Carl’s vs. cart’s: Cheesesteak battle royale.

I may have admitted it before, but I’ll admit it again – my guilty pleasure was a cheesesteak from the cart just outside my office.  For $3.50, the dude did pretty well: the meat was precooked and sometimes on the dry side, but a squirt of hot sauce usually took care of it.  He also had a special trick to get the cheese to melt – put it between the beef and the bun.  Just the right amount of peppers and onions topped it off, as well as a squirt of mystery hot sauce.  Nothing fancy, just satisfying.

Anyway, for whatever reason (who knows why the carts migrate?), the old guy was replaced by a newer guy in a bigger cart who had frozen, uncooked beef (should be better, right?) but lacked the technique to really pull it off.  Still, when I was lazy, I’d have one and be reasonably happy.

Then we had a giant snowstorm and the big cart was replaced by a tiny, dirty cart, and a cook with enthusiasm but no reasonable technique.  The beef was always grilled within an inch of its life, no peppers were offered (the onions were raw, too), and the cheese rarely melted.  The last straw was a few days back, when he ran out of regular bread and offered to make me a cheesesteak on thick, store-bought pita.  It was pretty nasty.

I decided to clear out my bad thoughts with a trip to Carl’s Steaks’ Chambers Street location today, hoping to at least find something as good as my lost cart-savant had made.  What I found, however, was something of the same approximate genre that somehow managed to be appreciably better – justifying its increased price ($6) and its sister outpost’s inclusion on Sietsema’s 2005 list (at #35).

Start with the bread: the cart environment somehow promotes staleness, but some time on the grill would usually help matters.  Carl’s bread is either riddled with preservatives or very fresh, because it was soft enough at 2pm to impress me.  The loaf is much bigger, too, than the cart version, and I don’t foresee any pita substitutions being offered (can you imagine the outcry?).
The meat is probably the crux of the biscuit for any cheesesteak, and Carl’s somehow balances out natural (not reconstituted, like the oil from the squirt bottle on the cart) grease and tender, unburnt meat.  It was actually not gross to watch the drippings accumulate on my paper plate.  The sirloin (according to the menu, at least) had a much less synthetic flavor, too, like it hadn’t been sitting in a freezer for ten years prior to my consuming it.

You’re always at the mercy of a cart guy in terms of which cheese he’ll use and how melted it’ll be – Carl’s offers the Kerry Memorial Poor Cheese Choice Of 2004 (Swiss), as well as Whiz, provolone, and American.  Authentic Philadelphia sandwich-makers recommend Whiz (as do I), but I think you’d be pretty happy with melted American, too.  Provolone’s right on the line, man – don’t be that guy.

I asked for hot sauce and got a pleasant dose of sweet-hot peppers instead, though hot sauce was available from a squirt-bottle by the soda fountain.  There are a bunch more toppings available (as well as double-meat for $3, and double cheese for 50 cents), but I wouldn’t worry about them too much – I’d worry instead about the poor souls who order French fries with their sandwiches.  For me, the steak sandwich was more than enough.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Carl’s vs. cart’s: Cheesesteak battle royale.

  1. Anonymous

    Dude, I’ve ordered provo, extra wit’ at both Pat’s AND Geno’s, and nobody gave me any shit for it. Can you order a steak by saying “wiz-wit’?” If not, it ain’t Philly. Last I checked, yours was the only reference returned by Google to Kenny Shopsin’s “Mother and Son Sandwich.” Care to explain?

  2. I tried googling with your parameters (I also tried “Mother and Child Reunion,” the actual name of the sandwich) and didn’t return anything useful. Perhaps you’re a better googler than me. At any rate, what do I need to explain? It’s a good sandwich.Thanks for the clarification on the slang of Philly. I tend to err on the side of not using slang I don’t fully understand, lest the locals laugh at me, but when I get to Philly and actually can try some of these places, it’ll be nice to know what the urchins in front of me are saying.

  3. Ando

    Hey I know I’m late to this but do yourself a favor and go to Tony Luke’s on 9th btwn 41st and 42nd. That will set your bar for any future cheesesteak eating. Then get the roast pork with broccoli rape and sharp provolone. I just ate dinner and I’m hungry again just thinking about it.

  4. Anonymous

    The only good cheesesteak is in Philly at Pat’s.

  5. Being born and raised in the mean/hungry streets of Philadelphia I can assure you that there is nothing wrong with provolone. In fact, I’d say that after whiz, provolone is the next most popular choice.You gotta get whiz though. And your sandwich has to ooze grease and cheese in order to be authentic. May I recommend you utilize the Philly Lean while eating? Rather than tilting your cheese steak to eat it, keep the sandwich parallel to the ground and tilt your head and body down to eat it. That way you’ll get the grease and cheese in your mouth where it belongs and may be savored.

  6. Anonymous

    I’ve enjoyed Carl’s since they opened on Chambers, but got turned off to it when I was there last week and saw a roach crawling around near the register. I’m sure they’re in most restaurants, but seeing it turned me off.

  7. Anonymous

    At Carl’s if you get provolone AND cheese fries, wiz is on the side to dip into. Best of both worlds.I’ve never had a problem with them understand short form ordering at the midtown store

  8. carl's i know them pretty well #1 mr.carl is a nasty person he thinks that he can treat everybody like garbage #2 that restaurant in chambers is FULL of roaches #3 when they work in the yankee stadium seasonal they treat the meat in a nasty way no one get sick yet just by luck #4 75%of he's employees are illegal and they dont care about anything #5 and most important they are not clean ….. mr.carl this message is from william franco remember me ???? you know i know you really good!!!!

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