Cleaning Out My Cabinets: Oven Cooked Beef Jerky

Beef jerky and me go way back.  Surprising, I know, that a salt obsessed portly carnivore has had a lifelong affinity for jerky.  As a kid, I spent my summers hanging around Ravine Lake and throwing in a buck or two every day for snacks like giant Jolly Ranchers, blow pops, and Munchos.  Weren’t Munchos the best?  In the rotation was the occasional day where we picked through the questionable jerky selection at the Copper Kettle and every kid sat around snacking on dried meats.  I was basically the same then as I am now; acting like an expert and aficionado of my Jacks Links kippered beefsteaks while the cretins around me consumed their Slim Jims.  Mine was the real beef jerky, the authentic one, and I made sure I let everyone know about it.  I was probably 8 so, again, nothing has changed.

In college, housemate Davey’s father came to visit and brought with him a large bag of elk jerky he made after a recent hunting trip.  It was delicious and he pretty much blew my mind when he explained to me that he had made it in his oven using a little liquid smoke.  Whatever that meant.  Even if I didn’t understand that liquid smoke was a real thing that didn’t just exist in Mr. Johnston’s pantry and the Flaming Homer on the Simpsons, I was very intrigued with making it myself.  And a brief 11 years later, I decided to do just that.

I got started with the cheapest thick cut steak I could find at the grocery store.  Making jerky is right up my alley since it takes something inexpensive and turns it into something tasty.

I'm not sure whose family these family-sized packs are for but I sure hope they like gristle!

I’m not sure whose family these family-sized packs are for but I sure hope they like gristle!  The steaks looked much nicer in the grocery store, but slid to one end and got mushed around when I re-purposed my backpack as a reusable grocery bag for the commute home

I went with chuck steaks since they were on sale.  Since then I have also used round steaks (since they were on sale that time) and you could probably slice whatever cheap roast is available.  Since the end product is supposed to be chewy, no need to be picky.  You do want to avoid an cut where you can’t easily trim off the fat since fat doesn’t dry and makes the end product not last as long.

The meat sat in the freezer for a little under an hour to make it firm and easy to slice.  With chuck in particular the fat makes the meat less dense and difficult to slice thinly with a knife.  The freezer time helps it stay together a bit better, though I still struggled to cut slices 1/8th of an inch thick.

The slices went into a freezer bag with a marinade of soy sauce, brown sugar, worcestershire, liquid smoke, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, nutmeg, and crushed red pepper.  All excess air in the bag was pressed out before sealing.

"Pressed" is a BS.  In college I watched a friend pack toiletries in freezer bags and then suck the air out of the bag to save space in her suitcase.  She explained it by saying, "I used to date a drug dealer".  Ok then, valuable lessen for me in how to remove air from a marinating bag, though

“Pressed out” is BS.  In college I watched a friend pack toiletries in freezer bags and then suck the air out of the bag with her mouth to save space in her suitcase.  She explained it by saying, “I used to date a drug dealer”.  OK then.  Valuable lesson for me in how to remove air from a marinating bag, though

The meat sat in the marinade for 12 hours to hopefully soak up as much of the flavor as possible.  Over the course of that twelve hours I took time to open the fridge, awkwardly massage the marinade around, stare at the meat for a few minutes, then eventually put the bag back in the fridge.

After 12 hours, the slices came out of the marinade and I laid them out on a few separate plates lines with paper towels to drain off the excess liquid.  Since jerky is just dehydrated/dried beef, any extra liquid left on the meat just makes the dehydration process take longer.  So, it’s good to give some paper towel time.

Window shots!  I always thought jerky darkens to the near black color you expect through the smoking/drying process, but I learned it's mostly the marinating

Window shots!  I always thought jerky darkens to the near black color you expect through the smoking/drying process, but I learned it’s mostly the marinade

While the meat drained, I preheated my oven to 185F (it didn’t take long) and moved my oven racks to the highest and lowest placements.  I put two baking sheets on the lower rack to make sure the entire bottom oven was blocked from drips coming down.  I already have enough issues with my oven smoking due to browning meat inches from the broiler, I didn’t need burnt jerk stank adding to the potpourri.

