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Anybody who grew up in the United States will tell you: For a certain kind of grilled cheese sandwich, it's got to be American cheese -- the kind that normally comes in individually wrapped slices. A good farmhouse cheddar is all wrong; high-quality cheese melts into particles and lumps, and just plain has too much substance. Only a cheap cheese, like American, will properly collapse into velvety goop.
Philly cheese steaks are the same deal, and the folks at Philly West Bar & Grill in West Los Angeles get it. They know their steaks and they know their cheese, and their cheese steaks have just the right balance between meaty and gooey -- tender sliced rib-eye, browned onions, all bound together by liquefied white American cheese. The bread is soft but still has a little chew in it, and the sautéed onions still have a touch of crispness. This sandwich isn't a study in contrasts, but an easy sort of meld.
Some may immediately protest: "What? What about the Cheez Whiz? A Philly cheese steak has got to have Cheez Whiz!" Not so, says owner and chef Mark Lifland. "I get yelled at for not using Cheez Whiz. People think it's traditional and it's not."
Sure, there are a few well-known places in Philly that use it. "But the real good little places don't use Cheez Whiz. . . . It comes out of a can!" Provolone, mozzarella and white American are the real cheeses for cheese steaks, says Lifland, who is from Allentown, Pa., about 60 miles outside of Philadelphia.
"I'm old enough to have eaten cheese steaks before they invented Cheez Whiz," Lifland says.
"I've never bought processed white American to take into my house," Lifland says, "but I'll put it into a cheese steak. It melts good." And he's right -- you may hate American cheese on its own, but it works weird magic melted into this sandwich. Like Spam musubi (Hawaiian spam sushi), certain dishes seem to exist in order to turn what might seem like inferior ingredients into wonder. Sometimes, context is everything.
It's all gravy
The standard version of the sandwich comes with white American and marinara (yes, marinara), and this is surely the best way to have it. You can try paying your extra 50 cents to switch out the white American cheese for mozzarella, but you'll get a subpar sandwich -- though it might be worth it for a lesson in how right the original sandwich is.
Mozzarella is just too stringy. It sits on top of the meat, without fusing into it. It's too dry. You'll realize that in the standard version, the white American melts down and then soaks up the beef juices, forming a sort of beef-and-cheese emulsion: the nectar of the Philly gods. The only thing better is the juice that drips out of the cheese steak with mushrooms.
That marinara is also traditional: "It comes from a pizza steak [sandwich] -- it's on every menu back in Philly," Lifland says. "It usually comes with mushrooms, mozzarella and marinara."
Where Lifland grew up, they always put a little marinara on every sandwich. Most places in Philly, you have to ask for it -- "they call it gravy," he says.
Philly West isn't a Philly-themed bar, intended to convince the rubes that they're having an authentic experience. It's just the way it is, a Real Bar -- neon beer signs, big-screen TV, some fans blowing on the hot days, a little bit of attitude from the bartenders and clusters of expats and locals, greeting each other as they walk in for their afternoon brew.
Their hoagies are almost as good as the cheese steaks: an assortment of cold cuts, just fatty enough, with crisp lettuce and onions and a nicely biting vinaigrette. Their hot Italian sausage sandwich is also great; it comes standard with mozzarella. The grilled sausage itself is a self-contained unit, all the juiciness trapped inside, and the mozzarella sort of drapes around it, in stretchy, cheesy scarves.
Maybe the biggest surprise, though, is their unusually excellent egg salad sandwich. The menu notes that an egg salad sandwich will take awhile, since the egg salad is made fresh, to order. Egg salad made to order? When was the last time you had that in a $5 sandwich?
It is, indeed, made to order. These are whole slices of hard boiled eggs, mixed with good mayo, slipped into your sandwich with crisp lettuce, raw onions and that herby, vinegary dressing. Putting egg salad in with the usual Philly hoagie fixings is his own invention, Lifland says proudly. The whole thing is shockingly vivid, with the sweetness and warmth of sliced egg, the textures of egg white and egg yolk against the crispness of onions and lettuce.
Philly West's egg salad is a slippery little devil, mayo-covered egg slices squirming their way out of the sandwich with every bite. The experience of the sandwich is half eating, and half wrangling, and you tend to end up dripping, your entire face covered with mayo and egg yolk. It's joyfully embarrassing.