"No, ma'am, we make fake ones."
I deserved that, I realized, glancing from the cashier over to the cook. His flat-top griddle shone like the hood of a showroom Jaguar -- not a smear of grease in sight -- but he drummed on it with dual metal spatulas anyway, making a menacing racket and, I'm pretty sure, snickering. I took it as a positive omen. If there was a good cheese steak to be had this far south of the source, these guys had the attitude to make it happen. I bought only a Coca-Cola Icee that day, though. They needed time to forget me.
High noon is the best time to be forgotten at Marrero's year-old Philly's Steakhouse, cornered into the blank face of Marerro Shopping Center. At lunchtime broad-shouldered trucks huddle in the parking lot, golf carts pull up to the restaurant's window, and a color wheel of medical scrubs wanders over from West Jefferson Medical Center. The moment you crack Philly's door, a hot blast of frying onions and browning beef thicker than the air outside exerts a vacuum grip upon the senses, and it doesn't relent until the next time you bathe. It hangs like dead weight over the small, Spartan, fast-food room cursed with Marrero's most overtaxed cooling system. An airport food court has more welcome, and still everyone is here.
The first step to ordering at Philly's is passing the cashier's cross-examination ("Do you want mayo? How do I know if you want mayo? YOU have to eat it."). Most customers then slide two steps to the left to watch the fry cooks hashing raw beef into lean, salted nuggets behind a short, Plexiglas window. These are the make-or-break moments. This is the vantage point from which you decide, perhaps before ever taking a bite, whether to incorporate Philly's into your own preferred restaurant circuit or to blacklist it from your memory bank forever.
I've done the former, and so, it appeared, had most everyone else with whom I marveled over those kitchen athletes as they mangled mountains of beef with the long, sharp edges of dueling spatulas; as they applied seasoning, and then more seasoning, in cascades that cause ankles to swell by sight alone; as they hosed torrents of mayonnaise over any sandwich that asked for it; as they scrolled finished sandwiches into crisp sheets of white paper, grease blotches turning the paper immediately lucent; and as they, well, as they perspired. "One time I thought I saw a drop hit the meat," muttered one smitten customer under his breath. "But then I figured, it's just a little extra salt."
And what's a little extra salt, really, when you're talking sinuous, chopped sirloin and coppery bits of fried onion, their fates and flavors interlocked by an invisible web of melted white American cheese -- all of this shoveled into a soft Italian roll? Especially during the noon rush, when the beef turns over faster than a Sunday breakfast table at the Bluebird, Philly's overstuffed cheese steaks champion a carnivorous, cholesterol-may-care lifestyle. They also provide tutorials in speed-eating, as their sagging bread and crumbly filling necessitate you devour them with cartoonish speed. Tarry and you'll need silverware, which is as unseemly beside a cheese steak as it is wielded against a slice of pizza.
Keep driving if you hit Philly's during off-hours, when over-cooked beef leftover from the rush dries out on the cool end of the griddle.
Marrero's Philly's spawned from the Philly's that operates within Gretna's Oakwood Shopping Center, one of the few malls in America with more shoppers toting daiquiris than Frappuccinos. The mall cheese steaks are good, too, if you don't mind eating in a mall. I favor the sassy cashier, the hard-working clientele and the pitiful ventilation in Marrero, but cooks follow the same technique at both locations, sending the sirloin through a shredder (they no longer slice it, which will disturb cheese-steak purists) before mounding it onto the griddle to be further spatula-hewn to order.
The cheese steak is one of those regionally specific sandwiches that always bears mentioning when it's done well outside the place of its origin. One afternoon at Oakwood a cook molded two Tonka truckloads of shredded beef into a meat raft so solid and absolutely rectangular that it appeared to be part of the industrial griddle itself. Gradually a band of gray engulfed the garnet meat as the sirloin cooked from the bottom up; greasy foam and a compelling beefy aroma spewed from its base, beckoning the mall crowds like a Siren song.
The plain onion-and-sirloin cheese steak heads off a couple dozen sandwich options at both Philly's locations. Most of them -- like the Surf N Turf with added shrimp, and the Cajun Philly with sirloin, shrimp and hot sausage -- appeal to the more-is-more eater. By #11, Phish 'N Philly, and #16, Gyro Philly, you know Philadelphia is far, far away. I won't stray beyond the plain cheese steak again, but you have to eat it.