Once that was all set, I took a handful of bamboo skewers out and started hanging each piece of beef from one end, spaced about a half inch apart on the skewer.  Each skewer could hold about 6-8 slices of beef. The idea is that the skewers would lie perpendicular to the wire racks in the oven with each slice of meat hanging down between the wire racks.  Visuals help.

I never realized before trying to take pictures of this process that my oven light is actually a gigantic floodlight pointed directly at my eyes

I never realized before trying to take pictures of this process that my oven light is actually a gigantic floodlight pointed directly at my eyes

The hanging beef went into the oven at 185F with an oven mitt wedged in the door so it would stay slightly ajar.  I hadn’t thought of this before seeing a comment about it on the internets, but in order to make jerky you need to let the moisture vent out of the oven or the meat will never dry.  The door being open allows air flow so that can happen.  Look at me going all Bill Nye on y’all!!!

Aside from the oven mitt, there isn’t much you need to do while beef jerky cooks.  Eventually, somewhere between 8 and 12 hours of drying you have this.

Everything shrivelled up far more than I expected.  It looked like each piece was about 2/3s the size of when it went into the oven.  It also smelled amazing

Everything shrivelled up far more than I expected. It looked like each piece was about 2/3s the size of when it went into the oven.  It also smelled amazing

This is about the point that I pulled the meat out of the oven for good, I think it had been just under 10 hours.  I knew the meat was ready because the exterior felt solid and had only the slightest amount of give when squeezed.  I also tried a piece and it had reached the right point where there was still a little moisture to the meat, but drying it any further would make it leather.  I removed the skewers and piled the meat up to cool.

Don't get me started on warm jerky.  If you were hoping to make jerky once and then move on forver, warm jerky will derail that plan.  All the flavor and none of the jaw exhaustion

Don’t get me started on warm jerky.  If you were hoping to make jerky once and then move on forever, warm jerky will derail that plan.  All the flavor and none of the jaw exhaustion of regular jerky

Before the jerky cools completely, you have to remove the skewers to make sure they don’t get stuck and leave behind wood slivers in the meat.  Jerky splinters would be bad.  For reference, skewer removal is the part of the process where you end up eating about half the jerky.

Once you’re done with that, the jerky needs to cool completely before it can be transferred to a storage container and the refrigerator.

Lots of window shots in this post, likely because it was the only meal I've made during the day in awhile

Lots of window shots in this post, likely because it was the only meal I’ve made during the day in awhile

Making sure the jerky is completely cool before it goes in the fridge is important because it avoids condensation forming in the bag.  Condensation would lead to your jerky rehydrating.  As long as you avoid that, the jerky can keep in your fridge for 3-4 weeks supposedly, but I’ve never had the restraint to let mine last long enough to find out.

I won’t try to compare this to store-bought jerky because it is very different beast.  The outside of the meat is hard and crunchy, almost like biting down on a stick, but the meat gives almost immediately in your mouth.  It ends up being much easier to chew than your initial expectations.  Also, there’s none of that weird greasy exterior that happens with bagged jerky, nor the paper thin pieces that feel like you are chewing on a latex glove.  Lastly, the flavor is much better; it tastes like real beef and real ingredient.  You can make it as sweet or spicy as you want (I recommend siracha in the marinade) and it is fun to experiment a bit.

Good way to spend a football Sunday.  I’m just sayin’…

Weird Crap I Cook: Coffee Crusted Steak Tips

A couple years ago I got to experience an awesome dinner of beef cooked in chocolate and white wine vinegar at my god parents house.  During the dinner, I got to yapping with their son-in-law Matt who is the co-owner of Black River Roasters, a high quality organic coffee company that gets its name from a river near the town I grew up in.  Matt talks as passionately about coffee as I talk about food, and I feel as strongly about coffee as he feels about food.  We went together like peas and carrots.

Anyhoo, Matt checks in on the blog regularly and I enjoy a cup of Black River Roasters coffee any chance I get.  With a bag of beans in the fridge, seemed like high time these worlds collided.

Clever bag color, no idea what could have possibly inspired that choice

When trying to figure out a good use for coffee in food, I remembered seeing coffee crusted steaks on a couple menus over the past few years.  Apparently the coffee doesn’t add too much flavor, mainly just gives a little crunch and a touch of bitterness.  Works for me, so let’s breakout the $10 coffee grinder that is infuriatingly small and completely unworthy of the quality of beans we put in it.

