When I travel, I love to eat the dishes most affiliated with that place. When I was in Chicago, I sought out deep dish pizza. The first time I found myself in New Orleans, it was beignets and crawfish étouffée. Going to Maine? I’m looking for lobster rolls.
And sure, I understand that this habit doesn’t usually lead me to good food. For the most part, it ends with me eating really mediocre food, at all the places tourists seem to dig. But I can’t help it. I think the same part of me that loves roadside attractions and kitschy Americana is the driving force behind it (Wall Drug, Casa De Fruta, and The Corn Palace are among my personal favorites).
The first time I visited Philadelphia, my quest was not unusual. I desired a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich. At that point in my life, I had no clue about the Hatfield/McCoy-esque feud between Pat’s and Geno’s in the city of brotherly love. All I knew was that Philadelphia=Cheesesteak.
Thing was, I only had a few hours in Philadelphia: time was of the essence. I was on a cross-country tour with a friend’s band, and we were only stopping in Philadelphia for one night before heading off to the next city. By the time we finally rolled into town, I had only an hour or so before the show to try to find my prized sandwich. Otherwise, I risked being barred from entering the concert (the joys/perils of being only 20 and on tour—you gotta sneak in and then never leave).
I set out with my friend Ben to find the nearest place to get Philly Cheesesteaks. Up until this point, Ben’s tour diet had consisted of diet coke and jerky, and mine wasn’t much better. So he was more than willing to eat a slightly more proper meal than his typical convenience store fare. According to my Yelp app, we were too far from South Philly to get sandwiches at any of the touristy places and make it back on time. So we compromised. I chose the nearest place within a 10 minute drive. It had no pictures, no reviews, but according to the internet, there were said to be cheesesteaks. After driving most of the day from New York, I didn’t have the energy to do much other legwork.
When Ben and I walked into the grime-floored restaurant, I was perplexed. What I had expected was a casual place, equipped to cater mostly take-out orders, and greasy cooks grilling up meat and onions behind the counter. What I found was a casual place, equipped to cater mostly take-out orders, and behind the counter, greasy cooks grilling up…Chinese food.
I snagged a takeout menu from the pile sitting on the counter. Sure enough, the name and address checked out. It was the same place that supposedly had cheesesteaks. I flipped through pages of traditional American Chinese dishes. On the very last page, I found it. Just below the “pork chop sandwich” (?) there it was:
It was what I wanted, right?
But no. I couldn’t. Not like this. Even I had to set some boundaries. I couldn’t settle for a Philly cheesesteak at a Chinese takeout place. No offense to the restaurant, but that’s like ordering a burger at a sushi restaurant. Burgers are all well and good, but eating a burger is not why you go to a sushi restaurant. You go to a sushi place because you want sushi! And you go to a Chinese takeout place because you want Chinese takeout, dangit! I couldn’t get my cheesesteak there! I couldn’t let my first Philly food experience be tainted by what must obviously be a sub-par sandwich.
The evening was waning and Ben reminded me of the time. The rest of the band was already at the gig. We would have to get back to the venue soon to make it inside before the bouncers arrived to check my ID. I wouldn’t have time to find another cheesesteak place.
And so, I did what any disappointed, hungry traveler would do in a situation like that.
Ben and I made it back to the venue with time to spare. We found a spot on a tattered couch in the tiny green room. I unknotted the handles of the plastic bag I’d carried in and pulled out two Styrofoam containers and handed one to Ben. Fishing out two pairs of chopsticks, I tossed one to him, keeping the other set for myself.
To this day I still couldn’t tell you where to find the best Philly cheesesteak. But if you are looking for some bad vegetable chow mein, I can definitely make a recommendation.