Thursday, May 28, 2015

Allentown Cheesesteaks at Zandy's

As a lover of all things Hoagie and Cheesesteak, I’ve always had a fascination with the micro-regional variations and mutations of the form. Not “Arby’s Bell Pepper Deluxe Italian Hoagie” or some chef in Colorado calling prime rib with brie on ciabatta “Philly” but real, natural evolutions of the Philadelphia sandwich like Mexican Hoagies, Quakertown’s “Weber”, or the Norristown Zep

In some cases it’s nothing more than a different name for the same thing - the Weber is really just what we (in Philadelphia) would call a cheesesteak hoagie - in others it’s a small regional tweak, the omission or addition of a key ingredient, or use of a superior local bakery roll. Tweaks that may seem inconsequential at first, but are EVERYTHING to locals or obsessive hoagie documentarians such as myself. 

I’ve long been fascinated by the Allentown / Lehigh Valley Cheesesteak, normally disregarded by Philadelphians as just a lesser copycat or “they put tomato sauce on it or something, it’s weird up there”. Never having had a proper LV Cheesesteak, I was happy to have a chance to stop at Zandy’s, which looks the most old school, and I’ll totally admit I picked over other places because of the cool sign. 

Going with the old school joint is always a roll of the dice no matter what regional food you are chasing - you are either going to get the OG real deal thing that’s been around for 70 years - or a sad, crummy imitation made by people who don’t care who bought the business and ran it into the ground. Zandy’s more than exceeded my expectations. 

First impression is, it’s really REALLY short, at least compared to Philadelphia style. But it has just as much meat as a Philly would, so the meat to bread ratio is on point. The local Malone’s Bakery (also makes tomato pie, which they sell at Zandy’s) roll was delicious and soft but not too soft that it falls apart.

Standard dressing also includes american cheese (provolone is another option, no Whiz up here) and fried onions. I added hot peppers which they applied liberally as is the case with all their toppings. I definitely dig the "short roll & height created by piling on toppings" style as a change from the "long-roll with toppings hiding in/under the meat unless you put them on yourself" style more common in Philadelphia, especially with the "California" steak pictured below. 

And the “sauce” - not just on top, but dripped down into the entire sandwich - was delicious, and brings the whole thing together. The problem of a dry sandwich that you sometimes have in Philadelphia is gone.  Zandy’s sauce tasted mostly tomato-based to me, but various sources describe other Allentown Steak Sauces as something in the twilight zone between marinara, hot dog sauce, and bbq sauce, possibly containing things such as pulverized meat, worcestershire or even ketchup.

Above is Zandy's "California" style cheesesteak, which adds lettuce, tomato, pickles and MAYO to the mix. Delicious.
Anyway consider me a official champion of the Lehigh Valley Cheesesteak. Looking forward to another excuse to head north and make a stop or 3. 

Zandy's Steak Shop
813 St John St.
Allentown, PA 18103

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mac's Country Store & Exxon

15 Years ago on a road trip to New Orleans we pulled off of I-95 and ended up at some gas station that had a weird little kitchen off to the side selling fried chicken and fried potato wedges (aka Jo-Jo's in certain parts of the world and Q-Mart). Being mostly vegetarians (yup) we skipped the chicken and loaded up on deep fried wedges and sides and after being in a car for 15 hours it seemed like the best food I had ever had in my life. Since then I've been dying to get back to a place like that for some real fried chicken. 

Driving down to Virginia to go camping I realized we were heading into deep gas station fried chicken territory. Picked up a box of chicken from the Roadfood-approved Wayside Market in Charlottesville which was really good, but didn't really have that gas station vibe I was looking for. Next up was Mac's, a few miles from the campground and one of maybe 2 or 3 places in a 30 mile radius for gas / water / ice or food of any kind. Basically a house with a gas station, no sign, and awesome awesome fried chicken.

