Despite its bucolic name, Augusta’s Peach Orchard Road is not a place one drives for pleasure. But even if you don’t need a payday loan, a bargain motel, or a franchised junk-food meal, I recommend a detour (off I-520) for the one-of-a-kind Philly Cheese Steak Factory. It’s the real deal, run by former Philadelphians who get their meat, bread, and spices from back home.
Painted bright-enough red and yellow to stand out even on this harsh strip of urban commerce, it’s a restaurant with a bold personality, declaring what it makes to be “the world’s best subs” and “heaven on a bun.”
The steak is less like the classic flaps-of-beef variety found at venerable Pat’s and Geno’s in Philadelphia’s Italian Market and more like the hacked-up hash at the edge of the city, at Mama’s and Leo’s. In this version of the Philly sandwich — which is the dominant style around Augusta, where cheese steaks are a minor passion — the cheese is not a separate layer added on top. It is so well mixed with finely chopped ribeye that it is visually imperceptible; but it adds a mighty wave of salty dairy luxury to every bite. Onions also are secreted in the standard package; and no-cost options include mayo (!), ketchup (!), and mustard (!). Pay more and the sandwich can include mushrooms, peppers, bacon, lettuce, or tomato.
The cheese-infused meat itself is so finely chopped that a plastic fork is a welcome way of getting it all from bun to mouth. But don’t neglect the bread. It comes from Amoroso’s Bakery in Philly. This imported version lacks the muscular vigor of loaves back home, but it’s good and fresh, its soft character a welcome sop for all the juicy beef it supports.
The long, tender loaves also serve as a bed for hoagies (cold sub sandwiches), top of the line being an Italian. That’s meats, cheeses, lettuce, tomato, oregano, and plenty of oil and vinegar. It’s even messier than the cheese steak, but a yummy mess indeed.
Decor echoes Philadelphia in countless 8×10 photos of friends and celebrities that adorn the walls. But this happy little “factory” has saucy, southern-soul character all its own, visually overseen by images of proprietor La-La Alston, who claims the title Queen of Steaks. Ms. La-La once told a reporter, “There are a lot of steak and sub places out there desperately trying to mimic the authentic Philly cheese steak, and all they do is kill its reputation. None can be compared to us.”