It's about as simple as a sandwich gets — meat, cheese, onions, bread. Yet something about a Philly Cheese Steak stirs passion among residents of the ironically nicknamed City of Brotherly Love (which once famously booed Santa Claus and can be passionate about anything, including pretzels). So let's avoid the usual debate about whether a particular out-of-town Philly cheesesteak is authentic and just say this: "Big" Jim's Famous makes a mighty fine version ($4.95 and $6.95).
The rib eye is tender and juicy, marinated in-house and sliced thin. The onions are cooked to sweetness, the cheese melted until it becomes one with the meat, the bread baked fresh daily. And not just any bread: It's Amoroso's.
If you know Philly, you know that last detail is important, since in many ways a cheesesteak is all about the bread. Fail that and you can forget about what's inside. Amoroso's is a Philadelphia standard bearer for the hot hometown hero.
Still, authenticity can be a straitjacket for creativity. So don't bother applying that standard to Big Jim's mammoth Cuban sandwich ($6.99 and $8.99). It has little in common with a Tampa Cuban, or even its Miami cousin. True, it has ham and pork and cheese stuffed inside a long loaf of white bread, pressed if you want. But it's not Cuban bread — it's more classic soft sub roll — and the cheese isn't Swiss (it's white American, which also tops the steaks, though you can get provolone or, if you insist, Cheez Whiz).
The point here is not authenticity but flavor. As soon as I bit into Big Jim's Cuban a feeling of deja vu came over me, and it was only after checking the back of the menu that the memory bells went off. There you'll find a tribute to the late, great Joseph "Papa J" Rodriguez, owner Jim Reeves' gregarious friend who came up with this particular version of a Cuban at Country Market, a little St. Petersburg sandwich shop he ran for years in St. Petersburg and later at a hole in the wall in the parking lot of Haslam's book store.
The taste was the same — the pork cooked fresh every morning, piled high with ham, a sandwich big enough for two (or three if you get the large), with the same addictive garlicky mayo sauce Papa J put on just about everything.
That same sauce goes on the meatloaf sub, too. Yes, meatloaf. Same drill: two thick slabs of meatloaf cooked fresh every morning, with a peppery tang that Big Jim says is part of a secret Spanish recipe ($6.99 and $8.99). With the sauce and cheese and lettuce and tomato, it can be a sloppy delight that should come with a roll of paper towels.
Reeves owned a Philly Cheese Steak place in Philadelphia for seven years before relocating to Florida to start a home-building business in the mid 1990s. When his son Brian decided to get into the restaurant business, and with home-building demand way down, it seemed like a good time to get back in. It's a family affair, with Reeves' wife, Denise, working the register, Brian managing and Big Jim cooking and overseeing things.
Six months later they have grown a loyal following. It's not much to speak of inside — fluorescent lights, yellow booths, linoleum floor — though there's room for 70. Orders are placed at the counter and brought to your table.
Reeves said his concept was simple and made for these times: good food that doesn't set you back much. Table service would mean having to leave a tip, "and in today's economy that's big.''
And big is a word Jim reserves for himself and his sandwiches.
Tom Scherberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8312. He dines unannounced, and the Times pays expenses.