Anyway everything from here was fantastic from the chicken to the sides and the potato wedges. Always some locals hanging out at the tables and chairs and a busy parking lot, as I said this is really the only store or meeting place of any kind for miles in every direction, and they seem to be getting semi-famous for their chicken, which in my opinion was much better than Wayside, and seemed fresher, crispier, more golden brown, juicer, just in general more pride taken in the food. 

Awesome sides too. Nothing fancy, just made with care in that southern way with plenty of mayonnaise and several notches higher than your average Philly deli salads, the potato salad especially. Stopped in on the way out to fill up on gas, coffee, and a chicken biscuit with egg for something like $2. Delicious. 

Mac's Country Store
7023 Patrick Henry Highway (rt 151)
Massies Mill, VA 22967

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Green Dragon Type

Just some good signs from the Green Dragon Farmer's Market. And yeah I came home with a log of that Lebanon Bologna. 

Creamed Chipped Beef at Town Hall Restaurant

I've held a long standing belief that the best creamed chipped beef comes from PA Dutch country and not Philadelphia — although this is based mostly on hearsay, wishful thinking, and tales from my parents of some mythical creamed chipped beef they had somewhere in Ephrata in 1965. 

Most Philadelphia CCB is either wallpaper paste thick (you could hold the plate upside down with no problem and it jiggles like jello) with big slabs of barely-chopped dried beef (not optimum, but hey at least they still have it on the menu, and some people love it like this) OR way too fancied up. One exception being Two Birds Catering's delicious version served at Garage for sunday brunch.

Town Hall's creamed chipped beef - $1.95 over toast / $2.95 over potatoes (!!) was close to goddamn perfect. For real. The beef was chopped fine tender - usually achieved by slowly cooking it in butter - and the gravy was the absolute perfect consistency. And it just had flavor. 40 times more flavor than most of what I've had in Philadelphia. And totally different; a deep, rich flavor from something other than cheap beef and salt. Like there is some sort of secret ingredient- mushroom gravy? beef broth? lard? worcestershire sauce? 

Town Hall Restaurant is located in the Blue Ball firehouse. Although the locals call their town "East Earl, PA" - meaning don't ask for a Blue Ball postcard and save your jokes for the drive home. On a "pleasant to obvious non-locals" scale of 1-10 I'd give them an 8.

Great coffee. fluffy omelets, old guys in tractor hats reading the newspaper at the counter, old bread signs all over the walls, the whole deal, and still cooking some really really exceptional country diner / luncheonette food.

Town Hall Restaurant
4315 Division Highway (Route 322)
East Earl (Blue Ball), PA
opens 6am

Monday, July 28, 2014

Gayle's Market and Country Ham - Penn Laird, VA

"This place smells funny"
"There is a weird room in the back with a giant pile of pig parts on a table"

Red flags for my friends. To me a sign of the real deal. There is sort of a fine line between "uber authentic so-and-so from a shack behind the sunoco" and the sort of place you would see on TV with Gordon Ramsay tossing 40 lbs of rotten chicken into the garbage. There is definitely that moment where you bite into something and think "this is either going to be the best thing I've ever eaten or give me food poisoning".  I've definitely had both.

But it's also pretty ridiculous that our urban minds equate clutter and the south with "dirty" while back home we happily pay $60 a head to eat 4 slivers of "authentic artisan country ham" (made in a place like this) shaved onto an ikea plate in a joint made of "reclaimed barn wood" that probably came from a farm 2 miles from here. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but you know don't miss the real deal when it's right in front of your face.

Anyway Gayle's is the truth. Country ham everywhere. Just piles of piles of it. They make their own, which you can buy by the ham, the slab, or sliced like deli meat. Also other brands of country ham, just stacked up all over the store. And other things like "side meat", ham hocks, pon hass (scrapple), and their own made loose sausage, which along with a styrofoam pint of country ham broth makes the best sausage gravy of all time. The hot dog and packaged sausage selection was pretty basic commercial brands, this is not the place for that. Stick with their home made pork products and you will not be bummed.

