Beautiful Mess of Cheesesteak

“You want to watch out for a heart attack, eating all this Philly food.”

Philly natives, brothers, co-owners David and Brian McGonagle
  • Philly natives, brothers, co-owners David and Brian McGonagle

McGonagle’s Authentic Philly Cheesesteaks

1231 Highland Avenue, National City

If I were more of a man, I’d actually do this.

I’m looking at a sign on an artist’s easel: “McGonagle’s Cheesesteak Challenge: Eat 3 and Win $50!...Three double-meat cheesesteaks in 30 minutes.”

Hmm…double-meat. Meaning bigger, and also more cost. It works out to about seven bucks each, so that’s $21 you’ve gotta pay up if you don’t finish the cheesesteaks on time.

Still, I’m tempted, because I’m that hungry. I’ve been tramping the streets of National City for hours. Need some cheap and cheerful chow. And then I walk up past a vacant lot toward this long cinderblock-sided, stand-alone building. Way-big mural painted on it, full-length. A silhouette of a city skyline. But I can see: it’s not San Diego.

I come up to this refurbished old rock-faced frontage surrounding large storefront windows. “Can’t Beat Our Meat,” says the sign above the doors.

Then, just inside, that other sign: “Eat 3 and Win $50!”

There is such a thing as a free lunch, if you can eat it all...

There is such a thing as a free lunch, if you can eat it all...

It’s a challenge to all us red-blooded guys and gals with eyes bigger than our stomachs. Luckily, my wallet says “no way!” tonight. But I bet that skyline in the mural is Philadelphia’s. I have to go in.

The whole inside’s decked out in orange. There are long tables with bench seating, where three groups of customers are heads-down, chomping into their hoagies.

I head for the counter at the back, and take a seat. Menu’s pretty simple: five steak sandwiches and three chicken. The good news is that prices include tax.

The basic steak sandwich, with steak and grilled onions, goes for $5.25 for a 6-inch hoagie, $8.25 for 12-inch. The “authentic Philly cheesesteak” is the same, but with Cheez Whiz squirted on top of the meat. It goes for $5.75/$8.75.

The Cali cheesesteak adds bell peppers for $6/$9.25. A pizza cheesesteak comes with steak, grilled onions, mozzarella, and sauce ($6.25/$9.50); it’s the same price as the “famous McG Cheesesteak,” which loads egg, steak, grilled onions, three cheeses, and buffalo sauce into the bread wedge.

Chicken goes the same route, starting at $5.25/$8.25 and topping out with the buffalo chicken (with grilled onions and buffalo sauce), for $6/$9.25.

Brian McGonagle with regular customer Kyle

Brian McGonagle with regular customer Kyle

Guy at the counter is one of those cheery, challenging, carrot-topped Irishmen. Name’s Brian. Brian McGonagle. This is his place. Irish family, Philadelphia born and bred.

“You’re as regular a customer as they come,” he says to the lady in front of me. “You want to watch out for a heart attack, eating all this Philly food.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” the lady says. “I’m from Philly. You’re where I come to get my fix.”

Her name’s Kyle. Says she had the McG cheese-steak last time she was here, but for her purist Philly heart, putting eggs in your cheesesteak sandwich is like putting pineapple on a pizza. “Didn’t really go for it,” she confesses to Brian. “The pizza cheesesteak is my favorite, along with the cheesesteak fries [$3.50]. But tonight…think I’ll have the Authentic Philly.”

She turns to me. “These gentlemen are the real deal. They fly their buns in.”

“Fly their buns in?”

“Cheesesteak buns. From Amoroso’s bakery in Philly. No other bun comes near it. It’s like pizza: the water back East is better. These guys here toast the buns, too.”

It’s my turn to order.

I ask Brian, “So this place is yours?” I’m surprised, because he looks, well, young.

“It was my idea,” he says. “Two years ago. I was 27 and just retired from the Marines. I did eight years. Two tours in Iraq. So one day, I’m in the shower, wondering what to do with the rest of my life, and it hits me. It’s so clear. I call my brother David and our buddy Marc in Philadelphia, and say, ‘Pack your bags. You’re coming out to California. San Diego. We’re going to open a Philly cheesesteak joint.’”

They certainly come from a town with a rich cheesesteak history. Philly, PA, gave birth to the sandwich in the 1930s, when somebody thunk up the idea of shaving beef into slivers so it wouldn’t be tough to eat, then sticking it all in a bun. Then they got the idea of combining the frizzled beef with grilled onions, and, finally, cheese. Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks are the competing shrines, Amoroso or Vilotti-Pisanelli are the go-to bakeries, and Cheez Whiz is the most squirted-on of the runny cheeses.

My McG, when Brian brings it, is a mess of Whiz, provolone, and a third cheese, plus scrambled eggs, steak, onions, and a hint of buffalo sauce. “That’s mainly Frank’s Hot Sauce,” he says. What a beautiful mess. Good thing they have paper-towel rollers on every table.

The Amoroso bun is light as a feather, with a nice delicate shell from the toasting. The cheesy, beefy, oniony, garlicky flavors come through. Lush, and luscious-tasting. I got the 6-inch, but heck, it’s plenty for me. Can’t imagine getting through three 12-inch, double-meat monsters.

Speaking of which, I have to ask Brian. “Anybody ever win that contest?”

“Sixty people have tried,” he says. “Five have done it. But three were professional hot-dog eaters. They just came here to practice. One guy, must have been four-foot-eleven, skinny little guy. He downed all three in 11 minutes.” ■

  • The Place: McGonagle’s Authentic Philly Cheesesteaks, 1231 Highland Avenue, National City, 619-259-2777
  • Type of Food: American
  • Prices: Steak sandwich (with chopped steak and grilled onions), $5.25 (6-inch), $8.25 (12-inch); Philly cheesesteak (with Cheese Whiz), $5.75/$8.75; Cali cheesesteak (like the Philly but with bell peppers), $6/$9.25; pizza cheesesteak (with steak, grilled onions, mozzarella, sauce) $6.25/$9.50; “the famous” McG cheesesteak (with egg, steak, grilled onions, three cheeses, and buffalo sauce), $6.25/$9.50; Philly chicken cheesesteak, $5.75/$8.75
  • Hours: 10:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m. seven days (Saturdays, open from 11:00 a.m.; Sundays, open from noon)
  • Buses: 929, 962, 963
  • Nearest Bus Stop: East Plaza Boulevard and Highland

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