Grinds enough for only four cups of coffee at a time and smells like an electric train that is about to start a house fire???  Please, tell me more.  A retracting power cord!?!?  SOLD!!!

With the (poorly) ground coffee beans, I planned to make two preparations of steak tips; a marinade and a dry rub.  The marinade was made of 2 tablespoons of coffee, a few tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, 4-5 ounces of white wine, chopped garlic, cumin, cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper, salt, and onion powder.  I also added a good splash of white wine vinegar at the end for a little bite.  The rub was just coffee, salt and black pepper since I wanted to keep one simple to ensure I could taste the coffee flavor clearly.

Sorry to ruin the suspense, but you can probably see that I used too much salt in the rub.  Thank god I love salty beef.  Some day I hope this blog has enough fans that someone compiles every quote that could be clearly linked to obesity, my guess is that one was #129

For the beef, there was no doubt what I was going with; good old trusted sirloin flap meat, or steak tips if you are a New Englander.  The meat is cheap ($6 a pound!), well marbled, and comes from the sirloin so it tastes like beef should.

I love the experience of slowly making my way through a single well seasoned 20-ounce piece of dry aged ribeye for $54, but steak tips are my top choice at home and nearly as enjoyable

As usual with tips I cut each sirloin flap into cubes that will be about 3-4 bites once cooked.  A little over half were thoroughly coated with the rub.

Looked exactly like a pepper crust, and I despise pepper crusts on steak, tuna, pretty much anything really.  However, I thought this looked kind of good for no explainable reason

And the rest of the tips went into the marinade for about an hour.  Didn’t want to risk doing it any longer.

Wish I added brown sugar to this but I was nervous at the time that the combined sweetness of the white wine and sugar would be too much.  I wear glasses or contacts every day and yet I have 20/20 vision when looking back in time.  Took me awhile to identify the yellowish bits but I think it’s garlic and crushed red pepper

With the food all prepped, I fired up the grill and let it get well in to the 600 degree range before throwing the tips onto the grate.  After around five minutes with the lid down, the tips had enough of a char to flip.

Janet has been doing some awesome stuff lately and all, but the milestones achieved by this grill in its first two months of life have really blown Janet’s early accomplishments out of the water

The grilling process would have been the first time I could tell that the crust on the steak was coffee and not pepper.  The smell of coffee was clearly present as these cooked.  Also, I started to get very worried that I had made the marinade too spicy since the smell of the cayenne pepper cooking on the grill made me sneeze and cough every time I opened the grill hood.  Never a good sign.

Rub on the left, marinated version on the right.  Grills look so much cooler in a nice quality photograph

The tips came off the grill and I started to sample a few pieces.  First reaction was how well the crust worked on the dry rub version, but the second reaction was that I put waaaayyy too much salt in the rub.  On the flip side, I was psyched that the marinated version wasn’t chokingly spicy.

I can’t imagine living in a climate where there are no real changes in weather/temperature from season to season, mainly because I wouldn’t have an excuse to eat massive amounts of red meat for three months straight by shrugging and saying “it’s the summer”

The marinated tips picked up the most flavor from the Worcestershire and cumin but you could definitely taste a little bit of coffee in there as well.  The combination reminded me of a molé sauce with the heavily spiced flavors and the bitter contrast, but not quite as strong or overpowering as a molé. I would definitely add brown sugar, less Worcestershire, and a little more white wine vinegar next time.

The dry rubbed tips were very salty.  Like, borderline complete bust salty.  However, we figured out that if they were eaten with a bite of the other tips or the yellow squash they were completely fine.  The crust was almost identical to a black pepper crust but without the punch in the face of black pepper flavor that overwhelms the meat.  The coffee also had a noticeable bitter flavor that was matched by the slight spiciness form the black pepper. The most important thing was that the meat flavor wasn’t lost in the rub, it was just nicely complimented by it.

For the next three days these tips made for a perfect lunchtime salad topping since the saltiness was fine when tossed with lettuce and vegetables.  Watch out for coffee grinds in the teeth if you try this at home, though.

Been planning a mixed meat grill fest for some time, hopefully it shows up next week.

Pete’s Recipes: “Not too much” Chili

The five soups/stews in my rotation for Souper Sundays (the adorable name I use for making a massive amount of food before the work week) are: chicken vegetable, mushroom barley, hambone, roasted vegetable, and chili.  The first four have been covered to varying degrees on this blog, but I’ve never talked much about my chili so I figured it was time to address it.  Also, I didn’t want to do two WCIC posts back to back so this was the only alternative.

