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A Taste of Philadelphia in Medellin: The Rise of Authentic Philly Cheesesteaks

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A Taste of Philadelphia in Medellin: The Rise of Authentic Philly Cheesesteaks

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February 5, 2024

No matter where you come from, chances are you’ve heard of the most famous food item to come from the city of Philadelphia: the Philly cheesesteak. While it consists of simple ingredients, the flavors combined are very unique, with a flavor all their own. There are many imposters who combine mediocre steak with cheese, bell peppers and onions on a roll then have the audacity to call it a Philly cheesesteak. Until 2020, this is what we were stuck with here in Medellin. The utter garbage passing as Philly cheesesteaks was an embarrassment to the City of Brotherly Love.

That is, until a Philadelphia native, and Medellin resident thought to bring a taste of Philadelphia authenticity to the Aburra valley. 

Humble Beginnings 

Founder Carmen, who is originally from Philadelphia, wanted to establish a family business here in Medellin and show everyone what a real Philly cheesesteak was. He started the restaurant with the vision of passing it along, so his family can have a legacy here in Medellin. He first came here over 10 years ago. After the 2008 market collapse, he was looking for something meaningful to invest in, not just money, but time as well. After donating to a local charity which builds schools in Medellin, he wanted to see the outcome of the hard work the charity had done, and came to visit Medellin. He, like many of us, fell under the spell of this enchanting city and has largely lived here since. 

Fast forward to 2020, when the whole world was trying to transition into this new world of unknowns, his family figured that this was the time to not only build a legacy he can hand down to his child eventually, but satisfy a culinary missing piece, the illustrious authentic Philly Cheesesteak. Since he had time on his hands, as we all did, he perfected an authentic and easily replicable Philly Cheesesteak.

As Authentic as South Street

When people, locals and tourists alike, ask what is something I miss from home, of course family and friends are the first thing, but the food of the US is something I miss the most. I’m not talking about the major chain restaurants, because we have them here. I’m talking about the local cuisine which the US is known for. One of the best parts about being from the US is since we are a cultural melting pot, we get to know other cultures, including their cuisine, and that leads to us having a wide palate.

Here there are less options for authentic food, which we are accustomed to in the US, Canada and Europe. In Colombia Asian, Indian, Mexican, and even US staples we all love so much are all bland and tempered to the Colombian palate. This leaves us with bastardized food options for cuisine we love back home. Nowhere is this more obvious than the most famous export from Philadelphia – No, I don’t mean Kevin Hart, Will Smith or Boyz 2 Men, I’m talking about the Philly Cheesesteak. 

A Name To Keep In Your Mouth

If you have been to Philly, you are from one of 2 schools of thought. You’re either a “Provolone” or “Whiz” fan. Which generally means you are either Team Pats or Team Genos. I personally am a fan of Pat’s, so I like “Whiz” on my Philly cheesesteak. That’s just a fancy way of saying I like mine made with Cheez Whiz, which is barely even cheese. If you look at the bottle it comes in, it says “Spread” not cheese. 

After a while here, I missed several food options from home, and I wanted to try the paisa attempt at an “Authentic” cheesesteak, and all were flops. Badly. They either had sliced mozzarella cheese or unmelted sliced american cheese. If you have eaten here, you know the american cheese I’m talking about, they stuff that curls on the sides and doesn’t melt, it sweats. Delicious. This and they just threw it on a sweet roll and out it went.

A philly cheesesteak seems so simple, it’s generally 5-6 ingredients, and simple spices. Bread, rib eye steak, peppers, onions and cheese, mushrooms if you’re into that sort of thing. The spices are salt and pepper. Simple right? Not at all. I didn’t realize how easy it was to fuck that up until I had every cheesesteak option here. That was until 2021. I saw advertisements on Instagram for Philly Steaks. My immediate thought was ‘let’s see how they screw this one up’, but then I read the owner is from Philly, so a glimmer of hope shone through. I waited until my pico y cedula day, and walked over to their original Parque Poblado location.

Early life of Philly Steaks

When I arrived, I was happy to see some of the menu items that I missed, Grandma’s meatball sandwich, authentic smashburgers and of course Philly Cheesesteaks. I ordered a Philly Cheesesteak, with American cheese – a truly better option than “Whiz” anyhow, and no mushrooms because I’m not a psychopath. When it came out, I was happy, it certainly looked and smelled the part. When I had the first bite, I closed my eyes and I was not in Medellin, Colombia, I was sitting at the corner of 9th and Passyunk in Philadelphia, in 2010, killing time before I went to watch my San Francisco Giants eliminate the Phillies in the NLCS. 

