To be honest, I haven't been left with too many untapped desires for specific foods during the pandemic and I've taken up challenges to learn how to make some of my favorite things I used to only order out. One notable exception to this are cheesesteaks. A cheesesteaks is only as good as its minimal ingredients, and each one needs to be right to really hit that prime satisfaction point where meat, cheese, onions, and roll meld into a truly mouthwatering and lip licking combo. I've yet to find an exceptional cheesesteak here in the Triangle region of North Carolina until recently when a favorite local sandwich shop called Eastcut added a semi-traditional cheesesteak that tasted pretty spot on. Instead of quenching a thirst, it only light a fire in me to have more cheesesteaks and I decided to finally make one at home, but knowing it was never going to be the cheesesteak of my dreams, I tossed out almost all norms and crafted something really different in these shawarama-spiced cheesesteaks.
When thinking about making cheesesteaks at home, the beef always gave me pause, thinking it would be a chore to make the thinly sliced ribeye required. I don't know why I didn't consider just buying the already thinly sliced meat at the Asian grocery before now, but it's certainly a great spot to pick up beef prepped in the proper manner. This is actually short ribs and not ribeye, but it has a similar distribution of intra- and intermuscular fat like a ribeye, making it a great second choice for cheesesteaks.
I've spent years trying to find a shawarma seasoning that tastes right and finally achieved that a few years back with a recipe for chicken shawarma. I used that same base marinade here on the beef, which I tossed in the heavily seasoned, oil-based sauce until the meat was well coated. I then covered the bowl and placed it in the fridge to marinate for a couple hours.
I'm going to make an admission that will probably lose me favor with cheesesteak purists, but I like mayo on mine. For the best of the best cheesesteaks, there's absolutely no need for mayonnaise and I do not add it, but I feel like mayo can elevate a just "meh" cheesesteak to something more rich and juicy, so when in doubt, I opt for it. In this scenario, I thought mayo also offered the opportunity to introduce more complimentary flavors by mixing it with nutty tahini, garlic, and a splash of lemon juice, providing some classic shawarma tastes that otherwise would have been missing.
The onions were a little bit of a head scratcher when developing the recipe. My first inclination was to grill onion slices and then chop them up so they would be somewhat akin to a regular cheesesteak, but then I remember how the tartness of pickled red onions added a nice contrast that cut through the fat in a previous brisket cheesesteak I made. So I walked along those lines and came up with these thinly sliced red onions that were tossed with red wine vinegar, parsley, and sumac, giving them a fitting Middle Eastern tilt.
For the cheese, I was actually just going to pick up some provolone while shopping, then saw the grocery had kasseri in stock and opted for that instead. Kasseri is very much in the same family as a mild provolone with a lightly sharp flavor and a great melting quality, but the mixture of sheep and goat's milk adds a little funkiness that makes it feel more fitting for a shawarma-spiced cheesesteak over provolone.
My love of Korean barbecue has made me pretty adept at grilling this type of very thinly sliced meat on a Western-style grill where the larger spacing between the grates would seemingly be a hard obstacle to overcome. To keep the meat from falling to a fiery death and cook well without burning, it helps to keep the whole thing in a single meat mass that you flip pretty regularly while cooking. Doing this helps prevent slipping through the greats, gets some nice charring on edges here and there, but keeps most of the meat well cooked through and not scorched. One thing I hadn't considered with this marinade was the high oil content, which created pretty constant flare-ups, but it wasn't something I couldn't work through and come out of on the other side with well cooked beef.
I think my biggest challenge to making a great cheesesteak in North Carolina is getting the right bread. I really haven't found a bakery selling any type of good quality hero roles to the public (I know a few producing for restaurants), so my grocery store bread was the weakest link in my cheesesteaks. Because the quality of bread was not great, I gave the sliced rolls a little butter and time over the fire to enhance the flavor and texture, but I would have skipped this step if I just had the right cheesesteak rolls to start with.
With the bread nicely toasted, I assembled my cheesesteaks in open face fashion starting with a spread of the tahini mayo on each side of the roll followed by a pile of the spiced steak, red onions, and cheese.
I then put the sandwiches on the grill, over indirect heat, covered, and waited until the cheese melted. Since kasseri melts well, it only took a few minutes for the entire mass cheese to be sufficiently gooey, at which point I used my tongs to fold the cheesesteaks closed and removed them from the grill.
On my first bite of this cheesesteak, I was taken a bit aback by how juicy the steak itself was. I thought because it was not made on a griddle and cooked over very high heat that it might be on the drier side, but it actually oozed juice like a great cheesesteak does. While that may have a shared a trait with a traditional cheesesteak, the overall flavor did not, with that beef having an earthy and lightly spicy flavor that was more heavy handed than shawarma usually is. I did not really consider that aspect when crafting the recipe, and while it gave the cheesesteak a ton of personality, it also rendered the steak very salty, so I cut back the salt in the final recipe to hopefully avoid that pitfall for you. The onions added a light sharpness to the party, but not much crunch, although between the meat and creamy cheese, the impact of the onions was minimized to a cameo appearance. I did appreciate the mayo, mostly for bringing that toasty sesame flavor that was a fitting addition and rounded out the experience in my mind. Take all this together and you're pretty far from a Philly cheesesteak, even if the footings are there, but what's built on top is something completely different and incredibly tasty in its own right.
- Yield 4 servings
- Prep 20 Minutes
- Inactive 2 Hours
- Cook 10 Minutes
- Total 2 Hours 30 Minutes
- For the Beef
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice from 1-2 lemons
- 2 teaspoons finely minced garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon hot paprika
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 lbs very thinly slice beef ribeye or short rib
- For the Tahini Mayo
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 2 tablespoons tahini
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon finely minced fresh garlic (about 1 medium clove)
- Kosher salt
- For the Onions
- 1/2 large red onion, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons finely minced parsley
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 3/4 teaspoon sumac
- 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
- For the Sandwiches
- 4 hero rolls, slices lengthwise
- 10oz Kasseri cheese, grated
- To make the beef: In a medium bowl, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, paprika, black pepper, cumin, salt, oregano, hot paprika, and turmeric. Place beef in bowl and toss to completely coat in marinade. Cover bowl, place in refrigerator, and let beef marinate for 2 to 6 hours.
- To make the tahini mayo: In a small bowl, whisk together mayonnaise, tahini, lemon juice, and garlic. Season with salt to taste. Cover bowl and place in refrigerator until ready to use.
- To make the onions: Place onion slices, vinegar, parsley, olive oil, sumac, and salt in a small bowl and toss to distribute ingredients evenly. Cover bowl and set aside.
- Light one chimney full of charcoal. When all the charcoal is lit and covered with gray ash, pour out and arrange the coals on one side of the charcoal grate. Set cooking grate in place, cover grill and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Clean and oil the grilling grate. Place marinated beef on hot side of grill cook until lightly charred and cooked through, flipping meat occasionally, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer beef to a cutting board and roughly chop.
- To make the sandwiches: Place rolls on hot side of grill, cut side down, and cook until lightly toasted, about 30 seconds. Remove from grill and spread tahini mayo on each cut side of roll. Top each roll with chopped beef, onions slices, and cheese. Place topped rolls on cool side of grill, cover, and let cook until cheese has melted, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove sandwiches from grill and serve immediately.