Eat Here, Not There: Cheesesteaks

We have a friendly competition around here with our counterparts over at the Register's Food Frenzy blog. Sometimes we discover the place; sometimes they do. Sometimes we concur with their findings; sometimes we don't. In this case, Claudia Koerner was the winnah, writing about a place called A Bite of Jersey, a little corner place in a strip mall in a really desolate area of West Garden Grove.

Well, it was like a red cloth to a bull. You see, as a proud son of New Jersey, I love cheesesteaks. I love them even though they come from the Extreme Eastern Philadelphia part of New Jersey, not the Extreme Southern New York part that I hail from. I don't know what else I would've lived on during the long days staring jadedly at skinny Québécois touristes parading down Jenkinson's boardwalk if there hadn't been a lot of greasy cheesesteakeries.

I have a major problem with cheesesteaks in this county, though. The places I've been to so far have all desperate to prove their Philly bona fides, and they all--yes, all of them--go overboard. Phillies and Sixers and Flyers paraphernalia everywhere, and tall brunette native Californians trying so hard to project that inimitable Philly 'tude. They go to great lengths to import Amoroso rolls from Philadelphia, except that even back East not every place uses Amoroso rolls.

Most places also try to use the lingo that Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks--the two tourist traps that face each other across 9th and South Passyunk--enforce, with blonde Californians trying to order "wiz wit" or "American witout" in completely unconvincing accents, without understanding the idea that the shorthand is part of the East Coast type-A hustle required to get through lines two hundred people deep.

It was, therefore, with a heavy heart that I stepped into Bite of Jersey and saw New Jersey paraphernalia everywhere, from a huge stenciled green outline of the state to misspelled scenic posters (it's Paterson, guys, not Patterson). We get it; you're called A Bite of Jersey; moving on.

Fortunately, ordering was straightforward; there's no need to bellow "WIZ WIT!" and plunk down your money (cheaper, incidentally, than Geno's or Pat's) in a twenty-second encounter. I tried; the counterperson didn't get it.

​As for the food, Claudia got it spot on. The meat was desperately underseasoned; a little dusting of the fry seasoning salt and a little creative massage (which, of course, also spread the cheese throughout) and it was much better. The Wiz was spread down the sides of the roll, with a nice little drizzle on top; the roll was good, not at all gummy or chewy. I asked about the meat and was told they're still getting their bearings, which I hope means the promise of improvement.

The fries, even unadorned with Cheez Wiz, were excellent; piping hot, with a crispness that belied their relatively pale color, and well-seasoned; not too salty, but salty enough, and definitely not greasy. Trumpet those fries, Bite of Jersey guys: they're some of the best in the county. If you just made disco fries--a real taste of home--I'd be there every time the potato urge struck.

Why is this an Eat Here, Not There? Because, despite the over-the-top Jersey décor and the meat issue, Bite of Jersey was a damn sight better than anything you'll get in a food court. The cheesesteaks served in food courts--yes, that's right, the Great Steak and Potato Company that infests every mall from here to the Mexican border--don't deserve the title. I mean, food court cheesesteaks are just disgusting; sinewy, gristly meat indifferently chopped up and shoved into gummy rolls that seem like they were baked as part of a DARPA experiment during the Carter administration.

Head for A Bite of Jersey; tell them to season up the meat during the cooking process, and you'll be much more richly rewarded than going to some awful chain.

A Bite of Jersey, 5244 Lampson Ave., Garden Grove; (714) 894-9900; no website.

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