Where there is a food indigenous to a place—Chicago hot dogs, New York pizza, New Orleans po’boys, Baltimore crab cakes—impassioned debate is bound to follow over the best producer of that food. Nashville is no stranger to the practice, particularly when it comes to BBQ, fish sandwiches, hot chicken and the rather broad category of meat-and-threes.
But nowhere in Nashville do two contenders for the belt square off—smoker to smoker, fryer to fryer, skillet to skillet—within striking distance of each other like Philadelphia’s two cheesesteak heavyweights, Pat’s and Geno’s. Located directly across the street from one another on the edge of the famous Italian Market in South Philly, the two inspire such loyalty among their respective fans that even couples who arrive together at the intersection of Ninth and Passyunk will peel off in opposite directions to patronize their favorite.
Though Pat’s and Geno’s steak superiority is argued on a daily basis, there is no question where the birth of the sacred sandwich took place: it was Pat’s King of Steaks, which in 1930 was a hot-dog stand owned by Pat Olivieri and his younger brother Harry. One fateful day, Pat, tired of eating hot dogs, sent Harry to buy some beef at the market. They sliced it, cooked it on the grill with some onions and put it on an Italian roll. Bada bing, bada boom: the steak sandwich was born. When cheese was later added, the creation evolved into the cheesesteak.
With the high visibility and heavy traffic afforded by its location at a busy crossroads, Pat’s was an immediate success, inspiring the opening of countless steak shops not only in the city, but spreading out into the suburbs, east to Jersey and south to Delaware. In a move some considered nervy, others just plain stupid, Joe Vento—who learned the steak business in his father’s shop Jim’s Steaks—opened Geno’s Steaks across the street from Pat’s in 1966. He quickly built a thriving business, and sparked the heated competition that exists to this day. Though many Philadelphians have come to scorn both as “tourist traps,” their cheesesteak output is prodigious.
Both are open 24 hours (and are thereby a classic late-night liquor sop, in the tradition of Waffle House and Hermitage Diner locally); neither offers indoor seating, though each has outdoor tables under canopies. Orders are placed at a window, and customers had better be prepared to talk fast and pay up quick; slow-talking Southerners would be wise to practice before actually getting to the window, or risk performance anxiety and public shame. Pat’s has a sign posted beside the window to assist:
1. Specify if you want your steak with (wit) or without (wit-out) onions2. Specify Plain, Cheese Whiz, Provolone, American or Pizza Steak. (If we have to read your mind, it’s 50 cents extra)3. Have your money ready4. Practice all of the above while waiting in line. (If you make a mistake…go to the back of the line and start over)
For the uninitiated—or those whose experience with cheesesteaks is limited to poseurs outside the Pennsylvania-Delaware-New Jersey axis—a Philly cheesesteak is very thinly sliced rib-eye steak placed on a well-greased flattop grill, where it is pushed about with a steel spatula until it is comes apart in pieces. When it is cooked, the steak—with sautéed onions if so requested—is piled into a long Italian roll sliced almost through lengthwise. The choice of cheese seems regional. Cheese Whiz, kept hot and melted in a pot by the grill, is ladled onto many steaks ordered in Philly, but provolone or white American was the fromage of choice in the Delaware steak shops of my youth (yout). There, cheese slices would be laid atop the steak as it grilled, before the whole cheesy heap was transferred to the roll and dressed with ketchup.
Cheesesteaks have been fancied up through the years with additions like mushrooms and peppers. But the classic remains steak, onions, cheese and roll. The last is crucial to its re-creation, and a primary reason most out-of-region sandwiches—whether cheesesteak, hoagie, Cuban, po’boy or muffuletta—fail: it’s the bread, stupid. Or more specifically, it’s the water—a key ingredient in baking bread, and one reason the bread baked in New Orleans doesn’t taste like bread baked in New York, which doesn’t taste like the bread baked in Philly, which doesn’t taste like the bread baked in Nashville.
