“I love the dignity in the name Philadelphia, but at heart, we’re Philly.”
New York Times Best-Selling Author
“There are a couple of things you should know about Philadelphia,” my friend Vladimir “Speedy” Gonzalez told me before my first visit to the City of Brotherly Love. “First, Philadelphians are not rude. We may be blunt and direct, but that’s just passion.” Passion? I always thought he was a grouch. “Second,” he added, “you’ve got to know the process for ordering a Philly cheesesteak when you visit Pat’s King of Steaks. If you don’t, you’ll be sent to the end of the line.” Sure enough, the Pat’s counterman didn’t appreciate my typical twenty questions ordering approach and sent me back to the end of the line, halfway around the block.
Apparently what Vladimir called passion is pretty pervasive in Philadelphia. There are dozens of examples of that passion in sporting events, including a notorious 1968 event in which Eagles fans booed and pelted Santa Claus with snowballs. There are also plenty of non-sporting examples. In 1998, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which oversees taxis, mandated etiquette classes for the city’s cab drivers. Cynics called it “cabbie charm school” and derided it as “a class to teach class.” More recently, a 2012 project called “Twitter heat map” scanned 462 locations in the United States for the phrases “Good morning” and “F–k you.” The project revealed that Philadelphia registered the highest concentration of “f-bombs,” but also the highest concentration of “Good morning.”
So, how do you reconcile that dichotomy? “Good morning” is not only a salutation, it’s a wish and a blessing, a life-affirming declaration. It’s hardly a rude or impolite. Could it be that denizens of the City of Brotherly Love are morning people? That the rigors and vicissitudes of the day weigh so heavily that they’re transformed into rude and grumpy people? Could it be, as Vladimir explained, all about passion? “8,” who matriculated at an institution of higher learning in Philadelphia explained the notion of the grumpy Pat’s King of Steaks waitstaff this way: “It’s kind of a self fulfilling prophecy much akin to the grumpy counterman at Zabar’s or the attitude of the waiter at Peter Luger when a patron asks for a menu, or any Jewish deli man charged with slicing the pastrami. It is part of the charm if that’s the way to express the curmudgeonly quality of the service. I would expect no less when ordering.” Extrapolate that charm, that attitude, that passion across an entire city and you’ve got Philadelphia, take it or leave it.
I’ll take it, especially if it means incomparable cheesesteaks, peerless pretzels, craveable cannoli, bountiful broccoli rabe and roast pork sandwiches, sumptuous square pizza, terrific tomato pie and scrumptious scrapple. We were ecstatic to learn about the February, 2018 launch of Philly Steaks, an authentic purveyor of Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches launched by veteran restaurateurs who plied their trade in the mean streets of the Cradle of Liberty. We knew we’d love the sandwiches, were hopeful the portions would be more Philadelphia than Albuquerque, and wondered if the famous Philadelphia passion would be part and parcel of our experience.
Philly’s Steaks was launched by Jim and Joe Lelii, twin brothers with a passion for Italian style cooking. The brothers launched their first restaurant at only 21 years of age and over the years, opened several successful Italian restaurants and sandwich shops across the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Shortly after relocating to the Land of Enchantment, they launched Philly’s Steaks. They’ve got the pedigree and the passion to do it right. In rare lulls in grill activity, we shared good conversation and laughs with the affable Joe, a larger-than-life personality who doesn’t perpetuate the stereotype of the grumpy counterman. He was as as friendly as could be. Look at his Popeye-like forearms and it’s obvious Joe has spent much of his life chopping rib eye on the grill, a melodic percussion of metal on metal as he slices the rib eye into thin, small pieces.
Philly Steaks is a veritable shrine to the City of Brotherly Love, both its heroes and its anti-heroes. Walls are festooned with framed photos of iconic Philadelphia sports icons–real (Smoking Joe Frazier, for example) and cinematic (Rocky Balboa anyone), singers, actors (such as Al Martino) and so much more. One wall used to be dedicated to Joe’s family. Alas, about a year after launching Philly Steaks, the brothers Lelii sold their restaurant to Chastity Bustos who operates the restaurant with her family. Some things (such as a reduced menu) have changed, but Philly Steaks is still your go-to restaurant for oversized Philly steaks.
