Wiz Wit

Sandwiches: a love story

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

I know pancakes tend to get all the press in my personal life, but my one true culinary love affair is actually with the sandwich.

Given that, it is probably not difficult to imagine my excitement when, a few months ago during a casual conversation at—you guessed it—a local deli where I was waiting for my sandwich to be made, Shakedown owner Marty Watson dropped the news that the bar on State Street would be revamping its menu and, more specifically, adding Philly cheesesteaks and falafel to the list of available options.

Aside from generating a predictable amount of enthusiasm on my part, this news went a long way toward solving two problems I’ve spent some time considering. First, the Shakedown is, as most music fans in town know, one of my favorite places to see a show, but despite the fact that it boasts a full kitchen, I’m generally not moved to eat there. Second, a good Philly cheesesteak can be hard to find in these parts. Take that problem and increase it exponentially when it comes to falafel.

Watson seemed to acknowledge both issues when he told me that the aim wasn’t to create a menu that was fancy, but rather to make a couple of things really well. Some items that have become Shakedown staples would live on (don’t worry, kids, your tater tots aren’t going anywhere), but the new menu would be leaner in size, narrower in focus and, as the bar owners and staff spent months taste-testing their way to cheesesteak/falafel perfection, more delicious.

Fortuitously for me, all that talking and tasting and testing resulted in an invitation to come taste the fruits (or sandwiches, rather) of their labors. Needless to say, this nearly sent me into a sandwich swoon.

During a recent weeknight, I ambled from my office the short half-block to the bar, where I was to partake of a sandwich sampler lovingly crafted for me by Shakedown cook Colin Fischer (longtime D’Anna’s cook Andrew Butcher also had a heavy hand in developing the new recipes).

The Philly cheesesteak portion of the menu features five different choices, customizable to suit your tastes. All the options skew toward the customary—no postmodern reinventions of a culinary classic here—and the emphasis, from real Amoroso hoagie rolls to the requisite Cheese Whiz, is on authenticity. The Shakedown’s version of the Philly also comes with grilled onions and peppers because everyone needs their vegetables. In all, I tasted three different tiny versions of the sandwich, the Classic (with provolone), the Contemporary (“wiz wit,” as it is known in Philadelphia, which means it comes with smear of Cheese Whiz), and the Pizza Steak (with house-made marinara and choice of cheese).

Of the three, it was difficult to judge what one was the standout. All of them featured simple ingredients done right: the meat is rib eye, sliced while still partially frozen to ensure each piece is of the appropriate thinness and then further chopped while it cooks by Fischer’s specially honed spatula. The aforementioned Amoroso rolls are soft, yet chewy and sturdy, as they should be to contain all that’s inside. So, the difference is in the details, as they say. The provolone is a perfect accompaniment to the Philly cheesesteak and I would definitely order that version again, but my heart will always belong to Cheese Whiz, as such, that was the taster sandwich I inhaled with great hunger and minimal dignity. I was less jazzed on the Pizza cheesesteak, but if you’re someone who favors a meatball sub or some other marinara-bathed sandwich, this is the cheesesteak for you. All in all, the cheesesteaks I tasted only served to whet my appetite for more, and I have a Mushroomer (with mushrooms and choice of cheese) in my sandwich sights. As well, the price of the Shakedown’s cheesesteaks tops out at $8 (half of that if you order the three-inch Philly Sliders), making them a meal that is both tasty and economical.

If the cheesesteaks were good, the falafel was a revelation. To be clear: I am deeply skeptical about falafel, which is a direct result of never having met a falafel that I would like to eat again.

So, it is with much surprise and zero reservations that I say it was the best falafel I’ve ever eaten in my life. Pillowy and soft and flavorful on the inside, crispy on the outside, it was a far cry from all of the dense, grainy, bland, oily falafel of my past. I could hardly believe what I was eating. The Shakedown serves it in a variety of ways—the fanciest being as part of a platter that includes hummus, warm pita and a variety of other fixings, the simplest as stuffed into a pita as a handheld meal—but none of them will cost you more than $7.75.

As a staunch sandwich devotee, the only question that remained after partaking of the Shakedown’s new menu was: Are these sandwiches good enough to be put into my personal rotation? Indeed, they are. Appetite willing, this is a culinary dalliance that has only just begun.

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