Let's face it. Philly cheesesteak sandwiches are for philistines. But having never been to Philadelphia, and therefore having never consumed a Cheez Whiz*-soused, grilled-gristle-and-onion bomb from Geno's, Jim's, Lorenzo's, Tony Luke's, or Pat's King of Steaks, how can I possibly say this with any authority?
It's because I'm from Pittsburgh. And I don't say it because there's some kind of pea-brained historic rivalry between the two largest cities in Pennsylvania. (Our meatheads don't hate the Eagles. They hate the Browns.) I say it because we eat Primanti's sandwiches, crusty and downy slices of soft but durable Italian bread, efficiently stacked with thin slices of griddled meats—say, salami, capicola, bologna (we say "jumbo"), pastrami, or, yes, steak and cheese—plus a towering mound of coleslaw and thick, fresh-cut french fries. These sandwiches were invented for truckers leadfooting it through the wholesale Strip District so they could eat a balanced meal and keep a hand on the wheel. It's pragmatic, satisfying, and delicious all at once, and there's really no other regional sandwich in the Keystone state that anyone needs to worry about.
So, just to affirm that immutable truth and to uphold the honor of my adoptive home—the home of the equivalently superior Italian beef sandwich—I'm reviewing Monti's, a new, entirely unironic tribute to Philadelphia's signature sandwich.
Among regional beef sandwiches such as the Chicago IB, the Los Angeles French dip, the New Orleans debris po'boy, the Baltimore pit beef, and the Buffalo beef on weck, the dominant national profile of the Philly cheesesteak can arguably be attributed to the commercial success of its appalling bastard offspring, the Steak-umm—which in turn must have something to do with the extremely low bar a more faithful Philly cheesesteak needs to meet. Methods may vary but the template is created by slapping wads of thin-shaved beef onto a griddle, spatula-hacking it with onions and sometimes green peppers, cheese-ing it with deli slices or Whiz, and then shoveling the mess onto a bun, ideally from a particular, beloved 108-year-old bakery that reportedly makes all the difference. It's imitated far and wide, and Chicago has its own all-purpose fast-food joints that offer facsimiles, the collective quality of which inspired the esteemed blog Greasefreak to forswear the sandwich altogether.
So what does Monti's have going for it that these don't? One thing it doesn't have is an ideal location. I should point out what happened the last time a barstaurant specializing in a highly specialized regional dish opened in this very same space. Cinners, despite having served a solid and thoroughly orthodox bowl of Cincinnati chili, nonetheless shuttered after just under two and half years. It's not that plenty of worldly eaters don't enter the location's immediate orbit. Just a few steps north lies Nhu Lan Bakery, Goosefoot, Harvestime Foods, Hellas Pastry Shop, and a handful of excellently seedy bars and insular coffee shops where old men shoot Metaxa and play dominoes into the wee hours.
If among these offerings you find yourself craving a cheesesteak on Lawrence Avenue, in order to satisfy it you'll have to know that Monti's is half a block down a sleepy residential street with scant pedestrian traffic.
What Monti's lacks in location it makes up for in other ways, starting with the credibility of its proprietors. Philadelphia-born husband-and-wife duo Jennifer Monti and James Gottwald, the latter a longtime veteran of Rockit Ranch Productions (in particular Rockit Bar & Grill), clearly understand that they'll need to provide something more than just a lazy sop to homesick Philly expats. They'll have to make these sandwiches destination-worthy for everyone.
Gottwald's execution is orthodox in some ways, shipping in par-baked rolls from Philly's Amoroso's Baking Company, the aforementioned standard delivery vehicle, with a texture both elastic and crackly, more than capable of supporting its juicy payload. His approach is appropriately progressive in others, melting down his own aged Wisconsin cheddar cheese sauce rather than enslaving himself to Cheez Whiz (one can opt for provolone or white American as well).
Resultingly, the cheese disappears into the shaved and griddled rib eye, enhancing rather than smothering it. There's a delicacy to these sandwiches that refutes their nature. Measured in eight-inch and footlong lengths, they offer mouthfuls of lacy, griddle-crisped meat, an alchemy that issues an involuntary command to the somatic nervous system: stuff this in your hole as fast as possible.
Gottwald also offers a few variants on the standard—a cheesesteak hoagie with lettuce, tomato, and mayo added on; a mozzarella and pizza-sauced version; a mushroom, Swiss, and horseradish-creamed cousin; and the Rocky, a spicy, mayo-drizzled slayer, mined with an oily giardiniera of pickled scotch bonnet, serrano, and jalapeño chiles. This is a sandwich you go to war with. You'll fight through the pain to finish it, but it will fight back long after it's gone.
A few additional sandwiches can hold their own against the cheesesteaks, namely a roast pork loin grinder (another Philly native)—thin-shaved slices of pig topped with bitter rapini, sweet red pepper, and a blanket of bubbling provolone, or a roll filled with fluffy clouds of scrambled eggs, bacon, cheese, and a drizzle of mayo on top. Appetizers range from typical bar food standards like soft pretzel nuggets and wings to consolations like a cheese plate or a Mediterranean-style hummus, feta, and olive platter for those who won't get with the program. But of these, a plate of fried calamari, tarted up with battered lemon wheels and banana peppers, is outstanding. Someone should put it on a sandwich.
The pizzas, though, are a completely unexpected success. Appealingly greasy and customizable with upmarket toppings like lobster and wild mushrooms, their best asset is the cornmeal-dusted, midsize thin crust. I was told this was an east coast recipe, but it reminded me favorably of the Quad Cities-style pies tossed at Roots.
So I take it back. Philly cheesesteaks aren't for barbarians—not these Philly cheesesteaks, anyway. And there are other things to come back for. I could be a poor sport and snivel about a few things—say, the corny slogans on the walls ("Money can't buy happiness but it can buy marshmallows which are kinda the same thing"). But my only serious complaint about Monti's is that it is not an interesting place to drink. There is a small rotating selection of craft beers, but the bar is stocked with a scant inventory of unsurprising spirits, some employed in a handful of disastrous cocktails.
But overall I like Monti's even more than the doomed hyperregional labor of love that preceded it. I'm sure there are lots of nostalgic Philly expats who will do what they can to help it survive, but I hope lots of Italian beef-bred townies come too and discover how good a Philly cheesesteak can be in the right hands. You'd be a philistine to ignore it.
* Any resemblance to cheese is coincidental.