I love chili and the best part is that it will be good with pretty much any meat you have in your fridge.  However, over the years I’ve found myself incapable of making a reasonable amount of chili and always end up with a ridiculous amount that I could never finish.

With painstaking precision and effort, I’ve finally figured out how to make enough chili for exactly five large, filling lunch portions.  It’s not traditional, and has a couple odd ingredients, but at least you won’t end up with extra frozen chili in your freezer that nobody would ever willingly eat.

Here’s what you’ll need:
1 medium onion
3 tbsp chopped garlic (about 5-6 cloves)
1 tbsp olive oil
1.5-2 lbs meat
2 tbsp chili powder
1/2 tbsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tbsp cumin powder
1/2 tbsp onion powder
1/2 tbsp garlic powder
2 beef bouillon cubes
12 oz beer
28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 can black or pinto beans (drained and rinsed)
1 cup frozen corn kernels
salt & black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 325F and heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large oven-safe pot with a heavy lid or a medium dutch oven (I use ‘lil blue).  Once the oil is hot, add the chopped onions and garlic.

When you do this you should stir the onions and oil together, not just leave them all piled up on one side, k?  Sometimes I wonder what would happen if you didn’t have me in your life.  Piles of half burned, half raw onions, that’s what!

Once the onions have cooked for 5-10 minutes and become a bit translucent, add in 1.5 to 2 pounds of meat.  It doesn’t really matter what you use for this recipe, I generally use ground turkey or chicken or both, but in this case I used a little leftover cubed pork tenderloin and some freezer burned chuck steak.

Most chili-diehards would say that the ingredients I use aren’t part of a real, traditional Texas chili.  My counterpoint would be that I use a wooden spoon, so it must be pretty traditional

Season with salt and pepper to taste and brown the meat, stirring regularly.  After a few minutes there should be some liquid that has cooked off in the base of the pot and the meat should no longer have any red or pink on it.  Add the cayenne pepper and the onion/garlic/cumin/chili powders, then stir well to completely coat all of the meat.

A good sniff of the contents of the this pot would likely cause some coughing and sneezing, but the spiciness gets well distributed and becomes way more mild than it smells once the other ingredients come in

After a few minutes of cooking the meat, onions, and garlic with the seasoning, pour in 12-16 ounces of beer.  I like to go on the 16 end of the spectrum especially if there is more meat, but it means you will have to drink the rest of the beer.  Cry me a friggin’ river.

Once the beer is in the pot, raise the burner temperature to high and heat until the liquid starts to bubble.  Then throw in those two bouillon cubes that you didn’t understand why they were on the ingredients list.

Dats some good bubblin’.  The wooden spoon stayed in most of the shots just to remind people of my chili street cred

The bouillon cubes mostly came out of a plan to compensate for the lack of meaty flavor when using turkey or chicken in chili.  So I tried a couple bouillon cubes, and when combined with beer it was basically like adding a half carton of beer flavored beef broth.  Certainly not a bad thing.

Once the liquid reduces by about a quarter, add in the can of crushed tomatoes and stir well.

I used to hate chili because I couldn’t stand warm tomatoes; soups, sauces, anything.  Got over that in my late teens.  Sometimes these little stories about overcoming my strong opinions on food make me sound far less like the stubborn jackass that I actually am

Once the tomatoes are well stirred in and heated up a bit, put the lid on and place in the preheated 325F oven for two hours.  I recommend you spend that time closing the doors to ever room that contains clothing in your apartment and putting all of the jackets in the closet, unless you want to smell like the kid who is cooking chili in his pants.

After two hours you can remove from the oven and take the lid off.

I love this part of the oven-cooked chili/bolognese/baked beans process.  Always looks so angry, spicy and thick until you stir together and make sense of it all.  Or at least that’s how I think about it

Add the can of fully rinsed beans and the cup of corn.

