Could I find a reasonably authentic Philly cheesesteak in St. Louis? The task, inspired last summer by a reader, didn't seem impossible. For all its many, messy virtues, a Philly cheesesteak isn't beef Wellington. Its two main components are meat, about which we here in the Midwest know a little something, and cheese of questionable provenance, about which we here in St. Louis know a helluva lot.
The reader — one Aaron Proctor — was seeking true Philadelphia soul: "Who is the STL champion of cheesesteaks? I'm talking a place that may have other Philly goodies like Herr's Potato Chips & Tastykakes. A place where I can order 'wit' out onions' and 'wit' wiz' and they'll know what I'm sayin'."
I grew up in Baltimore, a three-hour drive from Philadelphia, and have fond memories of Herr's potato chips, Tastykakes and grease-bomb cheesesteaks from Larry's, "Home of the Belly Filler," a joint just outside the campus of St. Joe's University. I haven't been to Philly in years, though. So while I empathized with Aaron Proctor's wishes, I knew I couldn't set the bar that high. A reasonably authentic cheesesteak — with Cheez Whiz or even provolone, wrapped in or served atop paper rapidly turning translucent with golden grease — would do.
Thus, on Gut Check, Riverfront Times' food blog (blogs.riverfronttimes.com/gutcheck), Cheesesteak Quest began.
There were a few close calls. Penn Station East Coast Subs, a Cincinnati-based chain, turns out a pretty good cheesesteak: thinly sliced steak, provolone, a freshly baked roll. The cheesesteak at the Natural Fact Deli in Webster Groves strays far from orthodoxy — pepperjack cheese, the steak cut very thick — but on its own merits it's a tasty sandwich.
There was one unmitigated disaster: Sonic's "Extra-Long Bacon Cheddar Cheesesteak" compounded the sin of using cheddar cheese by adding mayo — mayo! — and wasted perfectly acceptable strips of bacon on a sandwich that otherwise resembled a dessicated turd.
I grew discouraged. There must be something intrinsically Philadelphian about a Philly cheesesteak that can't be captured elsewhere. Maybe it was something in the air. (Let's hope not.) Maybe it was all those decades of pent-up Phillies-Eagles-Flyers-76ers rage channeled into the chopping and blending of meat and cheese and onion on a hot flattop. Whatever the reason, after the Sonic debacle, I retired Cheesesteak Quest.
A few years ago Mike Risk, a twelve-year veteran of Trattoria Marcella, visited Philadelphia for a soccer game featuring Manchester United. (For the non-soccer fans: Man. U. is the rest of the world's New York Yankees.) While in the city, Risk ate cheesesteaks. A lot of cheesesteaks. He tried Philly's most famous cheesesteak joints, like Pat's and Geno's. He liked Geno's the best and thought he could make something similar. Risk offered his own Philly cheesesteaks to friends at fantasy-baseball drafts and other informal get-togethers, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
Risk continued to work at Trattoria Marcella, but he also did consulting work for his old friend Brian Tracy at the Mack Bar & Grill on Macklind Avenue. Risk also consulted with Tracy on 9th Street Deli, which opened last year at Ninth and Shenandoah Avenue on the southeast corner of Pontiac Park in Soulard.
"I really liked the whole concept [of the deli]," Risk told me over the phone. "I really fell in love with it."
A few months ago, wanting a change of pace from his work at Trattoria Marcella and to have more time with his family, Risk made 9th Street Deli his full-time occupation. (He, Tracy and John Been Jr. are the owners.)
9th Street Deli is a single room, small but with high ceilings and large windows that give it a pleasant, open feel. There is seating for about two dozen, including a few tables along the sidewalk. The location's greatest advantage is the park, a lovely, peaceful little space. Risk envisions offering customers picnic-basket lunches.
Sandwiches dominate the brief menu, with six oven-baked and seven cold offerings. I would study these later. On my first visit I had the "Just Like Philly" cheesesteak. I had planned to do so even before I arrived. You see, Risk had learned of Cheesesteak Quest and e-mailed me to say he thought he had what I was seeking. I admired Risk for taking on the challenge and, after waiting a few weeks so he might think I'd forgotten his offer and not be expecting me, I pounced.
The first thing you notice about 9th Street Deli's cheesesteak is the cheese. It's a nuclear shade of orange, a color that sticks a knife in the heart of cheesemongers and Slow Food acolytes, but that yours truly — who is paid to be a snob about such things, after all — still finds irresistible. The cheese is not merely melting but a luscious liquid ooze.
"Is that Cheez Whiz?" I asked Risk later.
Glorious Cheez Whiz! Is the rest of the cheesesteak "reasonably" authentic? Yes. The steak is shredded and tender, the roll soft but not dissolving, the onions sliced thin and perfectly caramelized; roasted red peppers are a fine, though not strictly necessary, addition. My only complaint is the amount of meat: It isn't quite a grease bomb, and I didn't need an entire day to recover from eating it. That aside (for which my heart, at least, is thankful), it's the best cheesesteak I've had yet in St. Louis.
While the menu does offer a few "standard" sandwiches — a meatball sub with Provel and marinara sauce, the "St. Louisan" (mortadella, capicola, salami, ham and Provel) — most are a step above basic deli fare. The "Cajun B.L.T." distinguishes itself with thick, spicy bacon; that bacon, along with avocado and a silky balsamic aioli, elevates the mesquite-turkey sandwich above cold-cut cliché.
Not every combination is an unqualified success. I liked but didn't love a croissant stuffed with thinly sliced prosciutto and a tomato-mascarpone spread and then drizzled with white-truffle oil. The prosciutto and white-truffle oil masked much of the spread's flavor, and the prosciutto was packed so tightly into the croissant that the ham's fattier portions were tough to chew.
I ordered the oven-baked mortadella sandwich warily. I love mortadella and capicola, but here the meats are topped with, yes, Provel. Also atop the meats are a roasted red-pepper aioli and a wonderfully piquant relish of artichoke, tomato and black olive. Not only did these provide an excellent contrast to the flavors of the mortadella and capicola, they also worked well with the creamy Provel.
A sandwich with Provel that I didn't simply tolerate but heartily recommend? It's almost as miraculous as a decent Philly cheesesteak west of the Mississippi.