The house-made hot sauce makes this Toronto take on the Philly cheesesteak 'the best'
Illstyl3 Sammies is at 300 Richmond St W.
The roots of the Philly cheesesteak are said to date back to the 1930s and involves a story of two hot dog vendors in South Philly who decided to cook something different one day: strips of grilled meat served in a crusty Italian bun.
It was a hit among the cabbie community and over the years, it evolved into the iconic American sandwich we know today.
My introduction to the Philly cheesesteak was many years ago during a street food crawl of various neighbourhoods in Philadelphia. I was drawn into a restaurant by the clattering of steel spatulas on a flat top grill. I heard the beef being "frizzled" and thought I'd finally be able to try the sandwich. When I pressed the sandwich — a long bun stuffed with an enormous amount of sliced beef, onions, oozing with Cheez Whiz — and took a bite, it felt like I was eating an old school diner-style cheeseburger, but maybe even better.
There are a handful of places scattered around the Greater Toronto Area that serve a form of the Philly cheesesteak. But I wasn't able to find one that was consistently great, until recently, when I heard about Illstyl3 Sammies, a sandwich shop on Richmond Street across from the Scotiabank Theatre.
From southern po'boys to northeastern U.S. hoagies and Philly cheesesteaks, Illstyl3's feature is American sandwiches. The first sandwich I tried — a Philly cheesesteak with provolone cheese and some of the hot sauce that the owner said he makes in house — was incredible. It brought back the feeling of being in Philly's Wharton district, eating a cheesesteak curbside.
The Foodism Toronto office is close by so whenever I have a craving, I stop by Illstyl3. The store is owned and operated by Germain Marshall, a Saint Lucia native who spent much of his adult life in Philadelphia. He grew up eating cheesesteak and describes it as his top nostalgic food memory.
"This is what we ate every Friday night. The memories of eating it are so ingrained in me."
After some military service and cooking at a variety of Philly restaurants, Marshall eventually moved to Canada to reunite with his mom and sister. After a few cooking stints between Philadelphia and Toronto, he decided he wanted to open a sandwich shop in Toronto.
"This shop is the distillation of my career. I want to cook the food that I like to eat. It's a summary of my journey from Saint Lucia to Philly to Toronto."
Aside from sandwiches, Marshall features a few other items on his menu influenced by his time in Philly. "I have tostones [fried plantains] on my menu because I wanted to pay homage to the Puerto Rican culture of Philly."
But the cheesesteak is the stand out dish for a number of reasons. First, he frizzles thin strips of ribeye on a flat top just long enough to get a sear but preserve tenderness. Then, he tosses in sliced onions and sweet peppers.
Everything gets sprinkled with a house-made spice mix, which is non-traditional. Then, he coats the meat and veggies with an infused oil that he makes in house, using roasted garlic, fennel and some secret spices. Within a matter of seconds, the metal spatulas get to work as he chops and mixes the meat and vegetables, covering the mixture with slices of American cheese (or provolone.) Seconds later, he scoops the mixture on to a soft Italian bun and finishes it with his house-made sauce, also non-traditional.
House-made hot sauce in my top five
Marshall's deftness at cooking the meat — his accoutrements of oil, spice and sauce — make the best Philly cheesesteak I have had in Toronto.
"The hot sauce is from my Saint Lucia roots. My grandmother was known for making amazing hot sauce. I have always tried to replicate it and this is a version of hers but my own take," he said, pointing to a large glass jar sitting on the corner of the flat top grill.
In Toronto, we've been going through a bit of a hot sauce renaissance in the last few years. The city's selection has boomed from imported vinegar-based sauces from the south to small batch, one-off creations by dozens of Toronto chefs and cooks. I have lost count of how many cooks in this city make their own hot sauce.
Marshall's sauce is on my top five list. Marshall refers to it as "pique-style," the Puerto Rican way of making hot sauces that involves mixing hot peppers with vinegar, garlic and spices and letting it sit on the counter for a few days.
Marshall stacks pineapple, scotch bonnet peppers, chipotle peppers, herbs, garlic, sliced bread and some "secret ingredients" into a large glass jar. He then cooks the jar on the coldest spot of the flat top grill for four days.
"The bread gives it the texture I'm looking for and some added flavour." After it is cooked and pureed, the sauce is smothered on to his sandwiches. The hot sauce is slightly chunky, and for me, it sings of smoke and spice with rising heat that continues to hit seconds after you've taken a bite. It completes the sandwich. Marshall will be the first to recognize that this isn't "authentic," but it is his version of the popular sandwich, a synthesis of his life and cooking career.
In Toronto, we highlight cuisines from all around the world very well. But when it comes to our closest neighbour, there aren't that many options.
"I don't understand why it's not here. I think Toronto is the perfect platform for more state-style food," Marshall said.
We have a handful of great American-style eateries. There's great central Texas-style barbecue at Adamson's, incredible Detroit-style pizza at Descendant's, and of course, diner-style burgers at Holy Chuck. But when it comes to sandwiches, we're lacking in this category.
Toronto is a sandwich town. We certainly have the appetite for it.
Illstyl3 Sammies is at 300 Richmond St W.
Suresh Doss's weekly food segment airs every Thursday on Metro Morning. Watch for video of his jaunts across the city on CBC Toronto's Facebook page.
Do you know a GTA restaurant that Doss should visit? Tweet us @metromorning or send us a message on Facebook. And if you try any of the places he features, we want to see photos!