When you get an impassioned plea on your voice mail like the one I got Monday, you pay attention.
A reader named Donald was begging me to review one of his favorite Wichita restaurants, and the matter was urgent, he said. He goes there once a week and is worried that it isn’t getting enough business to stay afloat. It would be a shame if Wichita lost this place, he said, and he addressed me as “Denise Neil, a.k.a. Wichita Food Goddess,” to butter me up.
So I finally did something I’d been meaning to do since WOW Cheesesteaks first opened in April and stopped by for lunch.
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The verdict: I agree with Donald. WOW Cheesesteaks is a tiny treasure that offers unique and delicious sandwiches full of East Coast flavor. It’s the kind of place that has earned regulars quickly, and those regulars are devoted.
But it’s in a weird spot – an old Sonic building on a less-busy section of West Street where several restaurants have come and gone over the past 10 years.
It’s worth seeking out, though. I’ve never been to Philadelphia, somehow, so I’ve never had an authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwich. But owner Tyler Sanders, who lived in Philly when Boeing transferred him there years ago, has gone to great lengths to replicate the sandwich he loved, even commissioning Delano Bakery in Wichita to invent an Italian roll that fit his specifications.
▪ ON THE MENU: The menu is as simple as it gets. WOW Cheesesteaks offers its signature sandwich, made with shaved rib eye steak and provolone cheese. (“Cheez Wiz is not an option,” the menu sternly warns those who might consider asking.) There’s also a Philly made with grilled chicken breast and a cold Italian hoagie. Waffle fries or chips also are available, and there’s a basket of individually wrapped brownies on the counter.
▪ DON’T-MISS DISHES: Don’t miss any of WOW Cheesesteaks’ offerings because there’s not a miss on the menu. When I ordered my cheesesteak, I was offered a choice of provolone or white American cheese, and I could add all the toppings – grilled onions, pickled Italian sweet peppers and mushrooms – or leave any of them off. I asked the cook, who makes all the sandwiches as they’re ordered, to prepare it like it was meant to be eaten, so he gave me all the veggies and the provolone cheese. Cheez Whiz, Sanders later explained to me, is not an appropriate Philly cheesesteak topping, no matter what you’ve heard.
The sandwich came in a basket lined with checkerboard paper, and it was a beauty. The meat was thinly shaved and juicy, and as the provolone melted, it created that wonderful stringy bridge from mouth to sandwich with every bite. The veggies added to the flavor and texture experience, especially the tart pickled Italian sweet peppers, which Sanders gets from Philadelphia.
I was skeptical that a chicken version of this sandwich could be as tasty, but it somehow was. The toppings were all the same, but the meat was a sliced chicken breast coated with a savory sauce. Because I was dining alone, I ordered this one to go but sneaked a bite before I left, and the couple of minutes the sandwich spent wrapped in foil made the cheese even meltier and stringier.
The restaurant’s Italian hoagie is a completely different sandwich but was just as good as the Philly. This one is served cold and layered with hard salami, capicola, ham and choice of cheese. It’s served on the signature Italian roll and dressed with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, Italian sweet peppers, big chunks of white onion and a vinegar and oil dressing. It’s artfully served with a giant slice of thin ham draped across the top and then peppered with Italian seasoning. The cook also perfectly layers the salty meats with the vegetables, making for a lovely cross section when the sandwich is sliced, and the vegetables are as crunchy as the bottom of the bread is delightfully soggy with vinegar and oil.
I liked the waffle fries, too. Sanders selected a version that is coated in spice and comes out of the fryer a bright orange color. The fries are a bit spicy and have the same flavor as Arby’s curly fries.
▪ AMBIENCE: The dining room is set up inside an old Sonic building, but there’s actually seating for 27. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s bright and clean. I wonder if people are confused by the Sonic-ness of the building and assume there’s no seating inside or that they can’t park at the stalls that were once reserved for drive-up customers. Diners order at the counter, then the staff delivers food to the table. When I was there, I also observed several people picking up large to-go orders.
▪ PRICE RANGE: Sandwiches are available in two sizes: 8-inch or 12-inch. The sandwiches alone range from $6.99 to $11. Make it a meal by adding waffle fries and a 16-oz. drink, and the price ranges from $9.10 to $13.85. Diners also can get waffle fries alone for $2.75-$3.75, and extra meat is offered for an additional $1.30.
▪ SERVICE: WOW Cheesesteaks has a friendly feel, partially because of the owner’s familiarity with his regulars and love of chatting up new customers. Before visiting, I checked out the restaurant’s Facebook page, and at the top was a picture of a couple named Marlin and Joan, who were identified as regulars. Sure enough, when I walked in, there were Marlin Breer and Joan Russell, occupying the same seats I’d seen them pictured in, and Marlin was wearing a WOW Cheesesteaks logo hat, a gift from the owner.
Because the dining room is so small, the couple struck up a conversation with me, telling me all about how Marlin had been transferred to Philadelphia with Boeing in the 1970s and fell in love with the cheesesteak sandwiches. WOW Cheesesteaks, he told me, came the closest as any he’s tried locally to replicating the real thing, and he and Joan visit once a week. Another diner overheard us talking and offered his own two cents, saying he was a longtime meat manager for Dillons and that he knew good meat. The meat on WOW’s Philly, he said, is good meat.
Ratings reflect the critic’s judgment of the food, service and atmosphere in relation to the price. If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.