People who come to Charlotte from outside the South have fun with our local eccentricities: Snow panics, mayonnaise manias, the need for regular infusions of pimento cheese.
I get it, transplants. I’ll see your coleslaw and chili on a burger and raise you: The Cheesesteak.
It’s just a pile of shaved beef and cheese on a roll with a chewy crust. But for anyone from Philadelphia or southern New Jersey, it’s practically a religion. Finding it. Arguing over it. Dismissing every local attempt at it.
Is it “wit” or “wit’out”? (That would be onions.) Is it “prov” or Cheez Whiz? (That would be the cheese on top.) Is it on an Amoroso roll? (That would be ... beyond my experience to detect.)
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I get it, and admire you for it. If I were banished from the South to some icy wasteland (and some stories I’ve written have brought me close), I’d spend the rest of my life pining for a good barbecue sandwich. I understand the need to keep pawing through the pile of contenders, hoping for something that comes close to making you miss home a little less.
Take my co-worker, Adam Bell. He may have been in Charlotte for 18 years, but he’s a native of a Philadelphia suburb. When he got the word that Lee’s Hoagie House was opening south of Charlotte, the man vibrated harder than that time someone cracked the Liberty Bell.
Lee’s Hoagie House is Bell’s pinnacle. He puts it up there with Pat’s King of Steaks, owned by Pat Oliveri, credited as the inventor of the Philly-style steak sandwich, and Geno’s Steaks, owned by Joey Vento, credited as the the person who put the cheese on it.
With Lee’s now open just below Lake Wylie, it seemed like a good time to take Charlotte’s pulse on cheesesteak options. I spent a couple of weeks’ worth of lunch hours roaming around, keeping my order very simple: A cheesesteak, however each place chose to prepare it.
I rejected a couple (Philadelphians are right, there are some lame cheesesteaks around here). But I did find a few worth considering:
Lee’s Hoagie House
It’s a haul from many areas of Charlotte, in Lake Wylie Commons, a small shopping development south of the Buster Boyd Bridge. But it was doing a steady and heavily male business when I was there (15 men and two women at lunch, not counting the busy people behind the counter).
A generous pile of thinly sliced steak, onions optional, cheese choices (most people get provolone), and warm bread that’s crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. You can also opt for a brightly flavored “house sauce” (tomato). In Philly parlance, that makes it a pizza steak. They already serve Pennsylvania-favorite Herr’s chips and plan to add Tastykakes.
Extra: Owner Rick Zioncheck’s wife, Patsy, makes a single-serving cheesecake with a walnut crust and her own lemon curd you can spread on it. They’re in the refrigerator case.
Details: Available in 6-inch ($6.75), 9-inch ($9.25) and 18-inch ($18.50), with a choice of fried onions, lettuce, tomatoes, hot peppers, tomato sauce, provolone, American cheese or Kraft Cheez Whiz. 312 Bulkhead Way, Suite 101, Lake Wylie, S.C., 803-619-4046.
Centrally located in Brevard Court uptown. Go on a nice day: There’s no seating, so you’ll have to get it to go or sit outside.
Served on a long roll, more like an oversized hot dog bun with a crackly crust. The white American cheese is on the inside, draped over the roll before the beef (chopped more than shaved), cooked peppers and onions are piled on. You end up with a pile of creamy cheesiness under the meat, which works nicely.
Extras: None. The place is so stripped-down, they don’t even serve iced tea, just bottled water and a few basic soda choices. But they do what they do well.
Details: $7.25. 124 Brevard Court, 704-372-4442. 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Also spelled Joe Mama’s, in a small shopping center on South Tryon Street. A simple and friendly place (I got three “no worries” placing a single order.)
The steak is chopped, but it’s moist with plenty of beefy flavor. Peppers, onions and mushrooms are available as add-ons. The cheese is a cheese sauce, which adds a creamy touch.
Extra: They stock Tony’s Ice Cream from Gastonia in several flavors.
Details: 6-inch ($6.25), 8-inch ($7.25), 12-inch ($12). 9124 S. Tryon St., 704-588-6583. www.joemommasgrille.com.
On King’s Drive near Morehead. This won’t be everyone’s kind of place: It’s a bit run down. But it’s also a classic, a style of diner that used to be common in Charlotte, right down to the picture of the Parthenon behind the bar and the hand-drawn signs. Founded in 1969 by the Drosinis family (patriarch Pavlos died on Christmas Eve, but his wife, Alice, still comes in every day to help her sons).
One of the largest and longest we found, at a full 7 inches, with shaved beef piled on warm, soft bread that’s pressed down a little, topped with peppers, onions and American cheese melted over the top.
Extra: Talking to Alice Drosinis about the history of the restaurant: Her husband named it the Philadelphia because “Philadelphia is a Greek word.” Which is true: “Phileo,” is the Greek word for “to love” and adelphos is “brother.” (A Greek man didn’t name it – that was William Penn. But don’t tell Alice, OK?)
Details: $4.95. 1025 S. Kings Drive, 704-333-4489. 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday. philadelphiadelirestaurant.letseat.at.
The Steak ‘N Hoagie Shop
The original location, 903 Eastway Drive, dates to 1978, and it’s added two more locations in recent years (3401 South Blvd. and 1542 Stallings Road in Matthews). It’s includes a separate Greek-focused menu called Grecos.
The basic Philly cheesesteak isn’t their best choice: It’s short on onions and a little underseasoned. But the menu includes a list of other cheesesteak options, particularly the Black & Blue (blackened steak, onions, peppers, lettuce and blue cheese dressing) and the South Street, with steak, two kinds of cheese, onions, peppers and steak sauce.
Extras: Instead of just chips, most locations have a list of hot side dishes that changes by the day.
Details: $4.55 for 7-inch, $7.05 for 13-inch. 1542 Stallings Road, Matthews, 704-821-8574; 903-D Eastway Drive, 704-536-0533; 3401-C South Blvd., 704-525-7006. www.steaknhoagie.com.
What makes a good cheesesteak?
Before setting out, I asked my colleague Adam Bell for his standards. After being raised in a Philadelphia suburb, he also spent a summer working in his uncle’s cheesesteak and hoagie shop near San Francisco. His rules (he has a strong preference for the pizza steak):
1. Start with the rolls. They need to be fresh, firm and big enough to hold the sandwich. In Philly, that means Amoroso’s.
2. The meat has to be fresh and chopped up into little pieces, not just cooked and tossed whole on the roll.
3.The cheese (personal preference is provolone, not Cheez Whiz) should be thoroughly melted on top of the meat.
4. Wit or wit’out? Personal preference is wit’out fried onions. But be generous with the portion if they are there.
5. Finally, top it with real marinara sauce. Not ketchup. What is this, Jersey?