Controversy surrounds the cheese steak. The debate over the quintessential Philadelphia cheese steak has torn the city of brotherly love asunder, instigating fierce rivalry, devoted partisanship and openly avowed adoration.
Outside the Philadelphia city limits, there is a grievous preponderance of disappointing cheese steaks. Frank E. Olivieri, owner of Pat's King of Steaks in South Philly, says, "I think the problem is that everyone tries to reinvent the wheel. They just need to make it round."
Or oblong. An authentic Philly cheese steak starts with a long, chewy chunk of Italian bread. "It should be nice and soft on the inside--not as soft as American bread, mind you--but dense. And crispy on the outside, but not too crispy," cautions Olivieri, whose great-uncle was Pat, King of Steaks.
The roll (no one calls it a bun) is toasted or warmed, split and smeared with Kraft Cheez Whiz. (Yes, Cheez Whiz, though it is acceptable to use white American or provolone cheese.)
Thinly sliced, unseasoned meat (rib-eye roast is preferable, though sirloin is sanctioned) is seared on a hot grill until barely--if at all--crisped at the edges. The grill cook deftly transfers the meat to the waiting roll, where the heat simultaneously melts the cheese and traps it against the roll, thus preventing it from sticking to the white butcher-paper wrapping. "Cheese steak with" means topped with diced onions that have been sauteed to tender creaminess; "hoagie-style" means with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, though this practice is frowned upon in Philly.
We narrowed our search to Washington-area establishments that boldly proclaim Philadelphia or cheese steak in their moniker, and eliminated the most offensive, least authentic renditions. We ordered the basic version along with each joint's most popular variation.
LILEONS PHILADELPHIA STEAKS & HOAGIES
Succulent sliced sirloin piled onto an Italian/Philadelphian roll and slathered with Cheez Whiz. Onion chunks so tender they melt in the mouth. All the proper accoutrements, including white American or provolone cheese. Authentic down to the step-by-step sign on ordering protocol. (We couldn't imagine downing the 18-incher until we polished off the half-size in seconds and wanted more.) 9-inch ($5.60), 18-inch ($10.60). Carryout. 3674 St. Barnabas Rd., Suitland; call 301-899-8233.
ARIRANG HILL CHEESE STEAK
A close second. Tender, moist rib-eye with crisp edges within a crusty roll. Free fixin's. Quibbles: orange American cheese is too pungent; opt for provolone. And the aluminum-foil wrapping traps the heat and results in a steamed, soggy bun; best consumed immediately. 6-inch ($3.80), 8-inch ($4.85) or 12-inch ($7.85). Eat in or take out. 10750 Hickory Ridge Rd., Columbia; call 410-964-3663.
A slightly upscale cheese steak. Diced onions--tender, though in a tad too much oil--were liberally scattered in the sandwich. Sliced rib-eye was spared the incessant chopping commonly found outside Philadelphia. High bun-to-meat ratio, though the too-soft roll improves with toasting (cheerfully done upon request). Generous portions of white American, provolone or (shudder) cheddar cheese. 10-inch Classic ($5.50). 9413 Main St., Manassas; call 703-393-1776.
The sign out front proudly proclaims "George's: The King of Falafal and Cheese Steaks Philly Style." No royalty here; the cheese steak had a scant portion of white American cheese and modest amounts of overly chopped but flavorful rib-eye that was bereft of grease. Depending on the cook, the meat ranged from moist to overcooked and dry. Definitely warrants the extra 45 cents for hoagie-style. 8-inch ($4.50), 12-inch ($6.75). Eat in, carryout and delivery. 1205 28th St. NW; call 202-342-2278.
PHILADELPHIA STEAK AND PIZZA FACTORY
The stereotypical heart-attack-inducing cheese steak that one craves at 3 a.m.--a little chewy, a little greasy but very tasty, despite orange American or Swiss cheeses. Choose the provolone. 7-inch ($4.49), 12-inch ($7.65). 1544 Ninth St. NW. Call 202-986-0203. Carryout and delivery.
Freshly baked rolls were a nice touch but too soft. The meat was nothing to write home to Philly about and the white American cheese and provolone were not up to par. Quality and portion size varied dramatically. 5-inch ($4.19), 7-inch ($5.29) or 12-inch ($7.59). 7732 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; call 301-656-0103. 2301 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Arlington; call 703-415-0616. 1700 N. Moore St., Arlington; call 703-528-4011.
PHILLY'S STEAK EXPRESS
The most visible fat of any sandwich we tasted. Thinly sliced onions were undercooked and crunchy, as were the peppers and mushrooms. Orange American (a mistake) or provolone cheese. Hoagie-style. 8-inch ($4.79), 12-inch ($7.69). Carryout and delivery. 304 Carroll St. NW; call 202-722-2945.
PHILADELPHIA CHEESESTEAK FACTORY
The flimsy roll was sopping with greasy, over-seasoned "mystery meat" reminiscent of elementary school cafeterias. Cloyingly sweet onions and salty white American cheese. Hoagie-style. 10-inch ($4.69). 3331 M St. NW; call 202-333-8040. 7413 Baltimore Ave., College Park; call 301-864-8040.