The biggest issue with every insistent traditional chili advocate (frigginjerkBrotherTim included) is that if you’ve ever had chili with corn in it you would never ever go back.  It’s just better

After a good stir, the lid goes back on and the pot heads back into the oven for another hour.  Which will leave you with this:

Thick chili is the only kind of chili worth eating, no one wants chili soup.  Type that up in a word document and save it on your desktop with the file name, “important stuff from pete.doc”.  Thx

Once it comes out of the oven, you can take the lid off and put the pot over medium heat for few minutes if there is excess liquid you’d like to cook off.  You can also taste and make any last minute seasoning adjustments you see fit.  I occasionally add a couple spoonfuls of brown sugar to give a hint of contrasting sweetness, which is a nice touch in chili I think.

That recipe should make about 7-8 cups of thick and hearty chili, great as a lunch or even better as a nacho topping.  The best part of chili is that you could add any of the leftovers in your fridge and likely make it even better.  And, as always, just remember that I have no idea what I am talking about and what I am doing so the last thing you should do is follow a recipe I made up.

Pete’s Picks: The Best of Philadelphia

A return after four weeks of graduation festivities and a 400 mile move of all our earthly possessions back to Jamaica Plain, Mass.  My apologies, I really didn’t expect it to take this long to get bloggin’ again but I also underestimated everything related to this move. Mainly the exhaustion and general apathy of being a chubby fella in May humidity.

Anyhoo, with my two year stretch in Philadelphia finished, I might as well wrap it up with a megapost on my favorite food in Philly.  Most of these places are in the Center City and University City area but there are a few outside of that region.

Six blocks from the upscale restaurants and apartments of Rittenhouse Square is the Philadelphia Magic Gardens. It's a lot that was squatted on by an artist and filled with trash and junk that has been turned into "art". The contrast is a dece representation of how different every block in Philadelphia is

Much like the rest of my blog, nothing really fancy on this list.  Some of the best restaurant experiences I had in Philly were at Zahav, Barbuzzo, and Tinto.  The best gourmet food at reasonable prices (because they are BYOB restauarants) were Mercado, Matyson, and Pumpkin.  But you can find out all of that in Zagats or on Yelp.  This post is about the more humble spots I loved.  Here we go.

Vegetarian Food any Meat Eater Would Like – Magic Carpet (36th & Spruce)

This one doubles as also being the best food cart I have visited, and visited regularly.

During my time in Philly they expanded from one cart to two, both around the Penn campus. Surprisingly, the lines didn't shorten at all, just multiplied by two

I’ve talked at length about it in previous blogs, but they serve phenomenal vegetarian food.  My personal favorite is their Magic Meatballs which are made with seitan and sit in a tray of marinara sauce.  I like them served over an iceberg lettuce-based salad with a giant spoonful of their hummus.

It looks like a mess, but this is after my half hour walk home with the bag in one of my wildly swinging arms

I had always assumed vegetarian food was bland and boring, but between this cart and my friend Cindy’s reeeediculous pasta fagiole, my mind has been officially changed.  I think I could be a vegetarian if I needed to, but I don’t need to, and the rest of this blog is dedicated to the wonders of delicious, delicious meat.

Best Burger – Grace Tavern (23rd & South)

Burgers are on more menus than any other food item (source: TBD), yet I think they are rarely done right (wokka wokka).  Everyone has a different opinion on who has the best burger, and some of those barely resemble a hamburger.  Sure, the $26 Whiskey King burger at Village Whiskey is delicious with its combination of foie gras, bacon, and blue cheese, but it also represents what I hate about “great” restaurant burgers these days.  It’s a half pound patty, which is bigger than it needs to be, the bun is somehow still too big, the toppings overwhelm the beef, and it’s way more expensive than a burger should be.

Which brings me to Grace Tavern, easily the place I will miss the most now that I am back in Boston.  Located in the transitional zone between Rittenhouse and a slightly dodgier area, it looks like a dive bar when you first enter.  Once you get settled, you notice a few things that separate it from a normal dive; very clean, excellent beers on tap, friendly bartenders and a small menu of simple but unique food items.  Like the blackened green beans:

My iPhone camera is like the rest of my iPhone 3 at this point: awful

Raw green beans, coated with spicy cajun seasonings, charred on the grill, and served with Grace’s bourbon mayonnaise that would be the most used condiment in my fridge if I was allowed to take it home with me.  So simple, yet so good.  The same could be said for everything on the Grace menu, and that’s why I love the place so much.  They really care about their food, represented by the daily featured desserts that are made at home by the head chef and brought to the bar in a tupperware container.  Lots of care and years of getting each item on their menu right.  Especially the burger:

