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Feb. 10, 2006

Philly Flavor in Silver Spring

by Ethan Kuhnhenn, Online Managing Editor
The cheese steak is an American classic. A native of Philadelphia, this greasy but delicious sub is often the staple of delicatessens, sandwich shops and restaurants across the nation. While the Philly cheese steak has transcended the Philadelphia city limits and can now be found nearly everywhere, is it possible for a steak and cheese to possess the same flavor, succulence and aura outside its Philly home?

One evening, I set out to find if any of our local delis or sandwich chains could successfully emulate the classic Philly sub, a flaky roll overstuffed with steaming slices of steak, dripping cheese, onions and hot peppers. My quest took me into the heart of Silver Spring, where I discovered a bitter rivalry between several competing sub-makers.

My first stop was the Potbelly's sandwich shop on Ellsworth drive in downtown Silver Spring. A newcomer to the Silver Spring area, Potbelly's offers a variety of subs, sandwiches and deserts. Potbelly's is a sandwich chain, so it not only had to prove that it could make a decent cheese steak, but also that it possessed some character that separated it from other franchises.

The hallmark of Potbelly's is its big toaster oven that all the sandwiches run through to get the toasted taste. This taste, along with the quality of meat is what Melissa, the manager of the store, said makes Potbelly's the best place in town to get a cheese steak. After the cheese steak runs through the oven it is topped with spicy peppers and sweet onions, just a couple of the "add-ons" one could select. The hot peppers give the sandwich a kick and the sweet onions balance out the taste. A flaky, fresh roll finishes off the sandwich.

Eating in the restaurant is also an experience. While I was trying to gulp down the hot peppers, I realized that we were being serenaded by a lone guitarist jamming out R&B tunes in a loft overlooking the restaurant. These sort of pleasant surprises are what Potbelly's is all about: interesting music, a casual atmosphere and surprisingly great cheese steaks.

Next, I decided to visit a family-owned deli to see if small-time sandwich makers could compete with the new franchises that pepper Silver Spring area. Santucci's seemed perfect; a family-owned deli which has been operating in the Four Corners shopping mall for over 16 years. The manager at Santucci's seemed quite hostile to the franchises that were encroaching on his terrain (Jerry's is across the street and subway is right next door). After I told him what I was writing about, he told me bluntly that all of the franchises' sandwiches "sucked". He explained that Santucci's used "better stuff" and that each sub was put together by somebody who actually knew what he was doing, not by "some kid who doesn't really know how to make a sandwich." "I've been here for nine years," he added, "I know."

Santucci's steak and cheese really looked authentic. The sub was a full 10 inches, and was dripping with onions, peppers and provolone cheese. The sandwich also tasted great. It wasn't as salty as Potbelly's subs and the cheese and meat had more of a distinct and succulent flavor. The only problem was the bread, which had a spongy quality and was a little dry.

The Santucci's manager had already expressed his dislike of jerry's Subs and pizza, another franchise across the street, but I had to taste for myself. Blair students often visit Jerry's after school, but is it the cheap price (most six/eight inch subs are under $5) or good sandwiches that draw the crowds? Jerry's had by far the best selection of cheese steaks. Where Potbelly's only had the toasted roast beef sub, and Santucci's only had one version of the steak and cheese, jerry had three types of cheese steaks.

Jerry's eight-inch Philly Cheese Steak had the most flavor out of the three subs that I tried. It was also the greasiest; coincidence? The first thing that jumped out is the cheese, which was American, instead of provolone and covered just about everything. Crisp lettuce and juicy tomatoes covered the melted cheese, and on top of that, you can decide how much of the onions and pickled peppers you want (there are an assortment of condiments). The peppers and onions were sweeter than those at Potbelly's and Santucci's, and this added contrast to the salty, greasy and rich meat and cheese.

Had I the time or stomach to continue, I would have sampled every steak and cheese in town. However, having eaten at three of the most popular establishments, I can conclude that even though Silver Spring isn't South Philly, there are enough sub shops, delis, and sandwich joints to satisfy anyone's desire for cheese steak. The most authentic Philly cheese steak can be found at Santucci's. As for the tastiest, you can find it right across the street at Jerry's Subs and Pizza.

Potbelly's is located at 917 Ellsworth Dr. in downtown Silver Spring.

Santucci's Deli is located at 10107 Colesville Rd. in the Four Corner's Shopping center.

Jerry's Subs and Pizza is located at 10 University Blvd. West, right across from the Four corner's Shopping Center.




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  • Jeff on February 11, 2006 at 10:38 AM
    Potbelly does not make a cheese steak, nor do they claim too.
    Santucci's is incredibly overpriced.
    Jerry's has way more than 3 types of cheese steak, and despite the fact they're a chain, they make the best sub.
  • philly cheese on February 21, 2006 at 12:25 PM
    try out philly chessesteak express on carroll ave in tkpk across from 7-eleven
  • Leslie on February 21, 2006 at 5:59 PM
    It's called Potbelly.

    And have you heard of Cheesesteak Mike's? Actually, I'm not sure if that is what it's called but if you swing a right onto New Hampshire from 29 (and Blair) and head down a bit towards Langley, you'll pass it on the right just before you cross Powder Mill. They have EXCELLENT cheese steaks. Almost divine.
  • kate on February 23, 2006 at 7:54 PM
    err you might want to get your facts straight. i work at potbelly, and we don't serve cheesesteaks or anything steak at all in the restaurant.
  • person on February 24, 2006 at 12:06 AM
    nice article, but it doesnt seem like you were looking for an "authentic" cheesesteak as much as just a good one. the original philly cheesesteak is made with cheez wiz.
  • woodmoron on March 5, 2006 at 11:12 AM
    nooooo omy secret steak and cheese joint is revealed....true santuccis eater since birth! and i live in woodmoor...best ever at santuccis!
  • Native Philadelphian on March 11, 2006 at 10:57 PM
    Leslie: it is "Philadelphia Mike’s", and they have a reasonable attempt at a cheesesteak for this area. I ate there a few times, and thought I had found a reasonably good local cheesesteak after years of searching for something decent outside of Philly. I heard they even shipped their bread in from Philly, which may actually be the secret to the perfect cheesesteak (and the bread at Santucci's certainly does not go well with cheesesteak--to dry and crusty...it needs some chew) Soon after, I visited Philly, and realized the While Philly Mike's is still the best I've found outside of the city, it still simply doesn't cut it.

    As for Cheese Whiz, there is some argument in Philadelphia over the proper cheese: Cheese Whiz, Provolone, Yellow American, or White American. Of the two most famous Cheesesteak joints, Pat's and Mike's, one uses Cheese Whiz, the other I believe Provolone. I prefer the White American, myself.

    My advise would include never ordering a cheese steak forma place that would put anything but steak, cheese, and onions on your sandwich without you asking. Mushrooms and peppers are also acceptable cheesesteak toppings, but please, no tomatoes and lettuce and for heaven's sake no mayo. No self-respecting Philadelphian would eat a cheesesteak with mayo. But most places outside of Philly would deliver a sandwich with lettuce, tomato and mayo to you unless you asked otherwise.

    Oh, and one last thing...for reasons I can only guess at, the worst cheesesteaks seem to come from joints that call them "Steak and Cheese" instead. Don't know why, but I do no that I've never heard the phrase "Steak and Cheese" in Philly, only "Cheesesteak."
  • Howlin' Wolf on March 13, 2006 at 1:54 PM
    Cheesesteak Mike's is the best in the area. Their fries are also excelent. Domenic's (further north on New Hampshire, near Springbrook) is great, too.
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