Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve had a deep craving for steak and cheese subs. It probably predates the first days when I could borrow the car and go out to buy my own meals. As a finicky child, I put my foot down about vegetables, saying “meat and cheese only” is how I want my meals (patty melts, ham and cheese, Hamburger Helper, etc). Not the healthiest, most inclusive, or mature approach to eating, but I got away with it for a while.
This is why, when I heard about Str8 Out of Philly opening in Church Hill, I could practically taste their subs while picturing them in my mind’s eye. Every customer comment I saw online confirmed that the Str8 product was the straight dope. A place that would set Richmond’s cheesesteak record straight (Str8?) and make Church Hill the proud owners of a destination restaurant, one that the upper and lower economic groups might even come together around.
Kinda like pizza, the steak and cheese sub you grew up on leaves an imprint that you use to measure every version you’re exposed to in the future. For me, that was Casa de Mama’s on Little River Turnpike in Annandale (Fairfax County). The bread was crunchy on the outside. The meat was tender and juicy. And the cheese stretched from your mouth to your hand with every bite. Sometimes, there was gristle. But, I just accepted that as part of the territory of eating cheap meat. Eventually, when I’d gone vegetarian, I discovered Casa de Mama’s classic Lebanese take on hummus, drowning in olive oil, dusted with paprika, and garnished with a few pickled pink idunnowhats (again, my hummus measuring stick).
Friend or Faux?
During my nearly two decades of vegetarianism there have been lapses. On most of those occasions, a steak and cheese sub was involved. In my 5 Questions with a Foodie interview on Richmond.com, I admitted that a vegetarian steak and cheese sub that actually tasted terrific would be my ideal dinner during a perfect day of eating. That’s the kind of foodie I am. Not especially gourmet to the core, and just as susceptible to temptation as the next person.
Case in point. I was in Philadelphia in 2000 protesting the Republican National Convention and I was as vegan as fuck. I mean, most of my friends were vegan. Vegan cooking had totally captured my imagination. But, there were still cravings, and those drove me and my pals to Gianna’s Grille, a place in Philly that serves regular cheesesteaks as well as vegetarian and vegan versions. And ya know what? I was underwhelmed. Duh! What’d you expect? TVP and soy cheese in an Amaroso roll? The texture was startlingly good. The cheese sauce was sparse, but kinda stringy. But, the meaty depth of flavor wasn’t there.
The Gateway Sandwich
It was a day or two later, taking part in a particularly tedious protest march through Center City, that my conversations with locals peaked my interest in a bonafide Philly cheesesteak. It sounded so simple. A tightly rolled sandwich with a couple simple ingredients. I had to know why it was worshipped by so many and how it was superior to the steak and cheese I grew up on. I could just break from the march, grab a sandwich, and run back and join the group (kinda like my vegetarianism). A fellow protester pushed me over the edge. “Go try one. You only live once.”
I don’t remember the name of the place, but a local vouched for it. The service was appropriately curt. No syllables wasted. You just say the word “steak,” and minutes later, they hand you this solid cylinder of foil that was kinda light in weight, actually. Inside, the browned meat was finely minced, though not especially generous, it was held together by a proportionately small amount of gooey cheese. The bread was significant, probably for this reason: by default. Kinda cornmeally and not crunchy on the outside, it was hearty to chew. Working through it made me wish there was more meat, but it was rather neat to eat, not messy. It reminded me of a basic New York slice: Thin sauce and cheese, and it’s really more about the crust. And believe it or not, except for the presence of beef flavor, the vegetarian version wasn’t that far off. Kinda plain-tasting food, made cheaply, and conveniently wrapped for mass consumption. Although I felt a little deflated and underwhelmed, my cravings for authenticity were cured for a long time to come.
Back in Richmond, a couple cheats occurred over the years at greasy places like Mr. Submarine, and then there’s bites sneaked from my wife’s sandwiches. I made some of my own versions with fake meat and tried some vegetarian steak and cheese subs from a few places like 821. But, for the most part, my childhood love has mostly gone unrequited.
Str8 Outta Philly in Church Hill
This is why I knew I needed to pay Str8 Out of Philly a visit. They have a grilled veggie sub on the menu, and I could probably get Karen to order a cheesesteak and let me taste it. That’s basically what went down this weekend. With kids in tow, we ordered those two half-sandwiches (whole, by any rational person’s standards) and cheese fries for the kids. We took them and a lemonade the size of a Super Big Gulp to the closest park bench. Karen tore a hunk off the end of her cheesesteak and gave it to me.
The portion of meat was overflowing, not stingy like I experienced in Philly. And there was the familiar Amaroso roll, whose appeal I can understand, but don’t fully agree with. The sticky Cheez Whiz was smeared on one side of the bread. The steak sandwich, while hearty, was lacking moisture aside from the meat’s grease. I’d say the sandwich was very Philadelphia, but with the addition of Southern greasiness and generosity. Unfortunately, the lemonade didn’t cleanse the palate at all. Toxic is more like it. The florescent yellow stuff tasted like drinking straight concentrate, industrial strength, painfully sweet and artificial.
Too many peppers. Not enough anything else.
My sandwich was a problem. I’d asked for everything on it except mustard, but all I found inside were intensely sour pickled peppers and a handful of lifeless canned mushrooms. There were a few bits of sauteed onions, slices of cheese and mayo. Maybe the contents had been sauteed, because it was mighty greasy, but this wasn’t the “grilled vegetable” sandwich listed in the menu. The pile of peppers came across like a practical joke. I may be a broken record about the need for satisfying veggie-centric cuisine, but this unfortunate sandwich would probably be deja vu for any vegetarian. It’s just so common to find veggie food that’s hardly more than an afterthought (or just a straight, getthefugouttahere). But, what should I expect at a cheesesteak place? (actually, these sandwich experts should probably be raising expectations with every sandwich on the menu, or just don’t offer it. that’s one view)
Regrets, I’ve had a few
By the end of the meal, Karen and I were in pain. Could we have eaten less healthily? The cheese fries were the frozen crinkle cut variety, swimming in Cheez Whiz. We agreed they were the best thing we’d had there. I instantly thought of the huge fuss that was made about Buffington and Wine’s Pies, Fries and Franks offering such unhealthy fare. Meanwhile, with the next breath, the same Church Hill Peoples News commenters heaped praise on the neighboring Str8 Outta Philly. I think the difference is the attraction that is an authentic sub or hoagie, as opposed to cheap shortcuts for opportunity’s sake. Anyhow, we had to cancel our physical activity plans for the rest of the day, insides needing to recuperate.
I’m sure there’s plenty to celebrate here. If you like authentic cheesesteaks, they’ve got that. Just like a grilled cheese on white bread with Kraft singles melted in between will always satisfy unlike any fancied up version, I’m sure the Philly style sub is gonna hit the spot for many. And Str8 Out of Philly appears to make modifications to suit your regional preferences. Personally, I’m just reminded that my favorite sub style is mostly in my imagination or on the Food Network, and my well-being is probably best preserved during long breaks from both good and bad steak and cheese subs.
UPDATE: the meat at Str8 Out of Philly is Halal, by the way. And no pork on the menu.
UPDATE: There’s some discussion of the food/service over at CHPN and I get into it a bit.