Most often, the invention of the sandwich is attributed to John Montague, the fourth Earl of Sandwich who, during a marathon gambling bout, requested he be brought bread, meat, and cheese so as to continue his betting unabated. “The same as Sandwich,” said the Earl’s gambling cronies, thus coining a term that would come to encompass Reubens, Monte Cristos, Croque Madams and peanut butter and jellies. In fact, though, the sandwich probably dates back much further than to the fourth Earl of Sandwich. In the first century B.C., a Rabbi Hillel is reported to have placed apples, chopped nuts and spices between two pieces of matzoh to eat during Passover, thereby paving the way for pastrami on rye.
Neither John Montague nor Rabbi Hillel could have known that one day their inventions would lead sandwich junkies like myself to search far and wide seeking out the best cheese-steak and meatball sandwiches. But that’s what happened. As luck would have it, a very significant player in the Salt Lake City Sandwich Sweepstakes recently entered the fold.
Many successful businesses get that way by filling a need or a niche. Starbucks and Krispy Kreme are good examples. After moving to Salt Lake City from Philadelphia, Joanna Rendi was unable to find an acceptable Philly cheesesteak sandwich—the sort of thing Philadelphians take for granted. So, she decided to remedy the problem. A first-time restaurateur (if you can call her that), Joanna set up a small—and I do mean small—kitchen in the back of the Circle Pottery store on 800 South and opened Moochie’s. There’s just enough room at Moochie’s for Joanna or her helpers to make sandwiches, some salads and a few pasta dishes. As for a dining room, there is none. Except when the weather is warm and customers can park on an outside picnic table, Moochie’s is strictly a takeout affair.
But that’s OK. Because cheesesteaks and meatball sandwiches were designed to be eaten standing up anyway. East Coast cheesesteak aficionados are well versed in “the Philly lean,” a technique for eating greasy cheesesteaks without dripping juice all over your Armani suit or new Nikes. Although Moochie’s cheesesteak sandwiches are relatively grease-free, due to the fact that the meat isn’t cooked by the ton on heavily oiled grills of the type you find at places like Geno’s, Pat’s and Jim’s in the City of Brotherly Love. And Rendi makes her cheesesteaks with slices of American cheese, an acceptable alternative to the more traditional Cheez Wiz used in Philadelphia cheesesteak emporiums. The truth is that even in Philly, the majority of cheesesteak buyers order their sandwiches with American cheese or provolone. Wiz is for the tourists.
But let’s get back to that niche-filling proposition. I’ve not eaten at every sandwich shop in Salt Lake City. But I’ve surveyed a fair share. And I’ve never found a really good cheesesteak sandwich at any of them. The closest I’ve come—and it’s a surprise—is at those Charlie’s Steakery places at food courts in our local shopping malls. They make a pretty fair cheesesteak sandwich. Close but no cigar, however. Because since sampling Moochie’s cheesesteaks, I’ve come to think of them as the local gold standard. Rendi and her team know how to make a good cheese-steak sandwich. I’d even go as far as to call it authentic.
A good cheesesteak sandwich is so simple to make that I can’t understand why they are so damned hard to find. It’s really just a handful of ingredients and isn’t exactly haute cuisine. But those few ingredients are critical. What Moochie’s does that I haven’t found elsewhere locally is make cheesesteak sandwiches using ultra-thin slices of tender sirloin steak. Some of my favorite places in Philly use rib eye, but there’s not much difference. The sirloin slices (shaved is probably a more accurate description) are then sautÃ©ed on a hot griddle with thin-sliced onions for flavoring until the meat is just cooked through, not burnt. (Philadelphians are adamant about their cheesesteak meat not being burnt or crispy.) At the last instant the meat is topped with one or two American cheese slices and heated through just enough to melt the cheese. Then the whole shebang is placed on a hero/hoagie/sub-style roll. And it’s at this stage where most cheesesteak makers misfire. The roll is very important. It should be slightly crusty on the outside and fluffy inside, sort of like an elongated Kaiser roll, but not quite so dry. The bread used at Subway to make sandwiches comes pretty close. Moochie’s bread is closer. I don’t know where Rendi buys her sandwich bread, but it’s just about perfect.
As if it’s not enough to set the standard for Philly cheesesteaks in Utah, Moochie’s also offers up the best meatball sandwich I’ve had here. Rendi’s homemade meatballs would be delicious all by themselves. But when served on one of those good rolls and topped with the fresh marinara sauce she calls “gravy” well, my friend, you’ve got something to celebrate. That Moochie’s cheesesteak and meatball sandwiches cost a mere $4.50 is even more reason to cheer.
Moochie’s also sells very good pasta dishes like terrific homemade lasagna, as well as cold sandwiches, salads and creamy Italian sodas. But with the best cheesesteak and meatball sandwiches in the area, who cares? Rendi is Salt Lake City’s Pearl of Sandwich.