Midwestern chain restaurant PepperJax Grill opened a new location in St. Cloud on Feb. 24, where the old Qdoba Mexican Grill was located.
Since it opened, I have heard a considerable amount of talk about it from people around campus. Upon first seeing it on Division Street, I thought, what is PepperJax Grill? I had never heard of the restaurant before, and from the restaurant’s website it appears that its only location in Minnesota is the franchise in St. Cloud. There are other franchises in South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri.
The restaurant’s tag line is “America’s Best Philly!” I would regard that as being cheap and lazy promotion of a restaurant, and a claim that isn’t hard to make since I don’t know of any other philly cheese steak sandwich chains in the U.S.–coincidentally, as I was thinking of writing a review of this restaurant, I spent my spring break in Philadelphia with my brother, the city for which the popular sandwich is named after.
Though I didn’t spend my time in Philadelphia at its popular tourist spots like the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, I insisted that I try an authentic philly cheese steak. My brother knew I had to go to Tony Luke’s, whose tagline is “The Real Taste of South Philly.”
Don’t be deceived in thinking there is only one location of this restaurant. Tony Luke’s has several locations on the east coast, from New Jersey down to Florida. Intriguing enough, there are two locations outside of the U.S., in Bahrain, a small island country east of Saudi Arabia nestled in the Persian Gulf. This chain seems to be growing fast, as the website said there are upcoming locations on the west coast. I wouldn’t mind if the chain opened up some locations in the Midwest, because of their delicious and “authentic” philly cheese steak sandwiches.
It can be questioned what is truly authentic in American cuisine. Many restaurants claim to have the most authentic dish, and consumers have differing opinions.
I will disclaim that I am not a philly cheese steak aficionado, so just take this review as a critique and comparison of two restaurants from a woman who loves to consume delicious food. Let’s delve into the history of the philly cheese steak sandwich for a bit.
According to visitphilly.com, the popular sandwich made its debut in 1930, by a South Philadelphia hot dog vendor named Pat Olivieri. Visitphilly.com describes the sandwich as a long crusty roll filled with thinly sliced sauteed ribeye beef and melted cheese.
Upon visiting Philadelphia, I learned that the melted cheese of choice is Cheez Wiz. Yep, that name brand processed cheese sauce that you can buy in a jar or squeeze out of an aluminum can. I was surprised by this fact. Other popular toppings on the sandwich include fried onions, mushrooms, ketchup, and hot or sweet peppers, according to visitphilly.com.
While doing my own personal research on the cheese steak sandwich, I learned that according to visitphilly.com, Tony Luke’s isn’t the number one philly cheese steak establishment in Philadephia, it’s number two. Tony Luke’s has a lot to brag about though, it’s won awards from the Food Network and other Philadelphia news entities.
Here’s the obvious question though, which restaurant did I like better? Tony Luke’s is hands down the winner. Sure, the restaurant didn’t have much for seating, it was more of a place where you would pick up your sandwich and then go catch a Phillies game. The demeanor of the employees isn’t the most friendly one, but they know how to make quality sandwiches.
I got to try the philly cheese steak sandwich with the Cheez Wiz and with american cheese, because my brother and I accidentally ate each other’s sandwiches at first. Both sandwiches tasted great, but the Cheez Wiz was surprisingly better. The sandwich was far greasier with the Cheez Wiz, but the sandwich was packed with flavor and the crusty bun was perfect for supporting all the fillings.
So how did PepperJax compare? I attempted dining at PepperJax twice. The first time I ventured there, the place was packed with people. I decided the wait wasn’t worth it the first time and left. I went to PepperJax again this past Friday at about 8 p.m., when there was still a line, but it was a bearable wait.
What I noticed as I was waiting in line at PepperJax was all the old photographs they had hanging on their walls of St. Cloud happenings and old SCSU athletic teams. That’s a key way to try to appear “local,” but I saw it as a cheap gimmick from a restaurant chain.
As I was sitting eating the meal I noticed the floors seriously needed some sweeping as they were covered in food scraps. The sandwich itself was okay. It wasn’t packed with the flavor of Cheez Wiz, and although the sandwich doesn’t have much in quality–I think I would get the same satisfaction from eating a french dip at Arby’s–it does make up in quantity. Their fries also had a great seasoning, but I prefer Tony Luke’s cheesy fries.
PepperJax Grill is another chain restaurant that treads the middle ground of fast food and sit down restaurants, like Chipotle, Noodles & Company, and Panera Bread. If you want a filling steak sandwich and fries, then by all means eat there, and see if you can bring your own can of Cheez Wiz. But if you want a real authentic philly, go to Pennsylvania.
Final Verdict: PepperJax Grill: 6/10. Tony Luke’s: 8/10