Two interesting new eateries have opened. In Watertown, Philly's Finest is serving authentic Philly cheesesteaks and hoagies. In Potsdam, Billy's Deli is serving subs, wraps and sandwiches in the former Fields Coffeehouse location.
We visited both last week. This is what we found.
109 COURT ST.
There's a new eatery just off the Square that's worth checking out.
Philly's Finest is in Top of the Square plaza, where Court Street meets Arsenal just off Public Square. It specializes in authentic Philly cheesesteak sandwiches.
Owners Christopher and Carolina Russell are natives of Philadelphia — the one in Pennsylvania, that is. They moved to the north country recently with the expressed intent of opening a shop featuring Philly cheesesteaks. Christopher was a firefighter in his hometown, which explains the eatery's logo and photographs on the walls of his restaurant.
The menu is simple: cheesesteaks and hoagies, a few simple salads, french fries and Pepsi products. That's it (although many more selections are listed in the "future menu items" section of their website).
Christopher and Carolina were working the counter, so it was time to pump them for information. I started with, "So, an authentic Philly is steak, cheese, onions and peppers ..." And they cut me off in midsentence.
"No peppers and no mushrooms," said Christopher, with a knowing smile. "It's bread, meat and cheese — with maybe some onions. And the cheese is Cheez Whiz."
OK, that's the way I want mine then, plus the onions. But for those with a different notion of what a Philly is, there's the add-on option of mushrooms, peppers, bacon and pepperoni. And American or provolone, if Cheez Whiz freaks you out.
We also were sure to sample one of their hoagies — a sub to someone in upstate New York. A hero to someone from New York City.
What makes their cheesesteaks and hoagies authentic? It's the bread: 12-inch rolls that they import all the way from Philadelphia daily — slightly crusty with a good chew.
The Philly ($9.95) was yummy — seasoned rib-eye cooked right there and sliced thin, Cheez Whiz underneath, sautéed diced onions on top and the perfect amount of grease from the flattop grill — all on that great, huge roll.
Equally good was the Old World Italian hoagie ($9.95): prosciutto, mozzarella and roasted red peppers with a little lettuce and tomato; oil, no mayo. (Carolina shook her head as to say "no, no — no mayo with imported prosciutto."). Big chunks of fresh mozzarella, real prosciutto — how can you go wrong? Next time, we'd ask for a little extra oil.
For the less adventurous, you can order a hoagie with turkey, ham, roast beef or cheese and your choice of American, provolone or Swiss.
Old Bay fries ($3.50) were a letdown. The pricey fries were heavy, nearing soggy, and what the heck is spice you put on fish doing on french fries? Shoulda gotten the bacon cheese fries for $4.95 instead. With a side of Lipitor.
Although we didn't order one, for salads you can choose from garden, julienne, antipasto or Caesar.
Lunch for three came to $30.90. The Philly and the hoagie were so large, we cut them up and shared them.
The counters along the wall are awkwardly high for eating, so we took our lunch outside to a nearby park bench. When eating in this area, be aware of low-flying stealth birds, carrying and using very accurate munitions.
Other than it taking over 10 minutes to make our rather simple order, we had a good experience. Would we return? Absolutely! There's nothing like a real Philly cheesesteak.
Philly's Finest is open for eat-in, takeout or delivery from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday. On Friday, they're open until 8 p.m. Saturday hours are noon to 7 p.m.; they're closed on Sunday.
2 MARKET ST.
All Potsdam was abuzz last month when the sign went up in the former Fields Coffeehouse location in downtown Potsdam: NOW OPEN — BILLY'S DELI.
At last, many thought, a real deli with stacks of cold cuts in the showcase, big trays of homemade salads, crusty Kaiser rolls and artisan breads, giant salamis hanging from the ceiling and the smell of imported cheeses wafting throughout the dining spot.
That's a deli if you're from anywhere south of the Tappan Zee Bridge. If you're from north of the Adirondack Mountains, it seems deli has a different definition.
At this point, Billy's Deli appears to be a combination sub shop and sandwich place. Prestige Boar's Head brand meats and cheeses, still in their wrappers, are attractively displayed in a brand new 4-foot lighted showcase. A small, self-serve cooler contains canned soda, ice tea and lemonade along with 8-ounce plastic containers of potato salad, macaroni salad and cole slaw.
A chalkboard menu lists the meats available as subs, wraps or sandwiches: ham, turkey, roast beef, corned beef, chicken, salami, pastrami and bologna. The only items not made with the use of a slicer are egg salad, tuna salad or PB&J.
A friendly young lady took our order at the counter and handed the slip through a window to the kitchen crew. We grabbed our drinks and salads and plastic utensils and headed to a table.
The salads were all commercial products from one of their suppliers. Red skin potato salad was the best of the three, with nice consistency and flavor. Mac salad was noticeably gummy, and there's nothing worse than weeks-old green peppers. Cole slaw consisted of chopped cabbage with a light sweet-and-sour dressing.
It didn't take long for our deli paper-wrapped "entrées" to be delivered from the back by a kitchen-gloved employee. Lunch entrees are not served in baskets; you eat your sandwich on the deli paper it's wrapped in.
Billy's tuna sandwich ($6.31) was the only stab at creativity on the menu, a modest amount of tuna with some nice crunchies provided by celery, onions and apple. Our choice of multigrain bread from the nearby Potsdam Co-op bakery made this a nice lunch choice.
Cajun turkey wrap ($6.54) was made with our call of garlic and herb wrap around sliced Cajun turkey, horseradish cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion and cherry pepper rings with spicy mustard. The combination of the Cajun-spiced meat with the horseradish and cherry peppers gave it enough pizzazz to make for a tasty wrap.
The "pastrami-rama" slider sampler ($7.94) was a clever idea, one of their 8-inch sub rolls cut into three sections with corned beef, roast beef and pastrami. The meats were lean and delicious (we appreciated the Boar's Head quality), although a little sparse, with thinly sliced onion and tomato, all nicely enhanced with a variety of cheeses and mustards.
It was a classic north country sub roll, and that's not a compliment. Why can't someone find a roll with a nice crust and a tender center?
We took a roast beef sandwich ($6.54) on wheat bread with mayo to go. The recipient reported, "It was a good luncheonette sandwich; nothing special."
Lunch for three and a sandwich to go came to $40.50. Pickles do not come with sandwiches, so we got one for a buck, a good Boar's Head giant garlic dill. Chips are extra, too, Block & Barrel (a SYSCO brand), also a dollar for a small bag. You can get extra meat on most any item for an additional $1.50. Cookies from the co-op are the only dessert, priced at $1.25. There's no coffee available
Where's the piled-high pastrami? Where are the hard rolls? Where are the fantastic salads, all trademarks of any good deli?
Billy's was clean and bright and sparsely furnished, clearly a work in progress. Will it fly? We hope so, but it has to find a niche. The first Billy's — a sub shop in Canton in the early '70's — made it, but it's not the 1970's anymore. It's 2011, and the area's got several decent national-chain sub shops, and the local supermarkets have pretty good deli departments.
Perhaps the owner and the manger, both with sub shop experience, should take a ride to Saranac Lake and check out Lakeview Deli or the Brown Dog Deli in Lake Placid. It's not hard to stand out in a crowd. You just have to know what you're doing.
Billy's Deli opens every day at 10:30 a.m. except Sunday, when they open at 11:30. They close at 10 p.m. during the week, midnight on weekends and 9 o'clock on Sunday.
You can contact restaurant reviewer Walter Siebel via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.