Down in Philadelphia, Tony Luke’s is one of the biggest names in sandwiches. It might not belong to the city’s oldest guard of sandwich shops, having been founded in 1992 by Tony Lucidonio Sr. and his sons Tony Jr. and Nick, but it’s done the work of bringing cheesesteaks and roast pork to audiences as far afield as Bahrain (the location there has since closed) and even into the Pentagon. The chain even once had a Manhattan location, long ago. And it’s now back in New York. Run by MBB Management — which counts Tony Jr.’s son Joe among its leadership — Tony Luke’s has opened a Downtown Brooklyn location that’s promised be the first of seven franchises planned for all five boroughs, Long Island, and Yonkers. New York, of course, is a Serious Sandwich Town, so Grub Street recruited cheesesteak skeptic Adam Platt to the new store for one sandwich in the classic “Whiz wit” fashion, and another with provolone. Here’s what you need to know.
The biggest hurdle: Cheesesteaks are almost always something of a letdown.
“It’s one of the great elemental sandwich names,” says Platt. “It promises so much, but here’s the thing — the cheesesteak rarely delivers, in my humble opinion.” In fact, our critic confesses to “actively” avoiding the sandwich throughout his years of professional and amateur eating. “I’ve always felt that the cheesesteak is not worth the effort, not worth the sense of residual sadness that it will cause you, like literally within 15 seconds of maybe finishing just the first half of one,” he explains. “The steak is always crappy. In fact, if you listen to the connoisseurs, which I have at some length, it’s supposed to be crappy.”
And yet …
Despite his general aversion, Platt couldn’t help but admit that Tony Luke’s gets some things completely right: “This is a nice, dense, tightly wound sandwich. A tightly wound cheesesteak is a good thing: You can eat it on the go, or while driving your car, and in the dead of night, it can even double as a weapon.” Noting that the meat itself was “semi-bountiful and properly shitty,” our critic still felt like it would benefit from some added layer of excitement: “I’m already craving a bit of mayo or ketchup, or a schmear of spicy peppers.”
Despite tradition, the version with provolone is far superior to the one with Cheez Whiz.
As Platt notes, some aspects of a cheesesteak are non-negotiable: “The meat and onions should be greasy, the bun should be pliable and store-bought, while the sainted Cheez Whiz should be the color and consistency of a recently melted traffic cone.” And yet, the truth is that you’re better served if you take an alternative approach with the cheese. “The provolone doesn’t saturate the sandwich in a kind of gruesome, congealed death grip of grease and despair,” Platt observed as he sank into his second sandwich. “As a nontraditionalist, I’m happy to occupy the melted-provolone camp, although my Philly friends will probably kill me.” (He would admit, though, that the Whiz had “an alluring, midnight-hazmat glow to it.”)
The bread is killer.
The loaves used at Tony Luke’s are better than you might expect from a place that’s primed for fast-food expansion: “It’s nicely sized, not too big, not too small, crunchy on the outside, and soft within. It’s pretty excellent for a willfully unhealthy junk food operation.”
The best time to eat this sandwich is after a few drinks.
“Who would have a cheesesteak for lunch in the middle of a weekday? What kind of lunatic would do that?” Platt mused as we gobbled up our own midday sandwiches. “If it’s a late-night, pre-hangover kind of thing,” our critic noted, “the verdict might be different — at its best, the cheesesteak is a forbidden, slummy pleasure, as even the high cheesesteak snobs will tell you.”
Don’t skip Tony Luke’s roast pork.
For the sake of thoroughness, we also ordered Tony Luke’s roast pork sandwich — which outshone the cheesesteak and was, it’s worth saying, a properly delicious sandwich. “I feel like I’m actually eating a distinguishable dish as opposed to just a caricature of one,” Platt observed. “I’m not going to say that was better than a porchetta sandwich I had in Italy, but I don’t think the Roman butcher-baker who turned out the porchetta would be too unhappy with this sandwich.”
All told, the sandwiches are nevertheless very solid.
Despite the harsh words, Platt had to admit that the sandwich was at least medium-satisfying, “which considering my prejudice and aversion to the cheesesteak is a kind of triumph.”
Tony Luke’s, 6 Flatbush Ave., nr. Fulton St.; 718-855-8669