FIRST PERSON: FROM CHINK’S TO JOE’S

A fan looks back on one of Philly’s best-loved
cheesesteaks one year after its controversial name change

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 PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANDREA MONZO

Let’s start with the cheesesteak—because, well, a rose by any other name, right?

First, there’s the meat: Never frozen, purchased fresh and set on the grill only after a customer orders; there are no disks of frozen beef, no mountains of dried-out meat waiting on the grill, like you find at most cheesesteak joints.

Joe Groh likes his cheesesteak the old-fashioned way: with American cheese and grilled onions. Served up on a fresh Liscio’s roll on a plain large piece of wax paper—no plate, even when you dine in—the final product is buttery, tender and flavorful. If this isn’t the best cheesesteak in the city that invented the cheesesteak, it certainly belongs in the conversation.

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But we can say this: It’s certainly the best controversial cheesesteak in town.

Embarrassingly, though, I didn’t know any of this last fall when I organized an “eat-in” at this vintage Tacony spot now known as “Joe’s Steaks & Soda Shop.” What I did know was this:

  • That after years of protest over the store’s old name— “Chink’s Steaks”—owner Joe Groh had, in spring of 2013, changed the name of his business in hopes it could expand beyond its original Northeast Philly location.
  • That, to pointy-headed liberals like me, the name change seemed wise: What kind of business markets itself to the world using a racial slur? Why would customers hold a name change against the owner, in that case?
  • That Joe’s old customers were not, in fact, pointy-headed liberals like me: They liked their tradition, they refused to admit “Chink’s” was a slur even as they railed against “political correctness” on Facebook, they screamed at Joe and his staff, and many of them stopped coming in altogether.
  • And that Daily News columnist Stu Bykofsky had taunted liberals like me for not putting our money, literally, where our mouth is where Joe Groh is concerned. “If 10 percent of the do-gooders who cheered him for doing the right thing came in for an occasional steak or shake, [Groh] would be fine,” Bykofsky wrote, and it galled me that he was right.

So from my perch as a columnist for the Philly Mag website, I sent out the call: Time for an eat-in at Joe’s. Time to show the city that the forces of cheesesteak-loving antiracism can be just as powerful as the forces of cheesesteak-loving, er, traditionalism.

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The sandwich? Nearly an afterthought. There was a point to be made, after all.

The event went great! We filled the shop to overflowing. Just about every media outlet in the city gave us publicity; civic activists like Brendan Skwire and Helen Gym came in and brought their kids.

There were no screaming matches with supporters of the old name. It was peaceful. It was fun. And everybody who came out walked away talking about the incredible tastiness of Joe’s Steaks. It felt great to prove our antiracist bona fides; it was satisfying to do so for such a clearly worthy sandwich.

The problem? My eat-in didn’t make much difference. As this spring’s first anniversary of the name change approached, Groh lamented to me that taunts and nasty comments, while less frequent, still arrive regularly. But all of that hurts less than the fact that business was off by as much as 20% over previous years. “It’s the most helpless feeling, an empty store,” he said. “I know we’ve got the product.”

If there’s a bright side to the experience, it’s that one change—the name—has unleashed a series of evolutions in a business that had remained largely unchanged since Groh bought the store from “Chink” Sherman 15 years ago. The store is now open on Sundays; menu changes include a cheesesteak topped with eggs for weekend brunch; there are now baked goods and a variety of sweets for after dinner.

Groh is even reaching out to new audiences—a special menu pairing his sandwiches with cocktails at Jet Wine Bar, for example; an evening as a featured vendor at the hipster-oriented “Why I Love Philly” party in Old City in December. Relying on the old neighborhood folks, he figures, is no way to keep the business alive. “I always thought of this [store] as a destination,” he said recently. “There’s no reason to come down here unless you’re coming here.”

So Groh continues his outreach. Me? Embarrassingly, in five years of living in Philly, I’d barely visited the Northeast before last fall’s eatin. It’s more than an hour of transit and walking from my Center City home to get to Joe’s, after all. But these days I try to make the effort a little more often. Not just because I want to prove a political point, anymore, but because of the sandwich itself. This is why people love cheesesteaks, and how they became a symbol of this town. It would be a shame to let politics kill off such a tasty cheesesteak.

“I don’t regret” the name change, Groh insists. “I just know we have a quality sandwich.”

JOE’S STEAKS AND SODA SHOP
6030 Torresdale Avenue, Philadelphia
215.535.9405 joessteaks.com

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