3 March 2018: Seeing “French Fries” on any menu typically inspires a well-deserved yawn. At Philly Steaks, it inspires contemplation–a deep, thoughtful deliberation as to how you want your fries. Sure, you can save the thick, seasoned fries for ketchup, but how boring is that–especially when you can have your fries with Cheese Whiz, Crab, Crab and Cheese, Buffalo chicken and cheese, green chile and cheese, and Philly cheesesteak? Available in two sizes, regular and bucket, either portion size will sate a family of four. Don’t be wary about ordering your fries with green chile and cheese. It’s as if a native New Mexican prepared the green chile. It’s got both piquancy and the distinctive roasted flavor we love.
14 March 2018: On his one “cheat day” a week, my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” allows himself just a few more carbs than usual. One of his favorite indulgences is onion rings–what Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster calls “vegetable donuts.” Philly Steak’s rendition are battered a bit on the thick side with a panko-like breading. Bite into each of the succulent orbs and the flavor of sweet, juicy onions greets you. Be careful, though, as these onion rings could burn your mouth.
If you’ve ever lamented the chintzy meat portions in sandwiches crafted throughout the Duke City, you’ll be pleasantly surprised (maybe amazed) at how generous portion sizes are at Philly Steaks. Half a Philly Steaks cheesesteak is as big, if not bigger, than any other Philly cheesesteak in Albuquerque. You’d think there is more livestock in Pennsylvania than there is in New Mexico where sheep and cattle outnumber our citizenry. And, if you remember the lawsuit a few years ago against Subway for selling twelve-inch and foot-long sandwiches that were allegedly less than twelve-inches long, you’ll be happy to see elongated, torpedo-sized rolls that probably exceed twelve inches at Philly Steaks. This is the sandwich size Duke City diners deserved and perhaps thought they’d never find in the city.
3 March 2018: One look at the Philly Cheesesteak and we knew there’s no way my Kim and I would be able to finish it in one sitting. It was humongous. Moreover, it was bursting with flavor. As at the aforementioned Pat’s King of Steaks, there’s a process for ordering your Philly Cheesesteak. First you select your protein: beef (fresh-cut rib-eye), chicken (fresh-cut boneless chicken breast) or “impossible”) then your choice of cheese (white American, Pepperjack, Swiss, Provolone, Cheese Whiz) then the type of cheesesteak you want: pizza steak, mushroom cheesesteak, bell pepper cheesesteak, chicken cheesesteak, Buffalo chicken cheesesteak or green chile cheesesteak. While the ordering process may be similar to that of Pat’s, the “attitude” is not. Instead of sass and ‘tood, you’ll be greeted with cheer and friendliness.
If our choice (bell pepper cheesesteak with Provolone) is any indication, you can’t go wrong with any one of them. The grilled rib eye is superbly seasoned, tender and delicious. The hoagie roll is perhaps the best we’ve had in Albuquerque. The portion size–it’s what Duke City sandwich lovers have wanted for years. Of course, one of the most difficult decisions to make when ordering a cheesesteak is what type of cheese to request. We’ve had our share of cheesesteaks with the fabled Cheese Whiz as well as with Provolone and American cheeses, but our favorite has been the white cheese with its salty, pungent notes. It melts well and integrates beautifully with the steak.
14 March 2018: Like me, my friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” Silver has long lamented the dearth of sizeable sandwiches in the Duke City. Having grown up in Los Angeles, he was used to sandwiches as big as footballs. In Philly’s Steaks, he’s finally found a sandwich comparable in size to those with which he was raised. Moreover, the cheesesteak he ordered (mushrooms, red peppers, grilled onions and Provolone) was as delicious as any sandwich he’s had anywhere. My sandwich was exactly the same as his save for ordering Cheese Whiz instead of Provolone. Perhaps traumatized by my inaugural visit to Pat’s King of Steaks, I didn’t order mine “Whiz Wit,” local vernacular for ordering a cheesesteak with Whiz and grilled onions. Maybe next time. At any regard, we both enjoyed our sandwiches very much and thoroughly enjoyed our visit with Joe.
