Cheesesteak Quest: Penn Station

Jul 24, 2007 at 3:46 pm

Not pictured actual size.
Not pictured actual size.

Not pictured actual size.

Cheesesteak Quest rolled into Penn Station East Coast Subs today. (The only train-related pun in this dispatch, I promise.) I've always been a little wary of this place. What is an "East Coast sub," anyway? If you drive north from Baltimore on I-95, what you call a sub seems to change every 100 miles or so: hoagies, heros, grinders, Italians. And then I learned that Penn Station was founded in Cincinnati. (It's the official cheesesteak of the Cincinnati Reds!)

Still, as soon as Cheesesteak Quest began, I knew I'd have to visit the place. And the same reader who tipped me off to the cheesesteak at Natural Fact Deli vouched for it. So while I walked into the location at 3824 Hampton Avenue expecting to find some kind of generic Philly-New Jersey-New York attitude without the goods to back it up, I didn't entirely give up hope.

The first good sign was on the menu: Penn Station makes its cheesteak with Provolone. Another good sign: I could watch the cook grilling and chopping my steak on the flattop. I've probably mentioned this in one of my reviews already, but I love that sound of meat sizzling on a flattop grill.

The final product didn't look much like the picture above, which I took from the Penn Station Web site. (I wouldn't trust any cheesesteak that could hold its form in that position, anyway.) Mine was served properly, with the roll split down the middle lengthwise, but not all the way through, and then filled with steak, cheese and grilled onions.

Everything was almost exactly right. The roll was on the thin side, but it was freshly baked and very tasty. The onions had been sliced thin and long, so while they were and properly grilled they were also stringy. I wished there had been a tad fewer onions or a bit more meat, though; a mouthful of too much onion felt stringy. The meat was very thin, the flavor good, though not exceptionally so.

As I mentioned, the cheese was Provolone, and it had melted to a fine goo atop the steak and onion. Here's my concern: I prefer the cook to give the steak a final toss or two on the grill after the cheese has melted, so that everything blends together. In this case, the cheese was left to melt atop the steak. Is my preference legitimate? Apostasy? Neither? I didn't really factor this last part into my score. Just wondering what other cheesesteak aficianados think.

On the 0-to-5 scale, with 0 being a tuna-salad sandwich and 5 being the Platonic ideal of a cheesesteak, I rate this one a strong

The quest continues, now with a definite frontrunner. EDIT: Revised onion description for purposes of clarification.

-Ian Froeb