How close to stick to the blueprint for a beloved classic sandwich is a sometimes delicate decision for a new creator. Stick too close to the tried-and-true, and you risk accusations of being too timid in the kitchen. Stray too far from the center line, and people say you’re not showing enough respect or reverence for the OG hoagie. Working from the original specs, Xavier Jones has reanimated Bigg Daddy’s Philly Steak House on the MASS MoCA campus, and since we didn’t get around to reviewing his Cheese Steak when he was serving them up in Pittsfield, I figured the write-up was overdue.
Showing up at the guard house, former home of A-OK Barbecue on a raw, drizzly Monday evening was a good idea — shorter line, more personalized attention. (Kinda déjà vu, really, since I reviewed their much pined for brisket, egg, and cheese on ciabatta on a chilly Monday too.)
I have to say that the initial impression left me impressed, I was greeted with warm smiles of welcome from the counter folks, who answered my questions about the cheesesteak knowledgeably, and then, almost imperceptibly, upsold me on an order of Dirty Fries ($6.00). I had exactly enough time to use the restroom and order a beer across the drive at Bright Ideas Brewing before a text informed me to return to the window where my fresh hot sandwich awaited.
I chose sidewalk dining and pried open my paper bag (both the bag and staples are industrial strength — you won’t have to worry about a flimsy packaging disaster with this to-go order). The cheesesteak was still HOT, so I nibbled on some Dirty Fries and took a couple different pics of the fare. The fries were exactly right, with salt, a little zing, and some parsley — an unexpected, and very welcome, spice in the mix.
Bright Ideas Brewing has concocted a commemorative beer to welcome their new neighbor across the way — Bigg Daddy’s Belgian Wit! Designed to be paired with really any and all of the Bigg Daddy’s vittles, this classic Belgian wheat ale has mild, expressive citrus and an herbal spice that leads to a smooth mouthfeel and semi-dry finish. I couldn’t resist a pint.
On to the main event.
I have made the mistake of complimenting rolls or bread before, only to be answered with, “I dunno…it’s whatever Sysco sends us.” So I was gratified to read that founder Xavier Jones believes that you can’t have a great sandwich without a good foundation, and so special orders his hoagie rolls directly from Philadelphia. The bun is soft, with a flaky crust, yet firm enough to withstand a pile of meat and onions. And yet not too tough to bite through with ease.
My enthusiasm stops at the fries and the hoagie roll, unfortunately.
I would be perfectly okay if this sandwich were billed and priced as your standard Philly. But it’s not. Jones positions himself as a cheese steak expert and charges $15.00 for the privilege of consuming a perfectly acceptable, average sandwich.
Let’s start with the provenance of the cuts that go into the beef. The traditional Philly Cheese Steak is made with either shaved ribeye or shaved sirloin. The first reason this is important is that when you grill finely shaved meat with diced/sliced onions on a flat-top until the point the onions caramelize, it’s super easy for the meat to dry out. Sirloin, but even more so ribeye, has enough marbling (streaks of fat within the grain of the cut) that as the onions caramelize, that fat begins to render and liquify, basically lubricating the mixture of meat and onions — and peppers and/or mushrooms if you like.
Some people slather the crap out of the meat and onions mixture with butter, and I’m always in favor of that, however, butterfat has a lower boiling point and will burn off more quickly than the muscular fat, and can scorch if you’re not careful.
The other reason to use a well marbled cut is taste. Walk up to 1,000 chefs and start the sentence, ” Fat is…” and 995 of them are going to finish it, “FLAVOR.” In fact, there are some cooks, myself included, that would choose to only source ribeyes from grass-fed Jerseys from Western Mass, Vermont, or Upstate New York, given our druthers. The fat is the messenger for the terroir of the cow’s diet, and absolutely testifies as to whether the cow spent its life eating corn and soy on a feed lot or in pasture, and whether that pasture was over-seeded with alfalfa or red clover or vetch.
The cheesesteak I got a Bigg Daddy’s suffered from both dryness and lack of flavor, and I didn’t see much evidence of fat in the shaved beef, leaving me to wonder if the cut used was something closer to flank or even top round. I feel like if a restaurant centered solidly on its cheesesteaks were to use ribeye or sirloin, they’d brag about that fact on their menu. The higher quality cut might (and that’s a sizeable might) justify the hefty price tag. Bigg Daddy’s menu makes no mention of what cut they use.
