Today’s sandwich is the “Ultimate Angus Philly” from Arby’s. According to the website, it combines Arby’s “famous toasted sub roll…piled high with thinly sliced Angus beef. [We] season the warm beef with Italian herbs, and then top it with fire-roasted green bell peppers, onions and melted Swiss cheese, all finished with a roasted garlic aioli.”
Location: 2 Topsham Fair Mall Road, Topsham
Notes: You’re a person that either has Arby’s in their personal fast food rotation, or you’re not. There are no “casual” Arby’s customers. I fall very squarely in the non-Arby’s-eating category of the population. In my 33 years, I can remember eating at an Arby’s exactly twice: Once, during a four-hour trip across central and northern Florida, from Orlando to Tallahassee, on a desolate stretch of highway, cutting through a swamp, where the only lunch options were about 50 miles apart. There, I ordered a sandwich, made with that weird, wet, too-smooth rubbery Arby’s roast beef, that bears no resemblance to anything that might have ever been alive, appeals to no one, and that is always piled really oddly highly and artfully in the corporate photography.
My recollection was that I ate two bites, chomping my way though the flat gray, flavorless meat that seemed like it must’ve come from cows grown in vats of green liquid from the future, before putting the rest of the sandwich on the roof of the car to see how long it would take to fly off at 80 MpH. My other sandwich from Arby’s was even less memorable, eaten while sitting on my luggage during a layover at a tiny regional airport somewhere (I remember, as in flashes of a dream that your brain tries to forget, a dusting of seeds and a room-temperature bright orange cheese sauce). Each time, I swore that no matter what the circumstances, I would never order anything from an Arby’s ever again.
The dining public seemed to agree; the last major expansion of Arby’s was in the 1970s, when the chain opened new restaurants at the rate of 50 per year. Now, my most familiar image of Arby’s is of various locations going out of business, most notably the Forest Avenue location in Portland, which had been operating for 26 years. It was tricky to see how Arby’s could continue to fit in with the modern-day fast food landscape, where non-hamburger options were getting fewer and farther between. I had no problem accepting that a fast food restaurant could be built around roast beef, but if that were the case, why was the particular roast beef at Arby’s so…peculiar?
This was the attitude with which I was approaching the new “Ultimate Angus Philly” that Arby’s has been flogging so hard, as part of their “It’s Good Mood Food” campaign. I was dubious, even dismissive. As much as I love a cheesesteak, knowing what I did about the oddly-sterilized meat and cheese products at Arby’s didn’t leave me with high hopes.
The inside of our local Arby’s is worth a trip all in itself. It must not have changed since the moment it was built, with dim lighting, green wall-to-wall carpeting, red vinyl booths, where the tables are too high and too close to you, making you feel like a little kid sitting at the grown-ups table. My local Arby’s also sports a sun-filled atrium where men in flannel earnestly discuss some sort of UPS shipping routing mishap, a green wallpaper border tastefully decorated with lighthouses, and, I am not making this up, Boston’s “More than a Feeling” playing on the in-store sound system. I fell in love immediately.
My “Ultimate Angus Philly” was, in short, an enormous surprise. When I opened the cardboard container, actual, honest-to-goodness steam emitted from the box. The bread was warmed through, but still soft and chewy. I don’t normally go for hot sandwiches at chain sandwich shops, because the instant-toasters turn the bread into crunchy dust that explodes into shards when you take your first bite. Arby’s, though, seems to have solved this, selling a hot sandwich that manages to keep its chew. The sandwich was piled high with real roast beef, complete with crisp, browned edges, and covered in a still-melting layer of creamy Swiss cheese. The onions and peppers also bore grill marks, and I was amazed at how full of life the vegetables still seemed to be. They were hot and cooked through, with just the slightest amount of snap and sweetness left in the green peppers. Overall, every element of this sandwich seemed to be made of real food, perhaps in response to a growing public perception that Arby’s sells food sourced from the steam table at a hospital cafeteria.
I have no idea how the sandwich is assembled, which parts of it come from the corporate office ready to go, and which are cooked on-site. It’s entirely possible that none of it is cooked, at all; that Arby’s scientists have figured out some mysteriously technological way to synthesize real-seeming food. But the end result is, indeed, a pretty respectable cheesesteak. In fact, it may be one of the finest fast food items currently available. Add small fries and a Pepsi, and you’re in for 1240 calories and almost 3,000 milligrams of sodium, which means that not only is this the only meal you should eat for the day, but you’d probably better get home afterward and get your feet elevated.
Arby’s Ultimate Angus Philly isn’t going to make you think that you have been magically transported to Philadelphia, standing in line at Pat’s King of Steaks. Completely against my expectations, though, they have managed to engineer a sandwich that bears some resemblance to the cheesesteaks you’d make at home, where in their most basic form, their only responsibility is to combine hot roast beef and melting cheese. The vegetables add plenty of charred flavor, and the bread is better than any chain sandwich shops that I have tried so far. Most of all, though, this sandwich forces me to change the way I think about Arby’s ingredients. I don’t know what they’ve done, whether they’ve actually started cooking real food, or their Flavor-Fix Nutri-Matic Rheostat 9000™ has become so sophisticated, that it just seems that way. Either way, for the first time, I don’t regret my lunch at Arby’s. No one is more surprised than me. I might even go again.