Tony Luke's frozen? How good can that be?

The iconic South Philly cheesesteak , fresh from the microwave. Would it be dee-lish or Nas-Tee?
The iconic South Philly cheesesteak , fresh from the microwave. Would it be dee-lish or Nas-Tee?
Posted: March 12, 2009

Let's cut to the chase: The reaction to the news last week that Tony Luke's, the gritty South Philly sandwich stand, was coming out with a frozen, microwavable/boil-in-a-bag version of its venerable cheesesteak was not exactly positive.

"Sounds gross," was one of the milder e-mailed posts. "Two words," went another: "Nas-Tee." "Blechhh," spat another.

Then they got personal: "Tony sold out to The Man!"

They had another thing in common. None of the commenters (except one, a defender) had actually triedthe sandwich. They were reacting to what it seemed it would taste like: boiled meat? Microwaved bread? C'mon!

I admit it. I was right there with them in the skepticism department.

But I've always subscribed to the theory that every sandwich should have a fair trial before it's hung.

I called up Rastelli Foods Group, the global portioned-meat purveyor in South Jersey.

They're the guys actually processing the frozen meat for their new partner, Tony Luke's Pronto brand.

They said they'd send over a couple of boxes.

"Think of the bag as sous vide," offered Ray Rastelli III, the company vice president.

It was already sounding a little classier.

Philly's cheesesteaks have much to atone for. They are extraordinarily fattening. They violate the letter and spirit of the green-eating ethos.

They are loaded with nearly criminal levels of salt.

The new Tony Luke's frozen baby is four ounces of beef (actually, surprisingly high-grade Black Angus sirloin) on a seven-inch steak roll.

It packs within those modest precincts an astounding 1,980 milligrams of sodium, which is 82 percent of your recommended daily salt intake.

Yes, one sandwich, 82 percent of your salt for the day. Campbell's gets knocked for soups with less than half that much.

Moving along. I was skeptical way before I knew that.

Some things are just not meant to be frozen. In Portugal, they're freezing the salt cod. The stuff is salted to preserve it, for goodness' sake.

They're freezing Italian cannolis. Yeccch!

They're freezing precooked Irish oatmeal!

Cheesesteaks are street food. They're meant to be slapped on the griddle, next to the pile of onions.

In the case of Tony Luke's (now operated by the shaven-headed, second-generation Tony Lucidonio Jr.), that would mean at the flagship stand on Oregon Avenue, deep in South Philly, its neon etching the night beneath the I-95 overpass.

You can detect a bleak, Edward Hopper-esque mood here, at least on a slow night. The cold silver of the quilted stainless. The cashier sliding open the order window, hearing customers, then clapping it closed. Taking confessions. Or so it can seem.

Tony Luke's Old Philly Style Sandwiches has only been around since 1992. But its cheesesteaks are exemplars of the genre. They are not dry and papery like those at Geno's on South Ninth Street. Or greasy and chewy like those at Geno's rival Pat's, which gets all the ink when pols do their Italian Market thing.

Tony Luke's finish-bakes its crisp, almost baguettelike rolls on the premises. (They're par-baked first by Liscio's, the South Jersey mega-baker of hoagie and steak rolls.)

Luke's uses juicy, U.S.-raised basic ribeye on the flat-top grill, not the imported cow meat some use.

But here's the thing. It doesn't travel. Let that cheesesteak (or Luke's signature roast pork sandwich with broccoli rabe) start steaming in its paper wrapper, and say goodbye to good eating. It gets wet. It gets soggy.

It's meant to be eaten right then and there - under the harsh lights, in the unheated alcove, with the bad fries and cheap pickles, your feet planted on the cold pavement.

Yo, you may be frozen.

But at least you're not eating a frozen cheesesteak.

Tony Luke, obligatory chain dangling around his neck, delivered the boxes of frozen steaks himself.

He was nervous that we'd cook them wrong.

The directions were being rewritten, so they weren't included on (or in) the QVC 10-pack, mail-order box. (Supermarket boxes are due out in late April; two frozen steaks, chicken steaks, or pork sandwiches for a suggested price of $6.99. Last week the chicken and pork weren't available.)

It will not be a modest roll-out. Rastelli has 20,000 commercial and military accounts around the world. (Its higher-end beef shows up in most of the city's big, new steak houses.) It sees Tony Luke, who has done bit parts in movies, as a "nonstop publicity machine."

It says it even has investors in Dubai planning a network of quick-service units throughout the Middle East, substituting lamb in Muslim Arab countries where pork is forbidden.

And that's not all: Next up? The company says it's going to launch heat-and-serve El Wingador Wings.

Tony Luke had his own confession to make. These blast-frozen steaks weren't going to be as good as the ones off the grill at one of his stands, which are also in Hamilton, N.J., at Citizens Bank Park, and in the Borgata casino in Atlantic City.

"I'm going after the Hot Pockets crowd, the Steak-umms people," he said. "They don't want to cook. They don't want it in a fry pan. They don't want to boil it. They want it microwaved."

This created a dilemma for the culinary part of Tony Luke's brain.

The best results, he said, come from boiling the pouch of meat, and toasting the roll in the oven.

But the quickest and easiest results come from nuking the meat, and then the roll.

We decided to try both.

The pouches are made of microwavable plastic, the sliced Black Angus sirloin (chosen because it has more fat-marbling than the ribeye) lined up, slicked with a little oil and seasoning, and topped with a white slab of American cheese. The rolls are in separate wrappers.

The verdict

Method I (Nuked): After two minutes and 10 seconds, the meat was done in the puffed-up pouch. It wasn't equal to the Tony Luke's griddled style. But it was moist and beefy, flavorful but not greasy.

The roll? Fuggedaboutit! It was ruined. It was just what the hair-trigger critics suspected - a squishy, doughy, droopy, sorry excuse for a roll.

Method II (Boiled and Toasted): Boiled in the pouch for four minutes, the frozen cheesesteak was a different creature - the cheese more fully melted; the meat tenderer and juicier, even hinting vaguely - strangely? - of the grill.

The specially formulated roll came out of the 250-degree toaster oven after a few minutes crisp and warm, tastier in that sense than the unwarmed one at the stand.

Every one of the dozen or so samplers voted this method superior.

Every one of them was surprised that it made for a credible steak, far better than they'd imagined, as much as they - skeptics all - hated to admit it.

Not one said "gross," or "nas-tee," or "blecch." They did miss the traditional onions, mushrooms, and peppers.

The Luke-Rastelli juggernaut says it's getting on that, developing kits of add-ons, plus broccoli rabe.

They might look into including a Tony Luke's Pronto beer mug.

All that salt leaves you with a powerful thirst.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@ phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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