A cheesesteak by another name may bring a new crowd to an old place

    When it was announced that Chink’s would change its name to Joe’s Steak & Soda Shop, I was delighted: Finally, I would taste what is thought of as one of the finest steaks in Philly and decide where it fit into the cheesesteak pantheon. A gap in my food knowledge would, at last, be filled.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    After almost a decade writing about food in Philadelphia, I avoid the C word. I’m tired of the greasy cheesesteak as symbolic shorthand for our food culture.

    But if I’m really pressed for a recommendation, I have for years been sending hungry visitors to Steve’s Prince of Steaks (7200 Bustleton Ave.). I may not possess the greatest enthusiasm for Philly’s most iconic foodstuff, but I have eaten most of the available options, and mine is a reasonably well-informed opinion. Still there was always one place missing from my research list: Chink’s.

    The omission was never due to the restaurant’s far-Northeast location (6030 Torresdale Ave.), long waits or cramped space. It was the name. The original owner, Sam Sherman (who is white), was nicknamed “Chink” as a kid, and the business was named after him. The back story does’t change the fact that the word is an ugly ethnic slur. I didn’t want to mention it in print or spend my money there.

    Not politically correct, just correct

    When it was announced a few weeks back that the name would be changed to Joe’s Steak & Soda Shop (after Joe Groh, who bought the business from Sherman years ago), I was delighted, even if the switch was long overdue. Finally, I would taste what is thought of by many food enthusiasts as one of the finest steaks in town and decide where it fit into the pantheon myself. A gap in my food knowledge would, at last, be filled.

    I thought the vast majority of the cheesesteak-eating public would share in my approval. Maybe they do, but a very vocal contingent has been talking to reporters, blowing up foodie message boards, and leaving comments all over the internet voicing their disappointment — that this change is political correctness taken too far. Some regulars reportedly threatened never to return if Groh dared to make the name switch.

    The phrase “politically correct” implies a lack of sincerity, a sense that the correcrtive action is meant only to gain some advantage. Groh may have changed the name only to grow his business, but I would rather think better of him. I want to assume he changed the name because it was the right thing to do. Respect and sensitivity are basic values, not political correctness. The risks involved with changing a long-established brand are high, after all.

    The test

    I made my first trip to Joe’s on a Saturday afternoon. I tried to find the lull between lunch and dinner, arriving at 3 p.m. Apparently the new name hasn’t driven away customers, after all. I waited 15 minutes to slide into one of the narrow storefront’s ancient booths.

    The wait time went fast as I watched Groh himself work the window-facing grill. Joe’s steak is a chopped style. He deftly flipped the well-marbled slabs of thinly cut ribeye until caramelized. Then he wacked the slices to savory bits.

    Would-be diners continued to line up outside the door as the afternoon wore on in a high-calorie haze.

    As the new name highlights, drinks go beyond the normal fountain sodas with flavors like chocolate cola and strawberry soda. The milkshakes are well mixed and gigantic. The chocolate shake reminded me of the ones my dad made when I was a kid, with just name-brand ice cream and whole milk in the blender. Egg creams, another specialty, are also a sweet, fizzy throwback.

    The steaks themselves really are good. I like the rolls — a bit softer than most — and the way the seared, chopped meat mingles with the melted American cheese and browned onions. With my first bite, the whole sandwich slightly compressed into a single thing, an essential cheesesteak flavor that defines the genre.

    A question of style

    Now when people ask where to get their obligatory cheesesteak, I will suggest Joe’s first. Partly because I prefer the chopped style to the thicker, sliced version at Steve’s — but also because it’s more fun to visit than any other steak shop I’ve been to.

    There’s table service at Joe’s, even if it is a bit chaotic with waitresses shouting orders to the front and back of the restaurant. The service is very friendly, the charming narrow space is like a time capsule, and the food — which has for years been overshadowed by the controversy — is good.

    With Steve’s and Joe’s a mere 10-minute drive from each other, I’d suggest cheesesteak newbies make the trek to the neighborhoods and try both. Each is the best example of its particular steak style.

    I can admit to being ever so slightly oversensitive about certain issues. During last year’s presidential campaign, I swore off one of my favorite Italian bakeries because they said some things on Twitter about  “Obamacare” that I didn’t like. I know a place hardly lives or dies based on my small purchasing decisions, but I’m quick to withdraw my business over an issue of ethics.

    For once, I was happy to reward a restaurant with my purchase because of a gutsy decision to make something right. You can call it political correctness, but I’m calling it my new favorite Philly cheesesteak.

    Joy Manning is a freelance writer.

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