So far, Philly-style cheesesteaks have had a tough time entering the “convenience food” marketplace. It’s just too easy to microwave a burrito or some other cheap tray of muck. Even White Castle has managed to translate their steamed cheeseburgers into a reasonable flash-frozen version of themselves. For anyone who wants to impulse-eat a Philly cheesesteak, though, the options are few. You can, of course, cook a rib eye, freeze it, slice it paper-thin on a slicer, then serve it on top of your own homemade buns. And we certainly do give some recipes this “start-to-finish” treatment. When the urge for a cheesesteak hits, though, it’s often without a lot of time to plan, or to get yourself to Philadelphia.
Quick-and-dirty instant cheesesteak options are few, and I’ve tried them all. Deli-sliced roast beef warmed in a pan with melted cheese isn’t quite the same thing. The frozen options presented by the good people at Steak-Umm are certainly delicious, provided it’s three in the morning and you’ve been drinking for two days straight, but they aren’t exactly true to the intent of the classic cheesesteak. The butcher sells a thinly-sliced shaved meat product, but again, if I’ve got that kind of time to plan, I’m typically going to be planning to cook something else.
It was with a fair amount of cynicism, then, that I approached the Steak-Eze Angus Philly Cheese Steak Kit. Any attempt at these kinds of pre-packaged sandwiches have been terribly depressing: little stubby things that dry out in the microwave, the flavorless cheese doing little to save the dried out beef bits and the bread that gets oddly toasted when exposed to the radiation of a microwave. Instead, prepackaged hot sandwiches always remind me of the kind of food you are served on a budget airplane trip to Orlando, where the flight attendant wordlessly throws a bag of grey beef and cheese onto your tray, the inside of the clear plastic filled with droplets of condensation, while your seatmate walks you through the intricate details of her prominently-displayed collection of Disney princess pins. I simply don’t eat these kinds of sandwiches often, because I strive to maintain some semblance of joy and optimism in my life.
Joy and optimism are not, however, what the “America! Presents” series are all about, so I knew on sight that I had found a good potential product for this site.
The Steak-Eze Angus Philly Cheese Steak Kit doesn’t bother with a lot of flashy packaging, outrageous product claims, or mildly inappropriate Canadian cartoon mascots. Sensing that their place in the market must be secure, they even downplay their most significant claim, rendering it in tiny type at the very top of the package. It wasn’t, in fact, until I got the box home and started obsessively photographing it that I noticed the small red ribbon, understated, that says simply: “The Leader in Philly Style Steaks® at Restaurants Nationwide.”
This was huge. The suggestion, of course, is that the Angus Philly Cheese Steak Kit is only a secondary product for the people at Steak-Eze; that in fact, their business is in restaurant supply, and these frozen dinner kits are simply a side business. It also suggests that as suppliers to the restaurant world, that I may have already eaten (and potentially enjoyed?) a Steak-Eze product at some point.
I was also surprised when I noticed the step-by-step cooking instructions on the side panel. Cooking instructions? Usually, the cooking instructions on these products are limited to “Microwave on high” and “Warning: Cooked food will be hot.” I was stunned to see that instead, cooking my Angus Philly Cheese Steak Kit was going to be a bit of a process, where I was heating rolls in the oven, and cooking the beef, onion, and cheese in a skillet on the stove. It seemed terribly complicated, but the photographs illustrated the process thoroughly, and after a nap, I felt up to the task.
Flipping open the lid of the box to examine the contents revealed even more startling discoveries. My first thought was that the four plastic bags of ingredients inside appeared to be made of real food, a manufacturing decision nearly unheard of in the frozen convenience food space. There was a bag with two rolls, individual bags of shredded mozzarella and big, irregular shards of onion, and a fourth bag filled with what looked like honest-to-goodness sirloin, marbled with both fat and lean meat.
I tossed the rolls on a baking sheet, as instructed on the box, and turned my attention to cooking the other ingredients. The beef browned nicely, and I “chopped gently with a spatula” as it cooked. Two minutes, and in went the onions, which cooked so quickly that I assume they must be par-boiled before freezing. Another minute or two, and then I added a thick layer of shredded mozzarella cheese, which melted quickly.
The rolls were done in about eight minutes. I wasn’t expecting much from any bread product that could go from frozen to cooked in such a short amount of time, expecting them to be dry and brittle. Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened the oven to find rolls with a slight chew on the outside, with soft, supple white bread inside. They were cooked perfectly, and rivaled at least the rolls found in the bakery department of our local supermarket.
The assembled sandwich was, if not exactly impressive, at least not at all disappointing. The chopped texture of the beef (which I have since learned is referred to in industry terms as “breakaway meat”) is what has been missing from my own only mildly successful experiments with cooking cheesesteaks at home. The beef itself was salty and flavorful, thanks no doubt in part to it “Contain[ing] up to 15% solution,” which a helpful asterisk explains is a combination of salt, dextrose, sodium phospate, and natural flavoring. The onions cooked quickly and retained some of the character of using fresh, and the cheese melted into all of the nooks and crannies appropriately.
I suppose the only question is, with all of the actual cooking involved (you’ll dirty at least two pans, heat the oven up, AND use the stovetop), what is the goal of this product? At first, I mistakenly thought it was to offer convenience. By that measure, this product isn’t really a success; preparing it is decidedly inconvenient, and during times when that is the most defining characteristic of what I’m eating, I will reach for a frozen chimichanga before I set to preparing an Angus Philly Cheese Steak Kit.
The goal certainly can’t be cost. At six or seven bucks, depending on where you shop, the Steak-Eze Angus Philly Cheese Steak Kit is hardly a bargain. Spending an even ten dollars would buy enough product to make as many as six cheesesteaks, using fresh ingredients. Still, at three dollars per sandwich, I have certainly spent more money for worse sandwiches.
I believe that Cincinnati-based AdvancePierre Foods, Inc. has to have something else in mind. It seems they really are trying to bring ingredients that are specific to the authentic cheesesteak experience, ingredients that may not be readily available on the consumer level, direct to the home kitchen. In that way, the product is a complete success. I don’t have ready access to “breakaway meat,” and even if I did, I’m probably not prepared to buy it in the quantities that restaurants would. For the twice a year that I really want a cheesesteak, the Steak-Eze Angus Philly Cheese Steak Kit makes it possible to create a reasonable copycat of the version at the corner store right in my own kitchen, using the same ingredients many of the pros use. It’s not a product I will buy often, and it certainly can’t compare to a fresh cheesesteak made right in front of you, but it is one that I will buy again.
Working on this series has presented me with some wonderful opportunities to be critical of some truly horrifying frozen food products. Which frankly, is tons of fun, since it’s not often you get to wax poetic for 1200 words over whether or not “macaroni and cheese” should be considered a flavor or a topping. It’s always much easier to tear a product down than to praise it, much more difficult to acknowledge and admit that something could emerge from the world of mass-produced American supermarket hysteria and be, if not a new staple of your diet, at least, say, good in a pinch.
As we say at the bottom of each post in this series, “Synthesized from non-ingredients, mass-produced and marketed with breathless excitement, most of these items are pretty disappointing. Some day, we will find a winner. But probably not.” I’m happy to say that the Steak-Eze Angus Philly Cheese Steak Kit may be as close to this idealized dream as we may ever come. I’m as surprised as you are.
(Nutrition Facts — 1 sandwich — 520 calories, 180 calories from fat, 20 grams of total fat, 9 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 70 milligrams of cholesterol, 960 milligrams of sodium, 56 grams of total carbohydrates, 4 grams of dietary fiber, 2 grams of sugars, and 26 grams of protein.)