What exactly is a “Philly cheesesteak?”
For many, it’s simple – some sort of beef, preferably ribeye, thinly sliced and grilled hard on a flattop, often with onions or other various accouterments ranging from hot peppers to sautéed mushrooms. And all that is always smothered in glorious, gooey cheese.
To Philly natives, the debate on where and how to properly enjoy a cheesesteak is an eternal one. It’s a point of pride for the city of brotherly love and it’s not something to be messed with.
Regardless of whatever components you do choose, though, one thing is for certain: a cheesesteak is decidedly Philadelphian. It’s home. Warm and delicious, cheap and comforting. It’s the kind of meal that sticks to your ribs and reliably fills your stomach after you’ve had a few drinks. Or it cures your woes the next day if you’ve had a few too many.
For myself, a Philadelphia-native who has been so keen for a taste of home for the past five years that I’ve sauntered through the streets of Tokyo, it’s a sandwich that is impossible to replicate abroad – no matter how hard some brave, naive souls may try.
Searching for the Taste of Philly Cheesesteak in Tokyo
Needless to say, when I first discovered Tom & G Food Truck, parked in front of the National Azabu supermarket in Azabu-Juban, Tokyo, I was a skeptic.
However, Tomo Yamanashi (37), and Shota “Shawn” Goto (36), both California natives who have since transplanted to Japan much like myself, proved me wrong.
You can, as it turns out, get a more-than-decent cheesesteak in Tokyo. In fact, you can get a fantastic cheesesteak in Tokyo and you’ll be getting it from a couple of Cali boys. Tom & G is serving it from a food truck parked in front of an upscale supermarket in the heart of Azabu-Juban, one of Tokyo’s most affluent neighborhoods, no less.
For Tom & G, the cheesesteak is simply something delicious that they enjoyed in their youth in the US and that they felt could fit the Japanese palate.
The Story of Tom & G
Yamanashi and Goto are childhood friends and for as long as they’ve known each other, they’ve had some sort of hustle. After they both moved to Japan for work, the duo reunited in Tom & G, Tom obviously standing for Tomo and G for Goto.
“We were just really craving a good cheesesteak,” says Yamanashi, as he hangs from the window of his truck on a busy Saturday afternoon. “When we were kids, we used to get them at Del Amo steakhouse Torrance California, in our hometown. We wanted to recreate that style.”
The Del Amo style is what Philadelphians would call a “cheesesteak hoagie,” meaning the grilled meat is served up with your choice of cheese along with crisp iceberg lettuce, tomatoes and mayo.
It’s a lighter take on the classic and while not entirely authentic, it’s not too far outside the realm of acceptability. And most importantly: it’s delicious.
“At first, we were thinking of doing Japanese curry or donburi,” Yamanashi continues as customers begin lining up. “But I started experimenting with cheesesteaks at home. I would invite friends over and keep refining the process and everyone was really digging it. So eventually we thought ‘let’s do cheesesteaks.’ And here we are.”
Local Tastebuds Drive New Combinations
Rather than ribeye, which can be difficult to source in Tokyo, at Tom & G they use a combination of wagyu brisket and beef belly. The brisket packs an umami bomb of beefy flavor and the belly, as Yamanashi puts it, “really brings the juice.” This combination of cuts provides a fattier bite than what you’d typically expect, but the addition of fresh veggies on the sandwich keeps things balanced.
When it comes to the cheese, most tend to associate the gelatinous neon-yellow “cheese whiz” with the Philly cheesesteak. But the choice of cheese simply comes down to adjusting for local tastes. For instance, Del Amo, the now defunct inspiration to Tom & G, opted for provolone. Tom & G favors mozzarella.
“Mozzarella is much better for Japanese palates. I think whiz is just too much,” says Yamanashi while laughing. He is seasoning a handful of freshly fried tater-tots with a generous pinch of salt and a thoughtful dash of truffle oil, tossed quickly in a bowl to coat before making their way into a paper bag for me to sample.
“We didn’t want to scare off the locals, you know?” he adds.
Speaking of which, when asked how the local crowd has responded to the until recently relatively unknown sandwich, Yamanashi says he and his partner are glad to see people returning for more.
“Of course, people get curious and come check us out. We can see a lot of people eating our food and it looks like they’re enjoying it. But sometimes it can be hard to tell. When they come back though, that’s how we know that they really liked it. That’s how we know that we nailed it. Kinda like you,” he jokes with me.
It’s true. As skeptical as I originally was, I’m happy to report that Tom & G have, in fact, nailed it.
Crispy, locally sourced bread rolls are slathered with mayo, generously stuffed with juicy grilled beef and melty, stringy mozzarella. Topped off with fresh veggies and served alongside a sizeable portion of the aforementioned truffle tater-tots, Tom & G’s take on my city’s most beloved sandwich is absolutely delicious and extremely satisfying. It has warranted more than a few return visits since I first stumbled upon them on my way to the National Azabu supermarket.
And it seems like I’m not alone. On the day I visited to interview Yamanashi and Goto, patrons continued to line up as we chatted. And although they were hit hard by Covid-19, business is reportedly picking up.
Ultimately, my experience with Tom & G has, frankly, significantly altered the way I look at American goods in Japan.
What Tom & G has shown me is that the opportunity to do something new is very much a privilege and something worth pursuing.
I know I’ll always be eager for another bite.