You Don’t Need Philly For This Cheesesteak
By Nancy Powell
The most well-known icons of Philadelphia in Southern California aren’t the Liberty Bell, Benjamin Franklin or the Declaration of Independence. Nope, ask any Californian with an open heart and empty stomach and they’ll remind you of cheesesteak, Tastykake crumpets or soft pretzels washed down by a bottle of Rolling Rock Extra Pale (okay, not Philly, but close enough) or Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer, a carbonated beverage that resembles a less sweetened version of root beer.
Criss-crossing almost every major smog-ingested artery in the Southland is Philly’s Best, California’s own purveyor of the cheesesteak. Mention steak masters Geno, Pat or Jim to owner and Philadelphia-native Bob Leavey and he’ll remind you that while these guys are all family friends back in the old country, it’s his particular sandwich that sets the standard—thinly sliced pieces of well-done steak, gooey provolone cheese and sweet and frizzled onions whose flavors seep into the soft, Amoroso steak roll (another import from Philly).
The restaurant locations themselves offer no-frills, except the pro-Philly bursts and art-deco signage so reminiscent of East Coast diners. Leavey and his wife started their empire in 1992 with a small strip mall lot in Fountain Valley to “bring a true taste of Philadelphia to Southern California.” His bargain-priced grubs attracted local high school students and their parents whose word-of-mouth press fueled its growth. Twenty years later, Leavey has expanded his empire to 22 stores, and his Ontario Mills location represents a blossoming of sorts. This location sports an open, cavernous space of green booths, large screen TVs and Philly memorabilia run by the chain’s number two franchisee, the amiable and always courteous Tharwat Guirguis. Like Sam Malone in Cheers, Guirguis knows everybody’s name (at least by the second visit) and he gets to know everybody’s tastes.
The Philly’s Best menu expands beyond traditional steak by including poultrified versions that mirror its red-meat brethren. Philly’s Best Chicken marries chopped chicken breast, button mushrooms, grilled onions and sweet peppers bound together by melted provolone. The sandwich hums with alternating sweet and tangy bites and rivals its red meat brother in skill and execution. Leavey also carries a small selection of Hoagies. The superior Italian sub with a Boar’s Head slab of Mortadella, Capacolla and salami surprises with an unexpected blast of heat from the red pepper flaked hoagie spread. Finally, burgers round out its menu of casual eats, but when in Rome do as the Romans do. In this case, when in Philly do as the Philadelphians do—skip the burgers and stick with the steak and enjoy it with a basket or rings or the simple complement of a bag of Wise chips, yet another Philly import.
Leavey’s cheesesteak won’t be the fanciest meal in town, but the foot-longs and Guirguis’ hospitality (his staff will chivalrously prepare doggie bags without customer intervention) will more than sate working class stiffs like yours truly who desire nothing more than the simple pleasures of a meat-and-potatoes way of life on the road.
Philly’s Best, 4320 Mills Cir., Ste. F, Ontario, (909) 484-7433; www.eatphillysbest.com. Mon-Sat, 11am-8pm; Sun, 11am-5pm. AE, D, V, MC.