If you have ties to the City of Brotherly Love, you know that Philadelphians are nearly fanatical about certain foods. Soft pretzels with spicy brown mustard. Wooder (translation: water) ice. Krimpets. And of course cheesesteaks.
As a Philly girl, I’m pretty fussy about cheesesteaks. I rarely order them outside of the city because I’m usually disappointed. But my husband and I decided to try out the new Max’s on West Call Street and these cheesesteaks were indeed a taste of home.
I took one bite and a flood of memories came rushing back: My mom taking me to eat cheesesteaks when I was a kid. My friends and I waiting in line for cheesesteaks at 3 a.m. after we put our college newspaper to bed. Taking my husband to eat his first cheesesteak, Cheese Whiz and all.
The young man behind this new restaurant is Max Winger. He’s from Orlando, not Philadelphia, but he’s a smart, talented guy with a moxie that belies his age, which is 22. He’s worked in restaurants since he was a teenager and he’s long dreamed of opening his own place.
Max took a trip to Philadelphia about a month after his May virtual graduation from Florida State University with a degree in economics, Max spent time doing his culinary homework in Philly. “I tried to hit all the authentic spots,” visiting nearly a dozen neighborhood cheesesteak joints.
“When I went there I was trying to go deeper, talk to locals,” said Max. “People kept telling me to go to Angelo’s Pizzeria on 9th Street. I went there. It was excellent. And I took their advice.”
He came back to Tallahassee, and on Aug. 22 had the grand opening for Max’s on West Call Street.
For our takeout order, I ordered the traditional “Wiz Wit,” which includes a generous amount of shaved steak cooked on a grill, made with Cheese Whiz, considered the traditional choice for a real Philly cheesesteak. The “wit” refers to sautéed onions.
My husband ordered the “Prov Wit” — the only real difference is you get provolone instead. We all have our dark side. Both types were quite good, but I have to stick with the Whiz.
My friend, food maven Rick Oppenheim, was at Max’s recently and he too was “especially impressed that the cheese sauce was thick and flavorful — not runny as at some other places — which helped the sandwich hold up without being a drippy mess.”
“I’m a Cheese Whiz guy,” confesses Max, who we’ll dub an honorary Philadelphian.
Bread is another important factor. Max learned he could skip well-known Amoroso rolls in favor of fresh hoagie rolls closer from home. He uses about a 1,000 rolls a week.
Max found a Jacksonville bakery that makes top-notch, soft hoagie rolls and delivers every other day, but Max is looking into working with a Tallahassee bakery.
You can order a half size cheesesteak for $7 and a whole for $11. We ordered two large cheesesteaks but we had half for lunch and ate the other half the next day.
The menu also includes an El Jefe, with slow-roasted pork marinated in citrus juices, shaved steak and Swiss cheese; vegan and vegetarian versions; and a Cheesesmith with provolone and Cheese Whiz.
Other highlights are the large, crisp fries. For a decadent alternative, try the Drunken Spud with more than a pound of crispy spuds smothered in gooey beer cheese and topped with double smoked bacon.
Shakes are made with custard-based ice cream, which makes them really thick and rich. I had a “black and white” (Philly for vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup), which was delicious, but they also have vanilla, mocha madness, strawberry shortcake, Cookie Monster, s’more and this month, peanut butter cup.
We were going to eat at one of Max’s two tables outside but it started to rain. We grabbed our food and drove to the Chain of Parks and gobbled our meal in our car in an impromptu picnic. It was kinda nice.
Max is among more than a dozen local business owners who have taken a leap and opened a restaurant during the pandemic. employs a staff of 11. Due to social distancing rules, he can accommodate 12 people inside. He admits that “it’s scary to start a business right now.”.
“There are definitely challenges,” said Max. “Part of it is everything takes a lot longer. Prices have gone up. Suppliers were charging $50 for a case of meat and now it’s jumped to $70.
“I’m doing the best I can to brave the storm and keep it going,” he said. “My whole family are entrepreneurs. They’ve always told me that there’s never a right time to start a business.”
In some ways, opening during a pandemic “is a golden opportunity contrary to what everyone says. There’s a new niche for a restaurant that can capitalize on takeout and delivery.”
Max said customers can order on his website online. The order is sent to the kitchen and displayed on a screen and you can pay online without using cash. “People can call and say they’re here and we’ll run it out. It’s super easy.”
Also easy: Go to Max’s and take a quick trip to Philly.
When you go …
Location: Max’s, 1600 W. Call St., Suite 104, near the Maple Street Biscuit Company. There’s free parking in the Luxe garage next door.
Contact: 850-765-8413; maxssteaksshakesandfries.com/
Prices: Cheesesteaks: $7, $11; Cheesesmith $8, $13; vegan sub $7, $12; El Jefe $8, $13; Double Trouble, $9. Create Your Own Steak, $6, $10. Fries, $3, Drunken Spud $8. Shakes $3.50, $6.
Hours: Open daily except Monday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.