In a Godzilla vs. Mothra-style Philly Cheesesteak vs. New Orleans Po’ Boy throw-down for the title of greatest sandwich, “Po’ Boys would be Godzilla,” says New Orleans food writer, Lorin Gaudin. “Because Godzilla always wins.” Yeah, but Mothra was never a cheesesteak. And neither was Ben Franklin.
“Franklin was a good guy, not taking anything away from him, but he’s not as popular as cheesesteak,” says Carolyn Wyman author of The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book, a guide to city’s best cheesesteak stands. Philadelphia boasts his gravesite, national memorial and The Franklin Institute Science Museum but “people come here to eat a cheesesteak, see the Liberty Bell and Ben Franklin, in that order,” she says.
You’d think a Debris Po’ Boy would provide a Kumbaya-moment, where sandwich partisans could find common ground. It’s made from swiss cheese and the bits (“debris”) that fall off roast beef and some compare it to a cheesesteak. ‘Some’ being people who don’t know cheesesteaks, Philadelphians would say.
Po’ boys [debate still rages as to whether it’s “poor boy” or “poh boy”] are traditionally filled with fried seafood or roasted meat. Things like oysters, catfish, shrimp with fried green tomatoes, soft-shelled crab, roast beef, sausage links and cochon de lait (suckling pig). But these days you can get everything from Vietnamese po’ boys to ones filled with veal parmesan.
Unlike most sandwiches, a po’ boy is defined by its outside, not its inside. Its baguette-style French bread is the key. And don’t ever call it a “roll.” It’s not French bread it’s New Orleans French bread, explains Gaudin who also runs Five-Oh-Fork, a chef-based social media company. “It’s a creature unto itself,” she says, with a thinner, flakier crust than typical French bread and a cottony interior. Vietnamese po’ boy makers add rice flour to the wheat which lightens the bread even more.
A po’ boy in one hand and a beer in the other, says Gaudin. “Was there ever more a perfect convenience food?” Yes, says Wyman. Yes, there is.
“The problem with a po’ boy,” says Wyman, “is that it’s a bunch of different sandwiches. It lacks a clear-cut identity.” A cheesesteak is one of the few regional sandwiches that’s achieved national recognition thanks to easy preparation and predictable ingredients—a roll, sliced steak, cheese and onions. No, sweet peppers are not standard.
The ideal cheesesteak roll is soft on the inside “but not flabby,” with some heft to the crust. Thin sliced rib-eye (sometimes chopped) should have the chew of a steak without being tough or gristly. Onions should be grilled - never raw, fried or caramelized. Cheese should be creamy with a buttery mouth-feel.
Only American, Whiz, provolone and sometimes, mozzarella, are acceptable. Cheese must blend seamlessly and never overpower the meat. “This is not a gourmet sandwich. It’s bland. That’s its secret. That’s why it’s so popular,” says Wyman. And that’s why cheesesteak stands latched onto the Whiz. Cheez Whiz is a two-fer. Its semi-melted state speeds production and it’s all about bland. FYI, food-service grade Whiz is over fifty-percent cheese, making it is mostly cheese, but not all. If you’re a person concerned with things like this, don’t eat cheesesteaks.
Fans say that melting the cheese on the meat or placing the cheese in the roll and topping it with the hot meat changes the flavor. Ditto, grilling the onions with the meat or grilling separately. Same with scooping the meat into the bread with a spatula or scooping the meat hot off the grill with the bread. Assembly matters.
What po’ boys and cheesesteaks do have in common is that best of each are always found at small family-owned places, made by people who’ve been making them forever and who take tremendous pride in what they do. The flavor changes with, and ultimately depends on, the place where you buy it.
So which is best? Po’ boys reflect Louisiana’s vast culinary bounty and ingenuity. Says Gaudin, “You can’t make a po’boy anywhere but New Orleans. They taste like nothing you can get anywhere else and they’re filled with New Orleans love.”
Wyman says everyone from infants to nonagenarians enjoy cheesesteaks making it the ultimate democratic sandwich. Everyone can relate to it. “They’re the embodiment of Philly’s sloppy, in-your-face unpretentiousness. It’s not meant to be gourmet. It’s meant to be us.”
You bite. You decide.