I have always hated cheese sauce. Aggressively yellow and disgustingly glutinous, the oily plastic paste that always manages to make crap nachos even crappier is one of the worst fast food innovations of all time. Cheese sauce tastes like someone took milk, tortured it for several days, then tried to put it back together with test tubes and pond water. It’s awful. But then I went to Passyunk Avenue.
If there’s one city that understands what true cheese whiz can do it’s Philadelphia. Few places specialise in as many utterly delicious artery-clogging treats as Philly, so it seemed like this was the only place to head for some cheese sauce immersion therapy. Unfortunately, I a) live in London and b) am a writer, so affording a ticket to the States was as likely as me volunteering for a bath in queso dip. If I was going to be converted, it would need to happen closer to home.
As the glut of angry commentators inhabiting the internet prove, Philadelphians are pretty particular about their food. In a city famous for its irate, battery-wielding sports fans and grumpy Italian boxers, one foodie misstep could be the difference between a successful business and a riot.
Perhaps due to the army of paralysed chefs petrified of getting it wrong, Philadelphian cooking does not have the same international reputation as other American staples. Ask most people outside of the States to point out a stromboli or a hoagie and you’ll likely be met with blank stares. Given the wealth of delicious things served up in the city’s restaurants and dive bars, this is a travesty for anyone who likes eating. No sandwich proves this more than the almighty cheesesteak.
To build a traditional cheesesteak is no mean feat. Beef, bread and cheese sauce need to be weighed, measured and played off against each other in exactly the right way. If one goes wrong, the whole sandwich collapses in a gross greasy heap. Unfortunately, there are many such heaps haunting the faux-American diners of London, leading many to falsely believe that the cheesesteak is, fundamentally, a very average sandwich.
These pale imitations, coupled with an insatiable cheesesteak-shaped itch that needed to be scratched, inspired ex-Philadelphian JP Teti to take matters into his own hands. In 2015, he gave up his position at the head of a multi-million dollar financial division and set about creating a proper taste of Philly on the streets of London, proving the haters wrong and launching the cheesesteak back into the limelight. The Liberty Cheesesteak Company was born.
Self-taught and serving traditional rib-eye and Amoroso roll sandwiches from a truck in Spitalfields, JP soon found that there was a ravenous public appetite for real cheesesteak. After enjoying months of success operating with a limited menu and even more limited space, it became clear that it was time to expand. And so, in February, an all-new all-American eatery was launched under the name Passyunk Avenue.
This brings us back to me and cheese sauce. Though the original Liberty Cheesesteak Truck specialised in Philly’s signature sandwich, the new restaurant offers a far more comprehensive view of Americana. This means plenty of indulgent options to choose from, for anyone who really can’t stomach the idea of cheese whiz. As tempting as this approach would have been, especially with the presence of Meatball Parmigiano and Roast Pork sandwiches on the menu, I was not here to retreat back into the comfort of familiar classics. I was here to face my yellow nemesis.
Clearly anxious about the task at hand, I was offered a drink to settle the nerves. Passyunk is part restaurant, part dive bar and is decked out in the traditional garb of an American tavern. As JP puts it, he wants to have customers “believe that they could be eating on the streets of Philly rather than London”. It’s a friendly, welcoming warren that worms its way around the property’s slightly eccentric layout, resulting in rows of hidden nooks and crannies. Tables and chairs are arranged in an asymmetrical jumble and the main room is lit by soft red neon. It makes for a warm, comforting atmosphere.
The drink, which I gratefully guzzled, was another South Philly speciality. Comprising a shot of Jim Beam and a cold can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, the City Wide Special is, according to the staff, a traditional game day drink in Philadelphia bars. For only £6, it certainly helped settle the stomach.
Naturally, I was not going to dive straight into the sauce. First to arrive at our table was a plate of Jumbo Buffalo Wings. In Britain, buffalo wings are another American staple that can be extremely hit and miss. Delicate chicken is often overpowered by acid, leading to a flavour that seems more suited to cleaning a wound than pairing with poultry. Not so here. The wings are tarte and spicy and don’t lose any of their natural tenderness. They’re served alongside the best blue cheese sauce I’ve ever eaten that tastes like liquid roquefort. One bite and it’s clear I’m in safe hands.
Then the sandwiches arrive. To get a full flavour profile, I opted for a taste of both traditional cheesesteak and chicken parm roll. First, the chicken. Fillets of breaded bird are submerged in rich red tomato sauce and topped with parmesan shavings, all stuffed in a soft, spongy bun. Both coating and bread soak up the deep, herby juice, delivering a taste explosion of salt, garlic and oregano with every bite. Sauce and tomatoes spurt everywhere. It’s a messy, mouthwatering triumph.
After these two treats, it was time for the main event. The Passyunk cheesesteak is the antithesis of the greasy pile of greying meat so often offered by lesser outfits. Layers of wafer-thin, premium rib eye and caramelised onions create a crescendo of taste that is all about fat and flavour. The meat is beautifully seasoned and made for the gentle sweetness of the sauteed onions. The traditional roll, made especially for the restaurant by a bakery in Wimbledon, is robust and refuses to disintegrate under the weight of its contents. It is a masterclass in sandwich making.
As amazing as the rest of the sandwich is, the real success is in the sauce. This is no insipid yellow puddle stubbornly clinging to bread, meat and taste buds. Passyunk’s cheese whiz is made from real cheddar and tastes like it. It adds a subtle, creamy tang that coats and improves every element of the sandwich. Without it, it would be tasty. With it, it’s sensational. After one bite, years of cheese sauce prejudice melt away. Consider me converted.
One of the many challenging things about Americana cookery is how easy it is to produce poor imitations. Any idiot with a meat grinder can make a very average burger. It takes real skill to stand out from the crowd. That is exactly what Passyunk Avenue manage to do. By taking classic Philly traditions and placing them in the heart of Central London, Teti and his team have proven that you can create a true taste of America almost anywhere. You just have to be prepared to stick to your guns.