Wednesday, July 15, 2009

I'm Hooked!

I admit that I am a “cheese steak sub snob”....and that was actually before I became a foodie.

I am so picky about my subs and how they should be that I will often eschew the whole process of even ordering one, having discovered that my desire to “have it my way” never really does materialize in sub world.

For far too long, I have been the unlucky recipient of too many greasy, soggy, tasteless cheese steaks. I have endured tummy-aches and alka-seltzer moments from these gastronomical aberrations. Don't get me wrong - I love a good cheese steak sub (especially when I get one), but they can be a very rare thing to find.

For me, a good cheese steak sub conjures images of hearth and home - warm, comforting drippiness. As a child, 45 years or so ago, my brother and I lived for Friday nights - Cheese Steak Night. My Dad would stop at Captain Harvey's on Dundalk Avenue after pulling his rig in for the weekend after a week on the road.

He would bring home subs for all of us - his would be loaded with extra hots. I truly believed in my 8 year old heart that this was the food of the very, very lucky and my brother and I just got very, very lucky. We would fight for the biggest “half” and then for the crumbs and bits of meat that would fall onto the wrapping.

Cheese steak night even continued when my parents moved us out of Dundalk and into suburban Anne Arundel County. We would always joke about how fast Dad could get those subs across the bridge and through traffic and I believed he truly enjoyed trying to beat his previous time. His goal was to deliver the “best traveling” subs, which later became one of my criteria for deciding the best of anything.

Aahhh, the simple luxuries of my childhood. So I was nostalgically excited (excitedly nostalgic?) when I accepted a job offer near Dundalk that afforded me an opportunity to pick up a sub and carry it across the bridge. So, one evening, after a particularly grueling day and hungering for something substantial, I decided to stop by Captain Harvey's on Merritt Blvd - after discovering they have moved from Logan Village via Google. Which is confusing me still, because there IS a Captain Harvey's still operating there as of yesterday, what's up with that??

Anyway, I remember how I salivated on the trip home - the smell intoxicating me so that I was backing into my driveway before I even knew it. I carried my bag into the house, lovingly cradling it like a tiny infant before laying it gently onto the table and unwrapping it slowly.

At least that was what I tried to do - the grease and the gummy cheese was fighting to hang onto it's paper cocoon and when it was finally viewed, I was staring at a giant, rather unappealing mess. I specifically stated raw onions - for my trouble I got no onions at all. The meat was way too much, very dry and strange-smelling. It appeared as if it was lying around for a while (which it was). What little cheese (provolone) on the sub was stuck onto the wrapper. There was a sliver of tomato and a few shreds of lettuce. The roll was a mess - cheap H & S that should have been tossed the day before. I did not finish it and threw the meat I picked off away. I laid on the couch and felt sickish. Needless to say, any craving for a cheese steak went away for a long while, at least 2 years.

So after dropping off my granddaughter the other day and heading back home from Annapolis, I found myself craving something good. Wasn't sure what, but I knew that I would know when I happened upon it. To avoid the weekend bridge traffic on Rt. 2, I decided to take a more scenic route and made a left off Ritchie Highway and onto B & A Blvd., meandering along while I decided what would satisfy my craving.

So I was kinda surprised when I happened upon a sub shop with a sign out front proclaiming “Anne Arundel County's BEST Cheese steak”. What? Who? Jenos Steaks. Why did I not know this place? I was even more surprised when my mouth started to salivate and I realized this might satiate the craving.

I was even more astounded that I actually hit the brakes and did a u-turn - I mean, what the heck was I thinking? Take a chance on a unheard of place that is bold enough to boast that it serves the Best of the Best? Always a kiss of death. A place with a cliche name of Jenos?

Ok, I was feeling a little lucky.....not very, very lucky, but I was willing to gamble.

I entered the tiny shop, it's walls obliterated by snapshots and clippings of who-knows-who and about who-knows-what. I was too intrigued by the smell of steak - emanating from a grill that was manned by the most serious of grill-steak-sub-makers. It was truly like watching a craftsman honing his craft, using his cooking instruments expertly, working the steak back and forth on an impossibly clean grill. He tossed and turned and inspected continuously, weeding any little bits of fat away from the meat and into the trap.

I saw three impeccably dressed sub rolls, loaded with fixin's. The grill-meister picked up the cheese placed on each sub and very carefully positioned it on the mound of steak, allowing it to melt just enough, before turning it onto the roll. With precision work, each sub was loaded, wrapped and lovingly marked with a Sharpie. Several times, I saw him pull the tiniest, teeniest piece of fat away as he loaded the roll with the meat - once as he was wrapping one up.

Apparently, their credo is “Let no fat come between a customer and their steak sub”.

I was thrilled - and ready to order. Jeno's has quite a few specialty subs, some inspired by customers, but I stuck with the basic cheese steak - which will set you back about $8.50. For that - you have your choice of cheese - american, provolone and the disgusting “whiz” and lettuce, tomato, onions, mayo, etc. as desired. Their fries are cooked in 100% peanut oil, but I passed on ordering any as the size of the sub was enough for a meal and then some.

I was fascinated as grill-meister executed his precision skills with palpable intensity - I have never seen such care exercised in the preparation of a sub before in my life. I was almost hypnotized as I watched. When the meat was finally prepared, loaded and wrapped, I had to break out of my reverie to finally receive the prize.

I thanked him for taking such care with my food as if he were preparing it for himself. I learned that he was the son of the family that has owned it for many years before finally stumbling out with the treasure cradled in my arms. I was so anxious to get home and see what I purchased that I forgot to ask him his name!

After arriving home, I noted two things immediately - the lack of grease and how neat the sub looked after being wrapped and riding in the car for 20 minutes. So far, so good - it passed the “travel test”. I was also impressed by the smell of the steak - really, really good. I could hardly contain myself after the first bite - it tasted even better than it smelled.

I realized now why I usually add a lot of onions and hots to a sub - to add flavor. I am not a bland or plain person - but this steak - I could have eaten it plain on a plate. It was that good.

I took my time eating it - and afterwards, I did not feel bloated or stuffed. Just very happy.

I went online and did a little research on them - their web site has their menu and hours, but little else at this time. Their tagline is “Get hooked on Jenos Steaks!”. I also stumbled on a few reviews from people from Philadelphia who raved that this was the “best cheese steak outside of Philly”. I honor everyone's opinion, however, I was in Philly a few years ago and I hated the sub that I got. I thought I was being cool and ordered it Philly style and all I got was a hot mess. It was gross. Plus, I am not a fried onions fan - I like them cold and crunchy on the hot steak.

In my opinion, I would have to say that this sub beats anything I have ever had anywhere. Especially when I am still thinking about it for several days after.

I believe that I got very, very lucky.

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