50 pts: A glorious Cheesesteak.
Philadelphians do not settle for anything but the very best (see: Phillies) and this sandwich does not disappoint. A breath-taking achievement, this sandwich is truly worthy of the name Philly Cheesesteak.

44-47 pts: A titillating Cheesesteak.
This sandwich is nearing perfection and is delicious on all accounts. If you go to this restaurant, don't settle for a French Dip, demand the Philly Cheesesteak, you will not be disappointed.

38-43 pts: An admirable Cheesesteak.
This sandwich should not be dismissed, it is not the perfect Cheesesteak, but it is still better than anything else on the menu. Don't pass up this opportunity to enjoy a delicious dinner.

30-37 pts: An average Cheesesteak.
It is familiar, ordinary, tolerable. Not worth planning an outing to go and eat this sandwich, stay home and make your own Philly classic instead and save your money.

20-29 pts: A crappy Cheesesteak.
Not the worst thing you'll taste, but certainly not worthy of the Philly Cheesesteak title, this sandwich will inescapably leave you disappointed. There are bigger and better Cheesesteaks out there, do not settle for this tomfoolery!

19pts or below: A sinful Cheesesteak.
This sandwich is so disgusting you'll expect them to bring out an accompanying cup of Au Jus. Avoid this sandwich, for it will only taint the privileged Philly Cheesesteak name. You can't do worse than this abhorrent creation, shame on any restauranteur serving this abomination!

The standards are high, but now that the guidelines have been set, let's get eating!
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death, but Cheesesteaks instead.” - William Shakespeare

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Overview: The Philly Cheesesteak Review

It is often said that if God truly loved Adam, rather than creating an apple-mad woman like Eve, he would've have grilled that tender rib and created the Philadephia Cheesesteak. Instead, it took humanity ~6,000 years (1) to refine their culinary palettes in preparation for Philadelphian prophets Pat and Harry Olivieri (Hey that rhymes!). Their early 1930s creation involved chopped up steak served on a hoagie bread roll. The Olivieri's holy hot dog stand did not reach its true potential, however, until the stand's manager/divinator Joe "Cocky Joe" Lorenza added the third and all-important ingredient in the Cheesesteak... cheese. In the sandwich world, this rare culinary feat of savory perfection is called The Shot Heard Round the World, because all three of these young geniuses were subsequently shot to death by their impassioned and jealous brother, Cain (2).

In loving tribute to this remnant of Eden, I have created what will inevitably be heralded as "original" and "not at all like those stupid blogs about inferior sandwiches" (3), a blog devoted to reviewing and critiquing Philly Cheesesteaks across America, with a focus on the midwest and more specifically Rochester, MN and Madison, WI. So come along with me as I pioneer the blogosphere in a quest to taste as many Philly Cheesesteaks as possible in an attempt to find the best French--I mean-- Philly Cheesesteak I can, and to honor the sandwich we all love: The Philly Cheesesteak.

Post script:
Some of you may complain that citing wikipedia incessantly tarnishes the credibility of this otherwise flawless weblog. In response, I can only quote Philly Cheesesteak enthusiast Oscar Wilde, "Your brain is a garage where I park my bullshit, for free."