I can never really recommend that you choose a meal, no matter how casual, at the Food Court in the mall. But you will, and sometimes I give in to a weakness for walking past all the high-calorie fast food, tasting the freebies from the Chinese (Mandarin Express) and Japanese (Teriyaki Boy) restaurants, and then picking one. So maybe it is a case of civic duty to report on ANY findings that might prevent you from eating at Sbarro.
I confess to being fond of both the quick-Chinese and quick-Japanese offerings. Which of us has not come back from a trip to the far East, raving about the Bourbon Chicken on toothpicks? ;-) Yes, the high-fat and crazy-high-salt offerings are a temptation, but on a recent visit to the Food Court at the Exton Square Mall (Exton, PA), I discovered a new chain.
I generally avoid the sandwich places, because Philly and the nearby area is home to some of the best hoagies and cheesesteaks one can find, largely due to the wonderful authentic Italian bread. Chains are going to use something akin to a hot dog bun, in the shape of a torpedo roll, and the result will be middle-America bland. But as we strolled the court, what caught my eye was a new (to me) chain going by “Charley’s Grilled Subs.” I knew it wasn’t local, because in Philly we say “hoagie,” not “sub.” But the key word that captured me was “grilled” because toasting turns mediocre bread into something much more satisfying. It’s the only reason to go to Quizno’s, for instance.
On the website for Charley’s Toasted Subs, it says that Charley’s first encounter with a Philly Cheesesteak was love at first bite. Totally hooked, he brought his findings back home to Columbus, Ohio. After perfecting the recipe, Charley opened the first Charley's on the Ohio State University campus. The restaurant featuring Philly Steak Subs, Gourmet Fries and Natural Lemonade was an instant hit. Charley began franchising in 1991. You can now enjoy Charley's in hundreds of locations, from Ohio to Hawaii to Alaska to Japan and beyond.
I selected, for $5.49 the “regular” (read: small) Steak Sicilian, which is a “Philly Cheesesteak” with pepperoni (slices cut into very small rectangles) and provolone cheese. They grill up the frozen steak meat only when you order. I neglected to ask for fried onions, but the friendly counterman gladly added raw ones to the finished sandwich.
The bread is not grilled – it is simply run through a conveyor-type toaster. As each sandwich emerges, the counterman asks if you want “lettuce, tomato, and mayo” on it. I usually eschew veggies (other than onions or mushrooms) on a cheesesteak, but this time I accepted the shredded lettuce and thin tomato slices. I opted to spend the $2.49 to make it a combo meal, adding a small cup of fries and a 16 ounce drink.
The fries were excellent! Medium thick, cooked crisply, with a very fresh flavor. Took me by surprise. In addition to a conventional set of soda choices, there were drink fountains of the “Natural Lemonade” and an eerie green soft drink with no words on the fountain, but images of kiwis. Intrigued, I asked for and got a 50/50 mix of the Lemonade and the Kiwi Konkoktion. It was pretty sweet, but it too was excellent; I felt I could taste the fruit.
The smallish sub was cut in half, and I wolfed down the first half before thinking to take a picture. The meat was fresh, the roll was fresh and improved by the toasting. I’m not sure how much the pepperoni and provolone added, but this sandwich was a winner. It won’t make you forget a cheesesteak from South Philly’s John’s Roast Pork or Northeast Philly's Chink's Steaks (reviewed HERE) or a banh mi from QT Sandwich shop (reviewed HERE), but this is about as good as chain food gets. Charley has a good formula; back away from that Sbarro!