Monday, August 11, 2008

Jeno's Steaks

Kate and the Steak.

A simple, lazy Sunday afternoon late lunch at Magothy Seafood just wasn't enough. Well, under normal circumstances it would probably have been enough, but for two people discussing food and in search of flavors more had to be in store.

Not too far from Magothy Seafood is a cheesesteak place in Severna Park owned by some friends of mine. Writing about a place owned by people you know is always kinda odd. What if I don't like their offerings? How will that strain our relationship? But it's too fake to write happy-happy, joy-joy things about these kinds of places, so I won't and I'll suffer whatever consequences may come.

Jeno's has been owned by the same family for a generation. But I've never eaten there. Sure, I've had reheated cheesesteaks at their house before, but it's not going to be the same as eating there in person. And while I've been meaning to eat there for quite some time now, it's just way out of the way for me. Until today.

To the Philadephian, or hardcore Philly Cheesesteak connoisseur, the name Jeno's is a corny take on the famous Geno's Steaks in South Philly, but at least it speaks directly of their pursuit to emulate the authentic Philadelphia Cheesesteak. Even the plethora of pictures and memorabilia on the walls echoes that of Geno's in South Philly.

Going to Town on my steak.

Jeno's is a small place with a galley style kitchen and on this beautiful day, it's sweltering inside. Those cooks are troopers working in that heat. There's a menu of stuff available but there's really no need to pay attention to it, we're here for one reason and one reason only - and that's to try their cheesesteak.

Like a Geno's or Pat's, Jeno's offers a variety of cheeses for your steak. Unlike Geno's or Pat's, they also asked if we wanted lettuce, tomatoes and a host of other toppings. It's a Baltimore sub tradition to layer on the toppings but it sounds like Philly sacrilege to me. No to the toppings and just Whiz, please.

Cheese Whiz. That ubiquitous processed cheese topping. If we really sit down to think about it, cheddar cheese should never be runny. It should never be pourable. It should never be pumped out of a number ten can. If we think about it critically, the notion of Cheese Whiz is disgusting, so let's not think too much about it, shall we? Just lather it on and let's eat.

Pat's uses sliced ribeye for their steaks that are piled high on their griddles to handle the crushing flow of customers coming up to their windows 24 hours a day. Jeno's customer stream isn't that crushing so our steaks are made to order. The flavor of the beef is good, but through the prism of memory it seems different than Pat's or Geno's. Close, but different - and I can't put my finger on exactly why. One thing I do notice is the amount of chop in Jeno's meat. It's more chopped than either Geno's or Pat's. Whether that's good or bad depends on your preference. For me, I prefer the larger pieces in a Pat's Steak.

Now while the cheese and beef are important components in a steak, it's the bread that's the cornerstone. It's crucial and critically essential to have the right bread. Cheesesteak aficionados literally fight in the streets of Philly over which bakery bakes the best bread: Amoroso or Conshohocken. Me? I choose not to get into those kinds of fights. I might lose. But the bread at Jeno's is quite good. Soft and supple on the interior while giving a nice, crusty chew on the outside. It brings the steak together and makes it happen. There's a spring in your mouth from the texture of the bread and it's oh so comforting.

Pundits will want to know if I think Jeno's is as good as those places in Philly. And I'll have to say that it's close. About as close as you're going to get without driving the two hours to Philadelphia (considering it's 45 minutes to Severna Park from my house, I could have been halfway to Pat's). The flavors are good. The bread is solid, but what's lacking is the actual experience of going to either Pat's or Geno's. Going there is the magic.

Now, that's sexy...

Standing in line outside of either in the blistering winter cold, while watching the cooks slash their way through a mountain of ribeye is just amazing. Then there's the intimidation of ordering incorrectly where the cashier will mercilessly berate you in front of throngs of hungry steak lovers. Dawdle too long and those South Philly Boys will kick you out to the back of the line so you can practice your ordering skills.

That's the real magic that makes the Philly Cheesesteak experience, not the actual steak itself. And while Jeno's steak is quite good, it's missing the South Philly experience that makes Geno's or Pat's the great cheesesteak.

Jeno's Steaks
552 Baltimore-Annapolis Blvd.
Severna Park, MD 21146

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