The burger comes out with the top bun lightly placed to the side, almost like they were asking me to take a picture before I ruined it. But I was too eager and mashed my bun on top before remembering the picture and removing it, hence the mess

This is the South Street, one of four burger options on their menu.  It’s a pile of blue cheese and carmelized onions, served on a perfectly sized, always soft roll with a side of seasoned fries and more bourbon mayonnaise.  No mealy tomato slice and oversized piece of lettuce, just the perfect amount of topping to not overwhelm the meat.  The actual burger is just juicy beef that is well seasoned with salt and pepper and given a solid char on a grill that is likely rarely cleaned, but always cooks to exactly the right temperature.

This is burger perfection, served with a local microbrew or two, for around $20 total per person

I could write a thousand words about my love for this burger and this place, but will stop here.  Grace Tavern made me a very selective burger eater and now that I have moved away it is really going to become an issue for me.  I miss them already.

Most Creative Gastropub – Time (13th & Sansom)

On the other end of the spectrum is Time.  Their core business is the bar with nightly jazz music, a long beer list, and elaborate absinthe setups (if that’s what you’re into). But when I went here for a Wharton event, I glanced at the menu and knew I had to come back with Kristi.  Specifically, for what they called the Chicken Fried Foie Gras.

Effing iPhone

That’s a poached egg sitting on a little chopped bacon, duck sausage gravy, and a battered deep fried piece of foie gras.  A little crazy right?  The flavors are all so rich, but the bites that incorporated a little of each were just absurd.  If you’re ever in Philly, preferably in chillier weather, head a block east of Broad Street and enjoy this ridiculous dish while listening to some live music.

Most Authentic Buffalo Wings – Tangier (18th & Lombard)

When Kristi and I found our apartment, we noticed a small divey-looking bar about 50 feet from the rear entrance to our building.  Once we moved to Philly, we ate there a couple times and were generally not impressed with the food.  That hasn’t changed, but in early spring of 2010 Kristi texted me that she would love to meet for a beer near our apartment.

As I sat at the bar drinking a Yuengling Bock, I noticed that the buffalo wings looked surprisingly good.  Since Buffalo visits have made me a wing snob, I rarely order them at restaurants but decided to take a chance and ended up completely shocked.

I searched for this plate for six years in Boston and never found it. You may think these look like your local bar's buffalo wings, but I have never had a wing outside of Buffalo that came close to these

The wings are the perfect medium size, fried until they are crispy outside and tender inside, and tossed in an authentically flavored buffalo sauce.  Once Kristi and I discovered how good the wings are, we were hooked.  We became regulars, and enjoyed the friendly bartenders, good beer selection, and always cheap tabs.  Speaking of dive bars…

Cheapest Drinks – Bob & Barbara’s (15th & South)

If you are in Philladelphia and want to see an old school Philly bar without being armed and terrified, you have to head to Bob and Barbara’s.

Wasn't open when I walked by. I have pictures from most of my visits there, but all of them would threaten my future employment status

The walls are covered with a collection of Pabst Blue Ribbon memorabilia that would likely sell for over a million dollars on Ebay.  The bar is edged with torn red vinyl, much like the chairs, and on weekend nights a pair of 80 year-olds in velour 3-piece suits play blues and jazz.

But the real reason to visit is the “Philly citywide special” that seemingly is only honored at Bob and Barbara’s: a shot of Jim Beam and a can of PBR for $3.  Now you see why I didn’t share my photos from inside.  Let’s move on.

Best Mexican Food – Don Memo (53 Garrett Rd, Upper Darby, PA)

I spent a year in Philly griping about the lack of good Mexican food in the city once Pico De Gallo started their downhill slide to going out of business.  I knew it existed, I just never put the effort into finding it.  Instead, I would overpay at places like Tequilas and El Rey or get burritos at places like Chipoltle or Qdoba which I generally dislike.

Ten days before I was set to leave Philly, a friend set up dinner at Don Memos in deep, deep West Philadelphia.  Please never make the mistake I made and go there often if you ever live within 30 miles of Philadelphia.  All of their food was incredible, including the margaritas they make with the tequila you bring.  I think about their taco de lengua often, because I don’t know when I will ever get to eat it again.

