This is a tough one. Loyal readers know that I’m often quick to dismiss one-trick ponies. I like variety and reward it with positive reviews. But what if that one-trick is really good? Is there nothing to be said for specialization?
Port City Cheesesteak Company is that one-trick pony. They make cheesesteaks. The menu has a few other items, but they’re not fooling anyone. This is a destination restaurant—a diner goes in order to have one type of sandwich and one type alone. I’ve got to say: The experience is authentic and tasty.
Authenticity counts. The Philly cheesesteak is a sandwich held protectively by its aficionados. There is little room for deviation in the recipe. Scratch that. There is no room for deviation in the recipe. Thinly chopped beef, grilled onions, and Cheez Whiz. OK, grilled peppers are the lone permissible variant.
But that’s it.
Those with a long memory for politics may recall that John Kerry committed a gaffe on the presidential campaign trail by ordering a cheesesteak with provolone while at Geno’s in Philadelphia. Pundits spent the next 24 hours taunting him as an out-of-touch plutocrat, because he didn’t know there was only one acceptable cheese to put on a cheesesteak—and that’s Cheez Whiz. Such is the dedication of the cheesesteak lover.
While I doubt any political aspirations rose or fell with my order, I tempted fate when the clerk asked me what kind of cheese I wanted, by replying, “What do you recommend?” A lone customer at the lunch counter playfully barked back,“Cheez Whiz!”—as if to remind me there wasn’t really any choice in the matter. So, I ordered it authentically.
My first bit of advice is to let the sandwich sit a moment. I know it looks good and smells better, but I assure you that when it comes to the table, the sandwich is hot as hell. Burn your tongue on the first bite and you might as well eat styrofoam afterward—you’ll taste nothing. Thus, a little patience goes a long way.
The simple fact is: No one can ever go wrong with beef and grilled onions. It’s one of nature’s most beloved pairings. The Port City Cheesesteak Company blends them harmoniously, not overdoing either and achieving the right balance.
Admittedly, Cheez Whiz is not my first—or tenth—choice in cheese pairings. But this was a case where the classic style needed to be evaluated before deviating from the norm.
Be forewarned: It is a tasty mess. The soft bread, delicious in its own right, is little match for the moist and tender beef, and hot liquid cheese. There will be spillage. Lucky diners will find the sandwich contained to the plate and not their clothing. Those who are foolish enough not to heed my earlier warning vis-a-vis patience, well, burnt fingers will be the outcome. The number of napkins used might make the average environmentalist cry, but it is still one hell of a sandwich.
Having the classic under my belt, I returned to try a modified version. A coin flip steered me to the “Pizza Philly,” a variation in which provolone is acceptable. It also adds green peppers, mushrooms, and marinara to the mix.
I truly loved this one. The earthy mushrooms lent more depth to the beef. The rich, acidic tomato sauce provided another dimension. Then there was that touch of spiciness, unique to cooked green peppers, which make the whole thing bolder and more flavorful. It may not be the classic style, but it is good enough for me.
By the way, the marinara is even messier than the Cheez Whiz. I think I ate the whole thing with a fork.
The fries are nothing to write home about, but I do know that some of you love those crinkle-cut frozen varieties, which is what is served. For the rest of us, some onion rings might not come amiss on the next menu rewrite.
As of now, the menu remains very limited, other than five cheesesteaks (one, a chicken variety), only four burgers are served. Thanks to our freakish ice storm last week, I will admit this is not the most rounded review. I wanted to return for two more items: “The Surf and Turf,” which adds shrimp to the cheesesteak and the burger. The first two sandwiches I ate most definitely left me wondering what else The Port City Cheesesteak Company can do. Alas, I was pinned down for a couple of days and had to make a deadline, so I can’t speak more extensively other than I like what I’ve seen and I will be back to try more.
I did love the look of the place. It’s modeled after a 1950’s diner, with blacks, whites and reds competing to catch the eye. The design is minimalist but pleasing. The copious white on the walls and floors leaves little doubt that the room is clean. In fact, the look is so adorable I hated I couldn’t get a milkshake with two straws (and a date). But for folks who can’t dine in, well, they deliver, too—downtown to around 23rd Street.
The Port City Cheesesteak Company is exactly what it advertises. Don’t go in expecting the kind of sandwich innovation as eaten at Chops or The Wayfarer. Conversely, don’t go anywhere else looking for a cheesesteak, because no one south of Pennsylvania is doing it better.
Port City Cheese Steak Company
204 Princess Street
Sun. – Thurs., 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.