312 Ballantyne Street, El Cajon
They say location is everything, and seeing as El Cajon doesn’t get a lot of my business, I guess they may be right. Of all the communities in San Diego, the east county burg is probably the largest one I’ve spent the least amount of time exploring. Not for any particular reason — more like a lack of reason to go there, I suppose.
So when I found myself there recently and lunchtime rolled around, I had little idea where to eat. I turned to Yelp, which lists 40 restaurants doing business in El Cajon. When I sorted by rating, I learned 25 of these restaurants rate four and a half stars or higher. That’s out of five.
So, according to Yelp users, El Cajon has one of the most revered dining scenes in the county. I know how to navigate Yelp better than I do El Cajon, so I know these numbers are subjective, typically inflated, and that even when you ask Yelp to sort by rating, it doesn’t. Yelp sorts however Yelp wants to sort, either explicitly with paid ads or subtly, with what I presume to be some lower tier of paid ads.
Regardless, I was left to pick at random from the two dozen vaunted reviews, and the easiest pick to make was Philly Steak Subs. At least I knew what to expect. When I looked up a review by fellow Feaster Ian Pike I saw he’d finished an exhaustive cheesesteak series at this place a few years ago, back when it was open limited hours and the stand-alone building was yellow.
It’s under new ownership now, so the shop actually stays open through the dinner hour and has been painted a more appealing red. However, its signature dish hasn’t changed much. First of all, this place goes back more than 40 years, and for 30 of them carried the unfortunate name BJ Munchies. So while Philly Steak Subs reads decidedly generic, let’s agree the 2002 rebrand was a net positive. And while use of the word Philly suggests it goes for cheesesteak authenticity, that’s only partially true.
As Pike pointed out, this shop doesn’t go out of its way to ship in Amarosa rolls, relying instead on locally baked bread. It also doesn’t misconstrue cheez whiz as an OG alternative to provolone, which I greatly appreciate, and uses cross-cut ribeye for its steaks — a solid start. The place also implements a hoagie-style sandwich, including lettuce and tomato by default. However, the boldest step away from Philly steak sticklers is the inclusion of avocado. Maybe a better name for the restaurant would be “California Cheesesteaks.”
I’m always down for some avocado, and I would even suggest that it saved the sandwich. The beef dried out a bit on the grill, while the cheese hadn’t thoroughly melted — both correctable issues, barely salvaged here by the creaminess of a smashed Haas.
Ultimately, El Cajon’s 4.5 stars translates to 3.5 for me, but if the longtime cheesesteak mainstay decides to live up to its potential with better preparation, it’s got the ingredients to succeed for a few more decades.