I've never been to Philadelphia. Does that have anything to do with my lack of enthusiasm for Philly cheesesteaks? Possibly, but that's never stopped me from worshipping the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers.
Of course, my ill-informed aversion is no reason to ignore the East Coast delicacy's many enthusiasts in the Queen City. Newly opened downtown in the former Dink's space at 628 Vine St., Balboa's specializes in authentic Philly cheesesteaks and thin East Coast-style pizzas that, as its menu clearly plays up, include ingredients flown in from Philadelphia and other important locales.
Word is that Balboa's is named after Sylvester Stallone's mythic Rocky Balboa character — an amusing fact confirmed by the presence of an Italian hoagie called the "Stallion" ($3.99 half order; $6.49 whole sandwich). Other menu options include its signature Original Philly Steak ($4.99; $7.99), a Meatball Hoagie ($4.49; $6.49) and a Chicken Philly ($4.99; $7.99), as well as turkey, ham and veggie sandwiches and various pizzas by the slice ($2.29) or whole ($12.99).
A recent lunchtime stop reveals a smattering of cheesesteak devotees, each of whom seems to be reveling in Balboa's copious portions and no-frills presentation — sandwiches dripping with cheese and other juice-inducing ingredients are wrapped in foil and placed in a small plastic basket.
I walk to the counter and ask for a half order of the Original Philly Cheese Steak with onions, green peppers, mushrooms, banana peppers and Cheese Wiz. Yes, Cheese Wiz, which is apparently a controversial ingredient in the Philadelphia cheesesteak wars.
I won't go into the history here, but a CityBeat colleague/Philly native insists that provolone is the way to go. Alas, I'm not given a choice. (I later learn that while Cheeze Wiz is the default, they do offer American and provolone cheese options.)
Finishing my order, I notice a display pimping something called TastyKakes ($1.49 each).
"What's a TastyKake?" I ask the genial woman at the counter.
"It's an East Coast delicacy," she says. "It's kind of like Hostess, but better."
"Hmm, OK, I'll try the Butterscotch Krimpet."
After a five minute wait, I gather my freshly prepared order and head to the narrow space's front window, which features a view of Vine Street bustling with downtown workers happy that our harsh March has finally yielded a decent day.
The PA system emits an odd range of '80s Pop songs — from Rick Astley to Def Leppard — as I take my first bite, which is laden with steak and a large dose of onions. It's not exactly what I expect — the fresh bread, melted Cheeze Wiz and the meat's tender texture dominate, bringing to mind various homemade bread-and-cheese concoctions of my youth.
Five bites later it's gone. This is a good thing.
I grab the Butterscotch Krimpets and proceed to devour them, too, each of the three, small iced sponge cakes cleansing my onion-soused palate to the delight of my taste buds.
Balboa's is open 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and offers a late-night menu Thursday-Saturday from 8 p.m. until 4 a.m. 513-381-1700.
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