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Cheesesteaks wid an Alabama twist

Not only do Wayne Salem's customers in Alabama claim that he cooks the best Philly cheesesteaks in the world - he has network television testimony to back it up.

Not only do Wayne Salem's customers in Alabama claim that he cooks the best Philly cheesesteaks in the world - he has network television testimony to back it up.

The Scottish host of CBS' "The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson" visited Salem's Diner in Homewood, an older suburb a few minutes from downtown Birmingham, and declared on air that Salem's cheesesteaks were the best he'd ever had, better even than in Philadelphia.

A year later, Salem still will drop whatever he's doing to play the clip on his diner's television for those who haven't seen it. His regulars needle him for showing the video so often, but Salem is unapologetic.

"Birmingham is known for barbecue," Salem said. "It's tough fitting in a Philly [tradition]. I don't have a city that props me up. I need to do it myself."

Salem's cheesesteaks are about half the size of what you find at the South Philadelphia icons of the greasy, cheesy sandwich: Geno's Steaks or Pat's King of Steaks.

Salem cuts up a 5-ounce sirloin, onions and green peppers into bite-size pieces and uses only American cheese - no Cheez Whiz, provolone or mushroom options. But the most distinctive difference from Philly steaks made in the town for which they were named is the soft, light roll Salem uses.

"Some places use so much bread, I feel like they think the first customer to explode wins," he said. "Mine are about the size of an ice-cream sandwich. After someone eats one of these, they are not going to feel 'blah' after lunch."

There are other differences, too.

In South Philly, Pat's is infamous for being brusque with customers, and Geno's got international attention for demanding that customers speak only English when ordering. But Salem is known for his exuberant hospitality, hollering out friendly greetings and shaking hands as guests enter the narrow diner with five tables and a short counter.

He has a loyal contingent of regulars who meet for breakfast or lunch and colorful conversation - politics and college football among the favored topics.

"I come here every day of my life," said Steven Cole, 55, of Leeds, east of Birmingham, who has been eating in Salem's Diner for 29 years. "Coming in here is like going to my mama's house."

Salem, 54, is third-generation Lebanese, his great-grandparents having migrated to America from Beirut in the '20s. His father, Ed Salem, an All-American football star at the University of Alabama who played for the Washington Redskins in the '50s, opened Ed Salem's Drive-In in 1950 and later owned several restaurants and bowling alleys.

Wayne Salem opened his own diner on Birmingham's Southside 30 years ago (he moved to Homewood in 2006). He said he's enjoyed eating cheesesteaks since he was a teenager in the early '70s but didn't start making the sandwiches until about 15 years ago. He developed his recipe in one of the family's bowling alley restaurants.

"We wanted to come up with a new concept and a new sandwich," he recalled. The concept caught on.

"I found my niche," Salem said.

His other culinary specialty makes an unlikely pairing with his cheesesteaks: grilled tilapia that comes over rice or as a sandwich.

The diner's simple, one-page photocopied menu has five versions of hot dogs, plus burgers, salads and a standard diner selection of sandwiches. His signature dessert is a cool and creamy old Southern classic: lemon icebox pie, his father's recipe.

Salem has been to Philadelphia only once, in 1985, and he didn't see much of the city. He had missed a flight home from Atlantic City and rushed to the airport to catch a plane back to Birmingham.

"The only thing I know about Philadelphia is that it's 64 miles . . . from Atlantic City," he said.

He has not eaten at the famed cheesesteak restaurants of South Philly, but he does enjoy watching coverage of the curbside rivalry of Pat's and Geno's on the Food Network.

And although Salem has the pronounced Southern accent that you would expect of a native Alabamian, he is a football fan who probably wouldn't take long to endear himself to Philadelphians.

"I love watching the Eagles," he said. "I could sit up there all day drinking beer and eating Philly steaks." *

Salem's Diner is open for breakfast and lunch at 2913 18th St. South, in the Homewood section of Birmingham, Ala., phone 205-877-8797.