3 March 2018: Freshly sliced hoagies, all served with lettuce, tomato, onion, oil, oregano, hot or sweet peppers, salt and pepper and mayo on request, are an excellent alternative to a cheesesteak (if you can pry yourself away from the sandwich which made Philadelphia famous). There are ten sandwiches in the freshly sliced hoagies portion of the menu. Among them is a sandwich almost as elusive as Forrest Fenn’s treasure, a truly transformative Italian Special (ham, capicola, Genoa salami, Provolone, pepper ham). It’s roughly the size of two, maybe three, similarly named and priced Italian sub sandwiches at any Albuquerque restaurant.
Most ordinary humans won’t be able to consume an entire sandwich in one seating (that turns out to be a blessing because the sandwich tastes even better for breakfast the following day). Most of us (exempting politicians) won’t be able to get the sandwich in our mouths. It is seriously thick and crammed with meats and condiments. The meats (Boar’s Head) work very well with the condiments, the more of them the better. With its sweet and mild notes, Provolone lets other ingredients shine as well as being a great foil for the sweet, tangy peppers. Oh, and the hoagie rolls are fantastic, reminiscent of Amoroso’s, the legendary Philadelphia hearth-baked bread. Joe told us the dough is shipped from Philadelphia and baked on the premises. It’s outstanding bread and the way it’s sliced, there’s not so much bread that it dominates the sandwich and leaves little room for other ingredients.
19 October 2018: We’ve all heard the trite expression, “Pizza is like sex. When it’s good, it’s really good and when it’s bad…it’s still pretty good.” This is a versatile expression in which pizza can be replaced by virtually an “insert your own favorite” array of foods. Sometimes the expression rings with truth. At other times, however, when a type of food is bad, it’s really bad. For me, the “really bad” aphorism resounds with unimpeachable truth when recalling a chicken Parmesan sandwich I had back in 2012 at Burger King. In my defense, I was in a hurry and desperate. It had been years since my last chicken parm sandwich. Besides how bad can a chicken Parmesan sandwich be even if it comes from a chain restaurant I avoid like the plague and The View.
Admittedly, my bar for chicken Parmesan sandwiches is pretty high since having experienced a number of life-altering versions at my favorite red sauce restaurants across the Boston area. If you’ve ever had a chicken Parm sandwich on the East Coast, you know of what I speak. It stands to reason two brothers from Philadelphia would construct a great one…and indeed, they do. As with the cheesesteak sandwiches, it’s a behemoth sandwich best consumed over two meals. The chicken cutlets are lightly breaded, thicker and more moist than most I’ve had. Unlike others, however, the Parmesan is on the bottom bread only. The sauce is redolent with Italian seasonings which evoked nostalgia for Boston-area sauces of my youth. If there’s one thing about this sandwich that could be improved, it would be for even more of that sauce, but that’s coming from someone who loves a great sauce as much as I love a good snow day.
3 March 2018: When my Kim was studying the small dessert case, Joe came up to her and suggested she try the cheesecake which is imported directly from the City of Brotherly Love. It makes great sense that the city famous for its eponymous cream cheese would make a superb cheesecake. Indeed it does. Moreover, food historian Gil (great name) Marks notes that Philadelphia boasted of a tavern called “Cheesecake House” in the 18th century. So, Philadelphians have been enjoying cheesecake for years. You’ll enjoy this one. It’s dense, creamy, buttery and not overly sweet on a Graham crust. Even better, it’s served slab-sized so it’s big enough to share. Take my word for it, if you eat even half a sandwich, you’ll only have room enough left for half a slice of cheesecake.
If you’ve ever experienced the stereotyped seedy side of Philadelphia manners as well as the authenticity and deliciousness of the Philadelphia cheesecake, you’ll love Philly Steaks where you can experience the latter without the “passion” for which Philadelphians are known. Philly Steaks has elevated the sandwich scene in Albuquerque.
2520 Juan Tabo, N.E., Suite C
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 5 March 2020
1st VISIT: 3 March 2018
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Philly Cheesesteak, Cheesecake, Italian Special, Crab Soup, Green Chile Fries, Chicken Parmesan Sandwich