Philly has never had a strong barbecue identity. Cheesesteaks? Yeah, well, we obviously own those. So it's something of a surprise that one of the best things to eat at the city's most legit new barbecue joint, Mike's BBQ, is a hybrid of the Philly birthright reimagined in a smokehouse: the smoked brisket cheesesteak.
Owner Mike Strauss, a BBQ food trucker who also co-owns Taproom on 19th, has taken the brick-and-mortar leap for his passion by opening a casual counter-service barbecue cafe in the former storefront of South Philly Barbacoa. The whole operation is worth taking note of. All the fixings are made from scratch, from the skillet cornbread to the sauces, house-fried chips, and even the hot-smoked kielbasa-like sausage links. And I knew when the first bite into a spare rib revealed a vivid pink halo in the meat near the crust — the telltale sign of genuinely slow-smoked barbecue — that Strauss was serious about the smoker's art.
But nothing here certifies Strauss' status as a uniquely Philadelphian pitmaster quite like that brisket cheesesteak. He uses all the trappings of the South Philly classic: seeded Carangi rolls, caramelized diced onions, and a creamy house whiz made from Cooper Sharp (the lesser-known American cheese with century-old Philly roots). It's that brisket, though, that gives this sandwich magnetic powers. A high-grade slab of Creekstone beef is cured for a couple of days, then smoked over wood for up to 14 hours. And it's so amazingly tender once cut into thick slices — soaked with juice and layered onto the roll, its cuminy pepper crust deeply imbued with smoke — that it basically demanded a pause, just so I would not devour it in one continuous swoop.
Philly's BBQ flag has been planted.
– Craig LaBan
Brisket cheesesteak, $12, Mike's BBQ, 1703 S. 11th St., 267-831-2040; mikesbbqphilly.com