Again, sometimes food items look so good that I can't stop myself from eating before I remember to take a picture

I am guessing that this tongue was boiled until it was tender, sliced, and then grilled before ending up in this taco.  Combine with raw onion, cilantro, and lime, and that is one awesome taco.  The tongue gave a rich beef flavor and the toppings are a perfect fresh, crunchy counterpart.  Start off with the ridiculous queso fundido and guacamole, and you will be regretting not renting an apartment over the restaurant instead of wherever you live.

Best Roast Pork Sandwich – John’s Roast Pork (Snyder & Weccacoe)

Roast Pork is a very popular sandwich in Philly.  From what I can tell, it’s generally a whole roasted pork shoulder sliced thin and left to simmer in the pan juices.  The most popular toppings are sharp provolone and some sort of cooked garlicky greens (broccoli rabe or spinach).  After having versions of this sandwich at several places including Tony Luke’s, I decided to head out to one the of the most famous purveyors, John’s Roast pork, on my last day in Philly.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Not a beautiful setting: railroad tracks on one side, abandoned warehouse that likely has a few movie shootouts filmed in it each week on the other. Plus, it was 90 degrees and humid enough to make a fellow DB sweat through his shirt en route

I am assuming that when John’s opened the whole area was an industrial wasteland, but in recent years the surrounding region was filled with big box stores and strip malls.  They held their ground and remained extremely popular, but it makes for an odd setting.

As the line slowly moved I was nearly exploding with anticipation as I saw each hoagie get overloaded with massive amounts of thin sliced pork.

From what I learned about marketing at Wharton, this woman should lead off her profile with "free roast pork sandwiches"

After getting our sandwiches we thought we were lucky to find an open table.  Took a few minutes to realize that the direct sunlight made it the hottest table possible.  Perfect for a gigantic steaming roast pork sandwich.

I cant imagine if you tried to take this home. It would be a pile of mush within 15 minutes in a wrapper due to all the juice

The pork had way more flavor than other roast pork sandwiches I had tried and there was also a lot more of it.  The spinach was pretty garlicky, but I like that, and the sharp provolone was perfect.  I sweat through my shirt in time for large pack of Whartonites to show up, but it was worth it.

Best Meatballs and Gravy – Villa Di Roma (9th & Carpenter)

Another spot I’ve referenced in previous posts.  Villa Di Roma is located in the middle of the Italian Market and is the type of red sauce restaurant that I love: 60’s decor, fake wood laminent tables, paper placemats, and everyone on the staff seems to be related.  The second time I visited was in early afternoon and there was a grandmother sitting at the bar rolling tiny meatballs for Italian wedding soup.  Just awesome, much like the full sized version of their famous meatballs.

The four pack with a side of gravy was the go-to to-go order

Aside from the great flavors of the sauce and meatballs which cook together for 24 hours (according to that same grandmother), the texture really sets them apart.  Crispy outside with a firm uniform texture inside that isn’t too dense.  Also, despite the flavors of onion and garlic, there are no big chunks of them inside.  Really good, and they are well equipped for to-go orders if you’re just passing through town.

Top Five Cheesesteak Joints

This post is running long, but Philly’s cheesesteaks need to be addressed.  The crazy thing about arguments on who makes the best cheesesteak is that there is seemingly so little room for differentiation.  Shaved beef, cooked on a griddle, served with a customer’s choice of cheese (cheez whiz, american, or provolone) and hot toppings (onions, peppers, mushrooms) on a hoagie roll.  Yet somehow they are all a little different.

The five most famous cheesesteaks in Philly are served at John’s Roast Pork, Tony Luke’s, Jim’s, Pat’s and Geno’s (across the street from each other). Some would argue Steve’s, Primo, DiNic’s or a bunch of other places belong on that list.  That’s the thing about Philly; if you go to any successful deli that doesn’t cater to tourists, they are going to have a cheesesteak that is better than 95% of the ones available nationwide.  The key is the roll, usually from Sarcone’s or Amoroso bakeries, that serve as the perfect vehicle for a cheesesteak due to their chewy but soft texture and not being too bready.