On the positive side, they don’t skimp with the quantity. No complaints about the size of the bun or the amount of filling. Here’s the thing, though, in addition to the lack of flavor coming from fat, I wasn’t jazzed about the seasoning, which seemed to be just the barest amount of salt and, of course, the onions. I respect the purist ideal in a lot of things, and maybe I could learn to appreciate a minimalist approach to a cheesesteak (which originally boasted just the meat/onions/salt combo, or so I hear) in time. Trouble is, I’ve had too many cheesesteaks where the meat was seasoned with any combination of salt, pepper, cayenne, paprika, chili powder, onion powder, garlic powder, thyme, marjoram, and basil — those last three being in the outfield of a mainstream Philly. I’ve been spoiled by spices, I guess. We have enough bland food in the Berkshires; we don’t need any more. Bigg Daddy’s could stand at least to throw a little more salt and pepper in the mix.
Lastly, the cheese. The photo is more complimentary than was deserved. Those who know me know that almost any amount of cheese is only ever half as much as I’d prefer. Still, one of the functions of the cheese in a Philly Cheese Steak is to, once again, add moisture while making use of the gooeyness to sort of bind it all together. Once again, for this sticker price, I want more than a thin slice or two of American cheese product.
And that’s the long and short of it. In one article from a few years ago, Jones is quoted as saying that before Bigg Daddy’s opened, people would have to go to Philadelphia to get their hands on a decent cheesesteak sandwich. I don’t think that was true then, and I know it’s not true now. Almost every cheesesteak in the Berkshires is priced under $9.00. Some of them (and I’ve had a lot of them) suffer from some of the same deficiencies attributed to the Bigg Daddy’s sandwich (dry, flavorless meat, skimpy on the cheese, especially), but some are darn good. Pittsfield’s Crown Fried Chicken & Grill is a little unorthodox in their interpretation of a Philly in that they use a seasoned sauce, but it counts. North Adams’ Christo’s Famous Pizza offers a standard and reliable cheesesteak (Editor’s note: Christo’s is a sponsor of the Greylock Glass). On the other side of North Adams, The Craft Food Barn, serves up their “Steak and Cheese” (so named as if to acknowledge the geographic distance from the originators), which, while being a little smaller than Bigg Daddy’s, was the best sandwich not made with my own hands that I had eaten in MONTHS (but then I had the grilled buttered lobster roll at Yankee Lobster in Boston and was freakin’ ruined). I fact, I was going to return to sample it again and write a review of that, but this disappointment interceded, and required my attention.
Will Bigg Daddy’s sell a truckload of cheesesteaks? Of course they will. MASS MoCA encircles their guests much the way the original factory complex cloistered and contained its workers. So, I applaud Bigg Daddy’s opening right in time for the coming onslaught of tourists. Visitors will view paying almost twice what the sandwich is worth as just a kind of surcharge to not have to think about making the exhausting trip downtown to find fare priced to reflect reality a little more closely. By the time FreshGrass rolls around, I imagine the staff will have enough practice to handle more customers (and rake in more of the long green) than Jones has seen in a 48-hour period in his life.
In the final assessment, I recommend choosing Bigg Daddy’s over any fast food chain — the nutrition-to-dollars ratio of their cheesesteak, especially with bell peppers and mushrooms, is a no-brainer. In addition, supporting a local place is always preferable, and, though I haven’t met him, people tell me Jones is a good guy — I like to see the good guys win now and again. So, sure, go taste for yourself. Try the $13.00 Falafel Wrap, 12 Wings for $17.00, or the Cheese Burger for $11.00. But then, the next time you’re in the mood for a Philly-style cheesesteak sandwich, explore the many, many local options that will satisfy the craving for under ten bones.
AFTERTHOUGHT—Starting Memorial Day, a selection of BBQ platters will be available priced from $14.00 to $16.00. They’ll all come with hausgemacht cornbread, so I’ll risk returning to try that. What I don’t get is why they have both coleslaw and pulled pork on the menu, but not pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw and pickle — that’s what the people want, at least this one-time Southerner. If Jones said that you had to travel a great distance to get a decent pulled pork sandwich (a.k.a. Pig Burger — R.I.P. Sarge’s…sniff), I would absolutely agree with him. And if he were to be the one to perfect the recipe for under $10.00, I’d be all over that — hint, hint.