The first Cheese Steak Shop opened in San Francisco 40 years ago. Now there are 28 stores sprinkled around Northern California and one in Manila, for some reason. Palo Alto's opened in December.
The highlight is the light and chewy roll from Amoroso's, a 100-year-old family-owned bakery in Philadelphia. The bread absorbs all the meaty flavors, and it doesn't immediately turn to mush if you carry it out of the shop to eat later, as you are most likely to do.
However, the shop does offer handsome wooden furniture, should you choose to stay and study some poster-size photographs of cheesesteak shops and vintage cars.
The Cheese Steak Shop features 100-percent beef loin from Steak-Eze ("The Original Breakaway Steak"). Other cheese-steak purveyors use rib-eye or top round. I can't see how it matters a lot, after all the meat goes through. It is sliced thin, chopped senseless on a lightly oiled grill, merged with melted cheese and possibly grilled onions. The Cheese Steak Shop also offers "cheese steaks" made from chicken breast, two versions for vegetarians and an Italian hoagie.
Salads march in the same formation: steak, chicken, vegetable and Italian, which means provolone cheese, mortadella, salami, ham and capicollo (a cross between salami and ham). On the Italian hoagie ($5.39 for 7 inches) you can taste where each meat stops and starts.
Your options on the cheese steak are grilled onions and hot and/or sweet peppers. I recommend them all, to jazz it up. Mushrooms also are a good addition for 30 cents. Some of the other add-ons, such as pizza sauce and smoky barbecue sauce, would obliterate the meat flavor altogether.
Side dishes range from potato chips to garlic fries, onion rings to hot wings. Twisted fries ($1.79 for the good-sized small) have a crunchy crust and creamy interior. Steak fries, thick and soft, fall flat in comparison.
You'll find meal deals advertised in newspapers and on the walls. Look for the fine print: "Valid 3 p.m. to closing" on newspaper coupons. But the posted combinations may be just as good, such as a 7-inch classic sandwich, small fries and small (12-ounce, plenty big) soda for $5.99 at lunch. How lunch is different from dinner, I don't know.
The Cheese Steak Shop guarantees authenticity with its peppers, rolls and Tastycakes imported from Philadelphia. The rolls, in 7-, 10- and 15-inch lengths, are like Italian rolls, but more hot-dog shaped. According to Amoroso's Web site, their specialness comes from hearth baking: " 'Hearth-baked' means our bread and rolls never see the inside of a pan and are free to form their own individual 'personalities' in the oven."
About those Tastycakes. Far-flung Philadelphians bond over them, pooh-poohing any similarity to Hostess, Little Debbie and others of their ilk. The heavy favorite, butterscotch krimpets ($2.19 at the Cheese Steak Shop), lug a long and complex list of ingredients and 350 calories in their wake. Texture-free and extremely sweet, these little iced sponge cakes may be the kind of thing you had to grow up with to appreciate.
Cheese Steak Shop
2035B El Camino Real, Palo Alto.
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sat.; 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sun.
Credit cards: yes
Outdoor dining: no
Party and banquet facilities: no
Noise level: fine
Restroom cleanliness: OK