Many restaurants, fast-food places and sandwich shops in Nashville have a cheesesteak on their menus. Along with other transplants from the Tri-State area, I’ve tried a few and have been so consistently disappointed that I’ve accepted cheesesteak deprivation south of the Mason-Dixon. So a store that has the chutzpah to call itself CheeseSteak Factory and open on Lower Broadway in Nashville doesn’t raise hopes so much as a skeptical eyebrow. With my parents—both raised in a small town just south of Philly and lifelong cheesesteak fans—in town for a short visit recently, I recruited them to put CheeseSteak Factory to the test.
By the time we got to CheeseSteak Factory—between Second and First on the south side of Broadway—we had worked up quite an appetite. As soon as we walked in, though, it was clear we were a long way from Philadelphia. Forget the Titans and Vols shirts on the wall: apart from the deep Southern accent that politely asked for our order, CheeseSteak Factory has all the warmth and charm of an employee breakroom in a widget factory. Its decor is limited to the aforementioned T-shirts, photos of sandwiches provided by the meat purveyor, and a large poster board of the menu. It was curiously and completely lacking in the odors of grease, onion and beef, which signify a cheesesteak shop as surely as hickory and smoke identify a BBQ joint.
The menu is lengthy, loaded with items that would not be found in a Northeastern steak shop, particularly wraps and salads. But even limiting ourselves to steaks, we spent a long time studying our options. We pondered the difference between a Traditional Philly, an Original Philly and a South Street Philly, as well as the twisted thinking behind a Southwest Philly, a Texas Philly, a Hawaiian Philly and, most egregious, a Vegetarian Philly. The person behind the counter was very patient with us—she would have been so fired from Pat’s—and tried to steer us to what we wanted. But I think the horror we expressed over some of her fairly innocent questions—white or wheat? lettuce and tomato? mayonnaise?!?—might have scared her.
Though I still couldn’t tell you the difference between the Original and the Traditional, we asked for and received two steaks with onions and provolone and one with onions, mushrooms and provolone. We rejected entirely the Day-Glo melted cheese, which looked exactly like the bright orange goo on movie-theater nachos.
We watched as the fellow behind the counter carefully laid out portion-controlled blocks of frozen beef on the grill, with a small pile of chopped onions beside it. He pushed both listlessly about with a spatula, placed them neatly on a roll and—using the same methodology employed at Subway shops—laid sliced provolone atop that. Voilà: Nashville cheesesteak. Or, more specifically, Marblehead cheesesteak, so named for the coastal fishing village in Massachusetts where Clarke’s CheeseSteak Factory was “created” in the early ’70s “to specialize in superior quality and quick friendly service at a fair price of the menu items offered.” Now there’s passion. The company actually boasts that it has been “developed to be duplicated.”
Please, for the love of Rocky Balboa, do not let these people duplicate. The CheeseSteak Factory cheesesteak could single-handedly revive Wendy’s famous ad slogan, “Where’s the Beef?” The roll wasn’t as wrong as some I’ve had, nor was it right; its thickness completely overwhelmed the stingy amount of tasteless beef and onion bits in its midsection, though the chilled cheese slice stood out. I thought my parents would weep at the sight, conjuring memories of soft Italian rolls so thick with steak, onions and cheese that one side could not meet the other, and jaws had to stretch wide to claim that first bite. Admittedly, we didn’t test the other items on the menu. But a restaurant that calls itself a CheeseSteak Factory deserves to be judged by that—live by the sword, die by the sword.
On July 20, 90-year-old Harry Olivieri passed away in Pomonoa, N.J. His son Frank runs the one and only Pat’s, while third generation Rick Olivieri owns Rick’s The Prince of Steaks in Reading Terminal Market. Pat Olivieri died in 1970, and has probably been rolling over in his grave ever since at the notion of a cheesesteak factory created in a coastal fishing village and developed to be duplicated. As Nashville’s ongoing lack of a decent cheesesteak shows, some things evidently just can’t be reproduced.