Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Best Cheesesteak?

I got this letter from a reader last week:

Dear Dara, I’ve just returned from Philadelphia, where I was tempted and tried my first authentic Philly Cheesesteak sandwich from Cosmi’s Deli. It was sooooooo good. Unfortunately, I waited until the day I was flying out to try one. But now I’m craving more and I don’t know when I’ll return to Philly. I’ve tried searching the Web for advice, trying to find the most authentic Philly Cheesesteak sandwich in the Twin Cities to no avail. Is there such a thing? Where do I go? Who do I turn to? Help! Please!

—Dennis in Little Canada

Well, when a reader reaches out in distress like this I think it’s imperative I take a few moments from my busy schedule to grind his every hope and dream into thin dust beneath my boot heel.

“Philly cheesesteaks? Here? You wish!”

I painted a picture for him of the dozens of lousy cheesesteaks I’ve had over the years, and poured salt in the wound by recounting how the only good cheesesteak in town was to be had at Golooney’s—which closed six months ago. Okay, yes, yes, there’s a tolerably decent one at the video-game chain Dave & Buster’s, and I have hopes (but no real reason to hope except that I am a hopeful person) for the one at the brand new Lyndale Tap House, but, I hopelessly concluded, “Unless that one rides in on a shining white steed and rescues us all, you may as well give up all hope and just start saving your frequent flyer miles for Philadelphia plane tickets.” Ouch!

But heark! That was last week. What should get thrown across my (electronic) transom this weekend but an e-mail from the North Minneapolis pizza place Papa’s Restaurant and Deli, advising me that they’re still going strong, and that I should check them out again, not least, because “We have a strong following of customers who come just for the Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches.” Seriously? I didn’t know that.

I’ve been to Papa’s once before. I thought it was a solidly good neighborhood pizza spot, one of those places that, as a reviewer, I never know what to do with because: Is it good enough to warrant the attention of people in Orono and Stillwater and Edina? But I never tried the cheesesteak there, so I bundled on up there for lunch today and: Eureka!

Papa’s serves a totally solid, very good cheesesteak. The meat is soft, beefy, and flavorful (not tight and cheap-tasting, or metallic and unmeaty, as is often the case with local cheesesteaks), the onions are well-caramelized (and not merely softened, or merely extant, as, again, is often the local case), the cheese is just tangy enough to taste real, but not gloppy (need I say why I bring that up?). Each bite was beefy, cheesy, well-knit, rich, the bun was just right, not too soft but not too hard—in short, it was a cheesesteak in perfect balance with itself! And well worth the drive from Little Canada, Orono, or Edina, if you’re someone in one of those places longing for a cheesesteak. (It’s not too far off the Dowling exit on I-94 or the 42nd Avenue N exit off Highway 100, if that means anything to you.) I also tried Papa’s “East Coast Tomato Pie.” Before I’d just had their regular pizza, and the East Coast Pie, which is made with a lighter hand with the cheese, and thus allows the good tomato sauce to shine, is better. It was actually reasonably close to a Sicilian pie, which no one around here does.

In conclusion: Hooray! A good cheesesteak discovered in Minneapolis. Who’d a thunk it? If I was an expat East coast dude, or just a guy who just fell in love with cheesesteaks, I would assemble all my friends for a dinner at Papa’s of cheesesteaks, East Coast Tomato Pie, and beer. And I’d be really happy. So thanks, Dennis, for sending the e-mail that launched the best food-find of my month!

Papa’s Restaurant and Deli
4159 Thomas Ave. N., Mpls.

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