Standing in the heat of the counter area at The Original Philly’s, the little sandwich shop on MLK Way, I could smell the waves of scorched onion, char, burned meat, and sour fryer oil rolling out of the overworked galley like the tide. Things were backed up. Half the menu, it seemed, was sold out. My order was behind a half-dozen others–both to-gos and eat-ins for people who had to brush the trash off tables with their arms before they could sit down–and the whole kitchen, wide open to the public eye, was a wreck.
When eventually my name was called and my bag of sandwiches pushed across the counter, I had to sit myself down and have a serious conversation with myself. Look, I said, there are people who say this is the best, most authentic Philly cheesesteak in this city. And 3,000 miles gone from the City of Brotherly Love, how picky can you be?
I unwrapped my sandwich—still hot, which was a good sign, but bleeding grease through the white paper wrap it’d been mummified in. I peeled it like a banana, folded down the edges of the paper, took a bite, then spit out my mouthful of sandwich onto the broken gravel of the parking lot and cursed loudly. I hawked and spit again. I wrapped the remains of that terrible excuse for a cheesesteak—that sin against nature, that half-charred, desiccated, onion-stinking, cheese-gummed, already-wilting-from-the-nasty-grease lump of paper-wrapped shit—and three-pointed it into the nearest trash can. It was, without a doubt, one of the worst sandwich experiences I’d ever had.
I got in my car and drove across town to Tat’s Deli, another sandwich joint where two guys—Philly native Brian Tatman and New Jerseyite Jason Simodejka—pushed serious East Coast originals on both locals with a taste for the good stuff and expats craving a hit of home. There I ordered almost exactly the same thing I’d gotten at the first place: a simple cheesesteak and something to drink.
When, once more, a paper bag was passed across the counter and, once more, I took a first bite, it was like night and day. That two sandwiches—both hailing from the same area code, both no more than meat, cheese, bread, and onion—could be so wildly dissimilar spoke clearly to the power and the dedication of the sandwich-maker’s art. As much as I’d hated my first sandwich, I loved the one from Tat’s all the more.
Two weeks later, Tat’s closed. Or rather, it closed only so it could move around the corner from the tiny, 15-seat Pioneer Square space it had occupied for five years at 115 Occidental Ave. to new digs at 157 Yesler Way, right across the street from a perfectly situated parking garage.
Tatman and new partner Mike Sichel (a local guy who’s been with the operation from the start and stepped into an ownership position after Simodejka headed back east) picked up the new address because in Tat’s old home, they would often have lines out the door and a wicked crush of people all waiting for tables or trying to shove giant pastrami sandwiches into their faces while standing up. The new location has seating for 50 and a big kitchen, and it allowed Tatman and Sichel to get a beer and wine license.
My wife Laura recently went to Philly to visit her folks. She called with tales of the ancestral cheesesteak homeland and made me jealous. Hungry, too. When she came home, I imagined that I could smell on her some lingering scent of thin-sliced beef and cheese and dry, dusty cornmeal.
We went to the new Tat’s and stood in line, surrounded by old bricks and a clamoring crowd. The new space, by comparison, is huge: a giant stone and wood-plank box with sandwiches inside. It smelled right, and the spare touches of Philadelphiana on the walls (a poster of a street scene here, an Eagles pennant there) were just enough to remind people of its genealogy without hitting anyone over the head with it.
Service was fast and the cheesesteaks were big. Tatman used to get his rolls direct from Philly (because there is simply nothing on earth quite like an actual Amoroso’s roll, straight out of the 55th Street bakery), but stopped recently when he was able to convince a local supplier to make rolls to his specifications. He used to get some of his meats from Philly, too (especially the pastrami, which came from Dietz & Watson), but also gave that up when he figured out he could do better himself—smoking his own brisket, slicing it just right.
Nobody asked if I wanted my cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz, so Tat’s got bonus points right there. Seriously, someone needs to put a stop to the Cheez Whiz thing. A cheesesteak is made with white American cheese, period. Cheez Whiz is for dimwits, for Pat’s and Geno’s fans who’ve been fooled by the hype. Tat’s offers it, but they don’t push it. They offer lots of things on their cheesesteaks (mushrooms and peppers, both hot and sweet) that no right-thinking person would order. But Tatman and Sichel have to make a living, and some people eat strange things.
The cheesesteaks are good, bordering on great. The texture is right: A bite of cheese-steak should be heavy, hot, and damp. The bread should have a little crust to it, but be soft and spongy within. The meat ought to be partly burnt, partly soft, and roughly chopped by some angry, overworked grillman going after it with a long spatula wielded like a hatchet. Tat’s cheesesteak has all that; my only complaint is the presence of too much pepper.
Sunday autumn afternoons were made for three things: leaves in the yard, football on the TV, and sandwiches in your hands. Church is for those who don’t understand how important it is to get to the best sandwich shops early enough to jump the lines and not miss kickoff.
Tat’s spread of sandwiches is large. The kitchen does hoagies like the classic Italian (capicola, ham, and Genoa salami, all sliced thin and laid on with sweet and hot peppers, better with added sandwich oil than with the traditional mayo) and a sliced roast beef made in-house—served with cheddar when ordered cold, and with provolone, horseradish, and hot peppers when served hot.
Hot is better—it matches the temper of the beef and tastes incredibly fresh. Also, hot is the only way to get the “Hot Beef Injection,” which is the same sandwich stuffed with French fries—which sounds weird, but is actually a rather awesome way to devour a sandwich.
Not every sandwich works. The chicken parm is overloaded with deep-fried chicken pieces, jacketed in cheese, and served drowning in a good, chunky red gravy, but the chicken itself is a little tough and overcooked. The Tat’s grinder (like a hot version of the Italian hoagie) is a mess of competing flavors—the meat chopped and lost within the clash of grilled onions, hot and sweet peppers, lettuce, a mangled slab of tomato, and mayo. It’s an ugly, muddled sandwich.
There are Tastykakes on the board because, by law, no Philly sandwich shop can open without stocking a case or two of Krimpets and Kandy Kakes. But those you can order online if you ever get totally desperate. The Tat’strami, though, is available only from Tat’s, and is worth a trip all on its own: homemade pastrami, pinky-purple and smoked and spiced just the right amount, shaved and mounted on a hoagie roll like a cheesesteak, but then pinned in place by melted Swiss, crammed down with a generous helping of coleslaw, and dampened with a dose of Russian dressing.
And look, I don’t like pastrami all that much. And I really don’t like coleslaw. But the girl behind the counter at Tat’s talked me into this sandwich when, for a moment, it looked as if I wasn’t going to be able to make up my mind—and to her I will be forever grateful, because this is an amazing sandwich. It is huge and it is messy. The flavors blend so well that the pastrami just kind of melts into the coleslaw and the coleslaw just kind of melts into the bread. I ate the whole thing without hardly breathing, and the minute I was done, I immediately wanted another. You know, for later.
Like 10 minutes later.