The continued quest for satisfaction sometimes takes you to parts unknown.
Frodo and Middle Earth. Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road to Oz.
For me and my family, one of our quests are for culinary brilliance. Especially when it comes to cheesesteaks. We are on a wiz-stained journey to taste bud nirvana
The Philadelphia area’s signature sandwich is a point of pride. You can only get a real Philly cheesesteak here. Maybe it’s the bread. Not since the Last Supper have a group of people taken bread more serious.
Cheesesteaks, like professional sports teams, are also the subject of debate.
Who makes the best? What are your “Top Three?”
When “outsiders” weigh in, we are skeptical.
What do they know? How many midnight cheesesteak runs have they made? Did they really squeeze onto a stool at the counter or did they get some kind of red carpet treatment?
In 2015, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain visited Donkey’s Place in Camden for his eat-around-the-globe show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN.
“National landmark. Unbelievably good,” Bourdain said after eating the sandwich.
Bourdain’s bold proclamation put Donkey’s on my radar but I never quite made it to Camden to give it a try.
Instead, it took a fictional depiction of a cheesesteak argument followed by cheesesteak run. On a recent episode (fittingly named “Crusade for the Hoagie Grail”) of The Goldberg’s, the Jenkintown-based family has a familiar, and spirited argument over who makes the best cheesesteaks.
Oldest son Barry says he had the best cheesesteak ever in New Jersey on the way to a Flyers road game against the Devils.
Since the Goldberg’s is one of my favorite shows it might have held more weight than Bourdain. Creator Adam F. Goldberg (a Jenkintown native) isn’t exactly an outsider and much of show hits close to home as a child of the eighties and the Philadelphia area.
‘We have to go,” I said to my husband, Tom, after the episode.
“They close at 6,” he said. Tom knows the drill for cheesesteak runs. When the craving hits hard, you gotta go.
“Okay, when can we go?”
It would be more difficult than I imagined. Maybe because I was in a cheesesteak trance, I took the word of Tom and my dad who told me that Donkey’s was only open during the week and closed at 6 p.m. After I did my own searching, I quickly discovered there is a Donkey’s Too in Medford that is open weekends. It is owned and operated by the same people and have equally rave reviews.
“I don’t like poppy seeds,” Tom admitted. “But I’ll go.”
I narrowed my eyes at my partner-in-provolone. My so-called one-with-the-onion mate.
“It’s on a poppy seed roll!” I said about Donkey’s sandwiches distinguishing feature. “It’s not like they put Swiss on it or wrap it in a kale leaf!”
I eventually forgave Tom because he always agrees to drive. First-time cheesesteak excursions with such hype require a contingent. Mom and Dad had heard of the high praise and immediately agreed to the trip.
Dad is quite literally the father of my cheesesteak craze. He not only makes a damn good at-home one, he introduced me and many of his friends to Phillips on Passyunk which holds a spot in the “Top 3.”
Donkey’s Too in Medford is in a over-the-speed-limit-and-you’ll-miss-it, two store strip. It’s a no-frills shop with a few tables, no menu on the wall, and old-time memorabilia throughout. The unmistakable medley of beef, onions and oil on the grill greets you as soon as you open the door.
A mouth-watering welcome.
We ordered then we waited. Donkey’s is not fast food or quick serve. They are artists at work and have been at the craft since 1943. First the fries were brought over. A perfectly cooked potato seasoned with a light salting of what tasted like a mild old bay-type seasoning. A few minutes after that, the sandwiches arrived.
Donkey’s sandwiches come on a round Kaiser poppy seed roll. There is a slice of cheese on the bottom roll, delicately sliced steak, and it is topped with cheese and fried onions.
But there is something special about the flavors.
The roll which many say is the key to any great cheesesteak is close to perfect. Sturdy enough to handle a cheesesteak and fresh. You can’t even taste the poppy seeds. (Even poppy-seed hater Tom and Mom didn’t seem to mind. But when they saw a sandwich sans poppy seed roll go by they made a note to order that the next time).
The cheese is creamy and superior to wiz in every way.
The meat was the un-greasiest variety I’ve had on a cheesesteak.
Then there were the onions. The delicious bands of flavor in every bite that made me think I should have ordered extra. Caramelized to perfection, I would have ordered a few pounds to go and eat them straight up.
All of it is seasoned in a beautiful harmony of salt, pepper and what I suspect may be some secret seasonings.
“Wow” and “it’s right up there” was the consensus after the first few bites.
In other words, our quest for a new holy grail was successful.