And in case the first paragraph makes you think otherwise, yeah this place is cluttered and funky but everything was fresh and rotated and food surfaces completely clean. I feel safer eating here than 99% of South Philly corner stores.

And yeah. Country ham freshly sliced on white bread with mayonnaise for something like 3 dollars. Holy god damn. They also have pre-made country ham sandwiches at the counter on burger buns for $1.25 but they are a little dry. You definitely need some mayonnaise (and maybe a 42 ounce can of bud light) to balance out all that salt. If you are down this way and like this sort of thing don't miss Gayle's. They also have a second location a few miles away that we found while getting lost.

Gayle's Market and Country Ham
5439 Spottswood Trail
Penn Laird, VA 

Gayle's Quick Stop
Highway 340
Grottoes, VA

Monday, August 26, 2013

Leavitt's Bakery - Conway NH

Found this place while desperately searching for vegetables to cook over a campfire. Right next to the quaint New Hampshire farm stand (which was awesome) was this terrific bakery.

One of the older folks walking up saw me pointing my camera at a donut and yelled "What are you doing? That's for eating, not taking pictures! Put it in your mouth!" And stood there waiting for me to  take a bite in a charming New England manner.

Apparently a "Lemon Bismark" is lemon filling and white cream sandwiched on a split donut. It was 99 cents and delicious. We also got an Apple Fritter that was equally as good. 

Donuts in New England are a pretty serious thing but also totally unpretentious and no frills. Atkins Farm in Amherst remains to this day probably my favorite donut of all time. Driving through Western Mass and New Hampshire there definitely seems to be a Dunkin every mile, but also a mind-blowing local doughnut shop full of old timers drinking coffee every 5. 

Read more about Leavitt's from the Conway Daily Sun

Leavitt's Bakery 
(& Whitakers Farm Stand)
564 White Mountain HWY
Conway, NH

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hot Diggity Corn Dog Special

Hot Diggity's special for the month of September. Three corn dogs -each half of a Sabrett natural casing dog - topped with a Korean chili / condensed milk thing, honey dust, and a jalapeno / sour cream sauce.

I love all of Hot Diggity's specials, some of them are really inventive and next-level, but this might be my favorite in terms of less thinking and more eating.

One cool thing about corn dogs is that for whatever reason you don't have the same regional authenticity fanaticism that comes with standard hot dogs - nobody's going to come in and yell at you for making corn dogs wrong, or that you're destroying America by putting Korean sauce on something traditional. Maybe because corn dogs were (probably) invented / popularized at State Fairs, where crazier is better anyway.

Anyway, these things are DELICIOUS, go eat them now, and wash it down with some corn soda or new victorian lemonade, or bring a six pack and make shandies.. 

630 South Street 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hot Diggity / COOK Hot Dog Class Recaps

Chicago Depression-style made w/ Vienna Beef natural casing, also served w/ fries

Detroit Coney w/ Winter's Sausage L-901 wiener and Keith's beef heart chili
Don't miss Drew Lazor's terrific recap of the recent hot dog class and tasting menu I did with Keith Garabedian of Hot Diggity. There's also some great action shots on Holly Moore's facebook page.

Pretty intimidating (and awesome) serving dogs to Rick Nichols Holly Moore and Scott Schroeder, probably the only people in Philadelphia who think about hot dogs as much as Keith & I do, and from whom I've definitely absorbed/lifted many bits of hot dog and Philadelphia food knowledge.

Keith (left) and myself (right)
At one point one of the fancy Rittenhouse ladies (who loved the dogs) said to her dining partner "It's like a cult, a hot dog cult!". Amazing.

May the Forcemeats Be With You : Hot Diggity and Hawk Krall Go Wiener-Crazy at Cook - Drew Lazor

Hot Dog Evening At Cook - Holly Moore

all photos - Drew Lazor / Holly Moore