For the past two weekends I’ve been driven south. Not driven as in forced by invading Canadians to flee with whatever possessions I could carry; driven as in someone with a car gave me a ride somewhere I wanted to go anyway.
Two weekends ago I was driven by Eric Scheffler to our friend Jonathan Ray’s 40th birthday party at Taberna del Alabardero in Washington, D.C. Jonathan lives in Silver Spring, Md., as he’s a professor at Georgetown, so the location was appropriate. He’s also an expert on Medieval Spain, so the cuisine was fairly appropriate.
Eric is a walking advertisement for exercise. He’s not a Chelsea-style body-beautiful guy, but an endurance runner. He and his wife vacation by going to a different city and running a marathon there. He ran for, I think, 19 hours straight across the Grand Canyon. His endurance limit doesn’t come when his legs give out or his lungs can't manage anymore, but when his body is so exhausted that it can no longer keep food down. He says he vomited trail mix during the Grand Canyon run and survived on some sort of sugar paste.
But he still inspires me, because when his system hasn’t completely shut down, he can eat whatever he wants. Every once in awhile, he says, he runs from his Scarsdale home to his Midtown office — 19 or 20 miles — and walks in with a garbage bag full of food.
Eric says you burn a bit more than 1,000 calories an hour when you run, which means if you run for four hours, you have to eat about three times what a normal person would eat just to maintain your body weight. He says it with a smile on his face and, it seems to me, a song in his heart — probably a head banging hard rock song, as that’s what he works out to.
And Eric loves to eat a lot of food. To top it off, he says: “I'm always happy and I sleep like a log." He’s also about as nice a person as you’d like to meet. Clever, too: In college at Colgate he decorated his room in his fraternity house with lace curtains and throw pillows and lovely pink things. He says it was a very successful chick magnet, and I see no reason to doubt him.
This past Saturday Birdman and I executed a long-awaited plan to go to Philadelphia for cheese steak.
If I lived in Philadelphia, I'd weigh about 400 pounds, because I would eat a cheese steak every day. It's just thinly sliced beef cooked on a greasy grill, plain or with a choice of onions, mushrooms and bell peppers, and a choice of cheese whiz, provolone or American cheese. It should not taste that great, and indeed outside of Philadelphia it doesn't. But something happens in Philadelphia that makes them sublime.
There are all sorts of theories about what makes a Philly cheese steak such a different animal from one anywhere else. Some say it's the soft Amoroso roll, some say it's the well-seasoned nature of the ancient griddles on which they’re cooked.
Personally, I think it's the onions, or the way the onions are made. Because the onions are diced and stacked in a huge pile on the griddle. If you order your cheese steak ”with,” or “wit” in local South Philadelphia dialect, meaning “with onions,” they stick a spatula under the stack of onions and mix some in. That means that some onions are burnt, some are raw, some are perfectly cooked and some are a little under done, giving you a really great combination of oniony goodness.
Birdman and I arrived in Philadelphia a little after 2pm and got in line at Pat’s, because it was closer than Geno’s, which was diagonally across the street.
Pat’s claim to fame is that it was first, founded by immigrants from Italy’s Abruzzo region — the same latitude as Lazio, where Rome is, but across the peninsula on the Adriatic side. Geno’s markets itself with a rabid jingoistic patriotism that I find kind of, well, juvenile. Sure America’s great, but if it’s that great you don’t need to brag about it. Better to be quietly excellent.
As for the cheese steaks, they’re about the same, and I think quibbling over which is better is like making a big deal about which vodka to have in your Bloody Mary.
Nonetheless, Birdman and I were of opposite opinions. He preferred Pat's, and I preferred Geno's.
Birdman’s a more discerning eater than I am, and he picks out subtle nuances that I miss. He also loves things that are older or original and so he would have a bias, conscious or otherwise, for the original cheese steak place.
I, on the other hand, was not immediately taken with Pat's cheese steak the way I usually am with cheese steaks, I think because we decided we’d get them with cheese whiz, which is the basic, standard cheese, the Ur cheese, for a cheese steak. But I like provolone better.
So I fully expected to like Geno's better, and I did.
We separated our cheese steaks by a couple of beers, and after Geno’s we went on to Tony Luke’s, which I’ve been told is the best cheese steak in the city. But really it’s a different animal from Pat’s or Geno’s, because it has a firmer roll, with more of a crust, and sesame seeds on top. That makes for a completely different experience. Birdman and I split one, because we were full, and I think I liked it better than the other two, but as I said it was a completely different animal and so difficult to compare.
I think my favorite cheese steak in Philadelphia is at Little Pete’s, which I have visited on previous trips to the city, but I’ve had it with provolone and only at 2am after a night of drinking, which makes it a completely different experience, too.
Obviously, it would have been nice if I had Eric Scheffler’s habit of long-distance running to process all of that food, but I’ve been more stuffed after a long media dinner than I was after two and a half cheese steaks and three beers (we went to the sit-down, inside part of Tony Luke's and had a beer with our final sandwich, also changing the experience, I know).
We were back in New York by a little after 8pm. We parked Birdman’s car near his Upper East Side apartment and took the cross town bus to 79th and Broadway, two blocks from the new Fatty Crab, which was having an opening party that night.
It was a good turnout — a bit crowded for people who had just eaten about 4,000 calories worth of cheese steak, but we found a good place to hang out, near the bar but around the corner from the long side of the bar, so we weren't in the way of people who wanted to get drinks. I drank a Rogue Ale — the beer company's sales person there called it a West Coast style red ale. It was thoroughly hoppy with a sweet bass note — until the one keg the company donated was gone, and then I switched to bourbon on the rocks. We were ensconced near the Rogue rep and also near my friends Julie Besonen and Sheri de Borchgrave. Akiko Katayama, who took me to Japan a couple of years ago to gain a better understanding of Niigata prefecture, swung by, too, and chef Franklin Becker. I broke away to chat with Will Goldfarb, who’s back in the New York food scene to open his sandwich kiosk Picknic for the season — although he’s still exploring the notion of setting up shop in Bali.
I'd seen Will just the night before at NYU, as he was an added speaker on the panel I was on last night. Blue Hill chef Dan Barber had to cancel at the last minute, but he was replaced by Will and Adam Kaye, Blue Hill's vice president for culinary affairs.
If I find the time, I’ll try to write a bit about the panel, but I don’t have time right now.
At Fatty Crab I also met Cabrito chef David Schuttenberg, who said business is good but no longer as insane as right after Cabrito’s Times review. It’s now possible to get in there.
I did eat a bit at Fatty Crab — a wing, some crab salad, a spoonful of chicken curry — but I was full and mostly in the mood to talk.
I was peckish after the party, however, and I noticed a Gray's Papaya near my subway stop. I realized I’d just gone to a whole different city to try its iconic food, but had never had this quintessential New York food.
So I had two hot dogs, and they were so good I had two more.
What’s wrong with me?