Over the past few weeks, as I’ve devoured my share of cheesesteaks, I’ve been thinking about our own pandemic and why these Philly sandwiches have become the comfort food for hundreds, if not thousands, of Washingtonians. The reason, perhaps, is as obvious as the neon cheese sauce slathered on an Amoroso’s roll: A cheesesteak is a big, messy mouthful, as familiar as griddled beef, as sweet as softened onions, and as soothing as a warm layer of Cheez Whiz. Eating one now feels like a visit from your best friend, the one who always knows the right thing to say when you’re feeling down.
But in my mind, if in no one else’s, this mini-explosion of steak and cheese sandwiches in the District also offers a glimmer of hope during our dark period: The cheesesteak was invented in the 1930s, years after the brutal pandemic had released its grip on Philadelphia and the rest of the world. Over the course of nine decades, this roll-based bite has become a near-universal symbol of Philly’s sandwich craftsmanship, even as the influenza’s cruel legacy has faded to black, a mere footnote to countless Americans. I take no small comfort at this thought: that, we, too, will once again revel in our creativity, the pandemic only a faint memory.
Until that time comes, however, have a cheesesteak. You have plenty of opportunities. Even before pandemic-era pop-ups and ghost kitchens made the Philly cheesesteak a visiting dignitary in the city, Washington had decent options. I’m already on record as a fan of the juicy, deeply decadent versions at Bub and Pop’s on M Street NW, Grazie Grazie on the Wharf and Brew Belly in Olney. I’ve also been known to hanker after the hoagie at Chiko in Dupont Circle, a Korean-influenced cheesesteak with marinated bulgogi meat, caramelized onions and kimcheese whiz. Recently, I’ve savored the unorthodox birria cheesesteak (twice!) at the Brentwood location of Little Minor Taco.
More cheesesteaks have come online since the pandemic turned many restaurants, even the ones with decorated chefs, into glorified carryouts. I’ve wrestled with many of these newbies, such as the classic cheesesteak at Satellite Sandwiches, a ghost kitchen launched by the talented crew behind Astro Doughnuts and Fried Chicken (1308 G St. NW; 202-809-5565). I found their version, with melted provolone and far too few onions, flavorful but dry. I’ve ordered the namesake cheesesteak a couple of times from Jimmy’s Philly Steaks (5014 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-890-4995), a pop-up from the I’m Eddie Cano team, and both times the sandwich was only passable, its “chedda wiz” a touch too sharp and floury for my tastes.
One of my favorite cheesesteaks comes from Ghostburger (1250 Ninth Street NW, 202-827-5237; ghostburgerdc.com), the wildly successful side hustle from the proprietors of Espita Mezcaleria in Shaw. The last time I checked with co-owner Josh Phillips, he said Ghostburger was pulling down more than $30,000 a week, helping Espita earn more than it did in 2018 and close to what the restaurant generated in 2019. Despite the ghost kitchen’s name, its top seller is the cheesesteak.
“We stopped being Ghostburger a while ago,” says Phillips, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “It’s Ghostcheesesteak, unofficially.”
The “real Philly cheesesteak” at Ghostburger is something of a misnomer. “It’s in the vein of classic,” Phillips says. It starts with a Sarcone’s roll that one of Espita’s suppliers has to truck to Washington because the bakery doesn’t deliver outside the Philly area. The kitchen toasts the roll briefly, just to give the bread an edge, which disappears quickly once the fillings are added.
Ghostburger’s kitchen relies on shaved rib-eye from the famed Pat LaFrieda, the multigenerational meat supplier based in New Jersey. The onions are confited in oil, with sherry vinegar, until meltingly tender. The cheese sauce is a state secret, though it’s safe to call it untraditional given that chef Robert Aikens begins with white cheddar as his base. The final grace note is the garlic mayo, sparingly used to complement the steak and add a touch of moisture.
The cheesesteak might not pass the smell test in Philly — a cool town with a peculiar affinity for rules around its signature sandwich — but it has something more important than fealty to tradition. The creators of Ghostburger’s cheesesteak have roots in Philadelphia: Phillips, his wife and business partner, Kelly; Aikens; and chef de cuisine Ben Tenner have all lived, worked and/or grown up in the Philly area. Their respect for the sandwich is so deep that they tread carefully when messing with it. They aim only to amplify, not exaggerate or destroy, traditions. Their next-generation cheesesteak is a thing of beauty.
Rob Sonderman, the pitmaster and partner at Federalist Pig, doesn’t have the Philly bona fides of his peers over at Espita. But he has the same level of respect for the cheesesteak. He’s created a devilish good one at Fedwich (1517 Connecticut Ave NW, fedwich.com), the pop-up collaboration between Fed Pig and Kramers, the venerable bookstore off Dupont Circle.
Anyone who has sampled Sonderman’s barbecue knows that the man likes spice. Same goes for his Feddy cheesesteak. He has developed a cherry pepper relish that plays off a tradition in Philly, where locals alternate between bites of cheesesteak and whole pickled cherry peppers, the fat and the acid fighting for dominance. He’s also made his own cheese sauce, which incorporates cheddar and Monterey Jack. The relish and cheese sauce basically get equal billing with the rib-eye and onions inside the toasted mini-baguette that Sonderman uses as a roll. It makes for cheesesteak on steroids, the flavors bold and undeniable.
One of the problems with these pandemic-era cheesesteaks? They won’t stick around forever. Sonderman suggests Fedwich won’t linger once the crisis passes. But Ghostburger, Phillips says, will eventually get a second life as its own bricks-and-mortar restaurant.
“We’d be crazy not to” keep it, he says.
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