Everything had such a feel and taste of authenticity that I kept my eyes closed so I could suspend disbelief for a few moments longer. All that was missing in the mediocre cheesesteak offerings in Medellin, was now in my hands. The biggest difference was the bread. If you use a “Pancita” from here, the juices in the cheesesteak will soak the bread into being useless before you even finish half of it. This didn’t have that. It was more dense, with a real crust on it, this meant that it never got soggy. The steak was seasoned properly, not just a little salt and garlic powder on it and sent out. The flavor of pepper was obvious and welcomed. The veggies were perfectly prepared and the American cheese was melted to perfection. 

Needless to say I was hooked. I went there every opportunity my budget and waistline would allow. If I was taking a woman out on a date, I would take her there to see how she responded to the food. If she had a lukewarm reception to the food, I knew it wouldn’t work out. Even those were good dates because I still got to eat. I took a friend from the east coast there, and he ate there every night during his visit. 

The Restaurant Doing It Right

While I love living here, one complaint I have about the culture here is that the culture in commerce is not focused on good customer service. There is also not a focus on consistency in how food is prepared. This was something that is sorely lacking in Medellin and Carmen has focused on providing this to the patrons of Philly Steaks. While most other restaurants are complacent with giving just good enough service, the staff at Philly steaks is trained to provide not just delicious, consistent food, they’re also extensively trained on customer service and hospitality. When a bad review comes in, the staff takes it personally and learns how to do better next time. 

Employee turnover is a major concern to restaurant owners here as well, so to combat this, the staff of Philly Steaks is compensated above the standard wage. This not only creates a culture of loyalty, it also comes with higher expectations of the staff. Good enough is never enough for Philly Steaks, and given the longevity and consistency of the food, it shows. Since Carmen is at the restaurant every day, he is always there to correct any issues their diners may have. This is a consistency of service that is very uncommon in Medellin. An example of this is that the wait staff is always attentive to the guests, not sitting on their phone and socializing amongst each other. They are interacting with the guests and not in a forced way. This really gives the atmosphere a leg up over other restaurants in the tourist-rich Manila neighborhood. 

The Next Episode

When they moved to the manila location, I was a bit skeptical. The ambience of the Parque Poblado location was great, it was eclectic and chic. The proximity of the party central of zona rosa seemed perfect. But in retrospect this move makes all the sense to me now. While it was in a cool location, it was also not easily visible. Also the area they were moving to is more aligned with the brand itself. When I went to the new location for the first time, the atmosphere in the restaurant was unchanged. The waitstaff was friendly, there were North American sporting events playing on the TV, the area was lively, even for semi-quarantined Colombia and of course the food quality was unchanged. 

Carmen told us his main desire was to have somewhere with the atmosphere of Cheers, because sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. Philly Steaks is well on the way to fulfilling his vision; serving as a meeting place for expats, a host of language exchanges, sports matches including UFC, boxing and the Super Bowl and even an authentic Thanksgiving dinner. 

The food offerings have even expanded to give many other underserved offerings here, cheesefries, Detroit style pizza, a cuban sandwich and delicious gelato were also added to menu. The menu has a pending expansion coming as well, including a buttermilk chicken sandwich, which I tasted and has earned a spot in the rotation of the foods I will be eating there.

This in addition to the proximity to everything has made Philly Steaks a central meeting place for many expats, and promises to do so for many years. 

Philly Steaks is located at Cra. 43E #11a-15, in the Manila neighborhood of El Poblado, you can reach them at +573026960005 on Whatsapp for deliveries, on Rappi, also online at phillysteaks.com.co and follow them on Instagram @philly_medellin

Steve Hamilton

Steve Hamilton has spent the last 7 years as a full time resident of Medellin. Upon arrival, dispite not speaking Spanish, and never living outside the United States, he adapted quickly to living in Colombia and embraced the culture.

He spent 15 years working in the adult webcam space, and is now a consultant for streamers of all types including YouTubers and Twitch Streamers. In addition to this, he has given back to the community by teaching at youth baseball clinics in Medellin, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga and Santa Marta, using his passion for baseball and his background in video to teach baseball players to use technology to sharpen their skills.

He’s originally from San Francisco, California and is an avid fan of the San Francisco Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Golden State Warriors and Washington Capitals. Video games, technology, reading, writing, cooking, painting and his elderly dog are his passions. If you have any questions you can reach out to him at through email.

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