For the purposes of this countdown, know that I tried these all with onions, mushrooms and whiz (the only cheese for a true Philly steak).  In some cases multiple times.  Anyway, here we go:

#5 Pats King of Steaks (9th & Passyunk)

It kills me to have them this low because they are friendlier than Geno’s (more on that later), are arguably the originator of the concept, and have great advertisements.  At this point, I think they are successful due to tourists, being open all night (HUGE post-bar closing crowds), and continued fame from Michelle Obama and other celebrity visits.  But the sandwich…

You know you have tried to many cheesesteaks in Philly when this looks subpar to you

The whiz isn’t hot enough, the mushrooms literally come straight out of a heated can, and the biggest issue is the steak is always way too chewy.  These sandwiches are usually made with cheap cuts of beef, but Pats is always chewier than its competitors despite being chopped.  Makes the experience less enjoyable when you need to carry floss.

#4 John’s Roast Pork (Snyder & Weccacoe)

While at John’s for their roast pork sandwich, we ordered a couple cheesesteaks to go halfsie splits on (totes).  I had heard great things and some people called it the best in the city.  Although I enjoyed it, I just don’t agree.

Again, direct blazing sunlight. Even if the viewing screen on my camera was a Kindle, I still wouldn't have been able to tell if I was taking good pictures

The biggest issues were the roll and the under-seasoned steak.  Although I think the roll was from Sarcone’s, it was a different variety that was coated with sesame seeds and wayyy too crusty.  Nicked my mouth up a bit.  The steak was light on the salt and pepper which, despite being easily rectified, was a little surprising.  Again, this was still better than 99.5% of the cheesesteaks you could get anywhere else in America, I am just picking nits here.

#3 Geno’s Steaks (9th & Passyunk)

As a contrast to Pat’s, it kills me to rank them this high.  To be blunt, the owners and staff at Geno’s are complete assholes.  Their policy is that if you speak anything but English in their line they will refuse you service, and they are visibly impatient and rude to anyone who isn’t white.  Multiple friends have argued that they do it strictly for the publicity (all press is good press) and it’s become their shtick.  Regardless, it is still annoying and why Mrs. Obama is a patron of their neighbor.

Unfortunately, they make a better steak than Pat’s.

I have probably consumed 15+ Geno's steaks in my two years, but only one or two before midnight. So, not my picture. Had to Google image this one

The meat is always tender and its just a better sandwich overall.  No more praise for them, but if you find yourself deciding between Geno’s and Pat’s, I recommend you choose taste over conscience.

#2 Jim’s Steaks (4th & South)

I am bummed that I discovered Jim’s so late in my time in Philly.  A short twenty minute walk from our apartment, Jim’s looks and feels like a 1950’s diner.

I walked the mile to and from Jim's. It was like my version of the Jared Diet, but as usual my version led to gained weight

The staff wants to move you through quickly but likes to joke around a lot more than any of their competitors. Much better as an experience, and the sandwich is freaking awesome.

I got a little crazy with the pepper shaker on this one, but I loved that you could see griddle marks on the mushrooms. A surprising number of places stick with the canned variety

I mean, look at that!  Anybody who likes a good hoagie knows how excited they are when they have to do some pinching and maneuvering to get all the meat into the roll.  The steak is tender, the whiz is nicely melted, and the onions and mushrooms still have some texture to them.  Messy, but who cares if a cheesesteak is messy; you’re not eating a Philly steak if you have anything important to do currently or in the near future.  Its not exactly a power lunch.  It should be messy and delicious, which Jim’s is…

#1 Tony Luke’s (Front & Oregon)

…But Tony Luke’s wins the grand prize.  The sandwich itself resembles Jim’s in many ways; gigantic, messy, and overstuffed.

Also not my picture, sigh. I have eaten 4 or 5 Tony Luke's steaks, but never taken a picture because I ate them too fast

This one tastes and chews differently than all the others; it’s got a lot more beef flavor and is seasoned very well.  Supposedly, they use only thin shaved ribeye, which sounds ridiculously expensive compared to what their competition uses, but it also makes sense given how good it tastes.  Requires a car to get to, but it really is the best cheesesteak I have ever tasted in my life.

And that’s it for this absurdly long post.  Now that you know what I have been eating for two years, I ask that you refrain from questions like, “So, did they not have gyms or places to buy running shoes in Philly?” and “Are you on Prednisone or something?”.  I am looking forward to my return to in-home cooking and have a few posts and potential featured products lined up.

Sorry for the long break, I think there will be some good stuff this summer.  Thanks for reading.