It’s at the corner of steamy and cheesy.
The strip plaza sits back from busy 41st Street near Rucker Avenue in Everett, behind the hot pink bikini barista stand.
A sign reads “Deli grocery-adult DVD-cleaners alterations-cheese steak.”
It caught the eagle eye of my editor Rikki King from the Chevron across the street.
“I was getting gas and pondering my existence and wondering about what kind of cheesesteaks they have in a minimart,” she said.
What’s up with that?
Rikki eats cottage cheese for lunch. So this had to be big news.
Herald videographer Sue Misao and I were on the case. Sue didn’t know what a cheese steak was. I wasn’t quite sure, either.
I still don’t know if it is one word or two.
We headed to the scene and found Erwin’s Philly Cheese Steak, which it turns out is separate from the minimart that has bongs, porn and munchies.
There we met owner Erwin Sanchez, whose cartoon image is on the menu logo above a cracked Liberty Bell.
He hasn’t been to Philadelphia. (It’s OK. Only one person polled for this story had.)
Sanchez, 53, a divorced father of two, had never eaten a cheesesteak before he hired on last year at Philly Ya Belly on Highway 99, where his roommate worked.
The first bites were an aha moment for Sanchez, who had worked mostly in hotel restaurants since moving from Guatemala to California in 1988.
Sanchez always dreamed of owning a place. “I said, ‘OK, I could make this.’ ”
It was a gamble to try to grab a piece of Everett’s cheesesteak pie. Which isn’t exactly huge. Besides Philly Ya Belly, there’s Momi on Bothell-Everett Highway and Su-Bees Cheesesteaks & Hoagie on SE Everett Mall Way.
Su-Bees owner Tim Justice, a purebred Philadelphian, stamps “authentic” on his sandwich shop.
“Cheesesteaks to Philly is what teriyaki is to Everett,” Justice said. “There’s one on almost every corner. You can have a cheesesteak for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Some are open 24 hours.”
It takes some explaining to Washingtonians. “They don’t understand it,” he said. “The simplicity of it. It’s cheese. It’s meat.”
Ever thought of putting salmon in it?
“Never,” Justice said.
Cheesesteak isn’t really comfort food (for non-Philly folk) or stoner nosh (in the PNW). I’m not sure what category fits these oozy orange torpedoes of soft bread with liquid cheese and meat.
The origin goes something like this: Two brothers who were hot dog vendors in the 1930s got bored with franks, so they grilled up cheap steak with onions. A cab driver caught a whiff, asked to try it and spread the word. Soon all the cab drivers in town wanted one. And somehow it got smothered in cheese and the name cheesesteak stuck.
The cheese varies. In Philly it’s Cheez Whiz, which is really fake cheese.
There’s even a National Cheesesteak Day — March 24.
Sanchez experimented with how he wanted his cheesesteaks to taste.
He even took a two-day class on french fries.
He scouted locations before he found the spot at the corner of Hoyt Avenue and 41st. It had been a teriyaki place for years, run by a woman who was friendly and served good food and had a loyal following.
That was his goal, too. Last June, he opened Erwin’s. The dining area has seven tables and a colorful wheel to spin for fun and freebies.
Sanchez uses white American cheese and a knock-off Whiz. He mixes in onions, peppers and mushrooms.
“The Italian roll has to be soft. The meat has to be juicy,” he said.
His $8.99 Cheese Steak Deluxe has about 1,000 calories.
That’s about half the recommended daily allotment.
Packing more calories is his signature Erwin’s Bahama Cheese Steak, which adds smoked German sausage, bacon and pepperoni under a smothering of cheese.
The saving grace: French fry portions are small.
It’s based on what he learned in fry school. “A lot of places give a lot of fries, but you don’t finish your fries. So people throw away the money,” he said. “I don’t want people to throw away money.”
The place to do that is at the bong store next door.
Sanchez will prepare a veggie sandwich or a gluten-free plate upon request. That’s not often. Chicken can be subbed for beef, but it’s just not the same.
Business is steady.
Erwin’s is a go-to lunch fix for Craig Barnard, who works at Naval Station Everett and is from the East Coast, where cheesesteaks are popular.
“I heard about it through word of mouth,” he said. “The meat is good quality. Great service.”
Chicago transplant Trina Nielsen, of Everett, comes weekly for a sandwich “always with the whiz added on top.”
According to the internet, what’s trending now in Philly is a pound cake cheesesteak.
Slices of pound cake replace bread. That’s right, but sounds so wrong.
10 chees(steak)y facts
1. A Philadelphia restaurant in 2015 broke the record for the world’s largest cheesesteak, 480 feet long. Before that the record was held by a (gasp) Arizona eatery.
2. There is a documentary about cheesesteaks called “This is My Cheesesteak.”
3. The food-service grade Cheez Whiz used by restaurants has more real cheese than the jarred stuff sold at supermarkets.
4. The Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan said his 2002 quest for the best cheesesteak was the “most well-read article I have ever written.”
5. When asked what wine would pair best with cheesesteak, LaBan said his inclination was something “red and rustic.”
6. A wine expert disagreed, saying “a very aggressive flavor profile was needed to play nice with the bland white bread,” and recommended “either a chateauneuf du pape blanc or a similar white wine from California.”
7. To order a cheesesteak in Russian, say “Mne pozhaluista buterbrod so steikom, s lukom i syrom.”
8. A “Philly taco” is a cheesesteak rolled up in a slice of pizza.
9. A common mistake is to say “cheesecake” when you mean to say “cheesesteak.”
10. In Philly, there really is such a thing as a cheesesteak cheesecake. Try saying that 10 times.
Source: “The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book” and the internet