When people think of food in Philadelphia, the first thing that comes to mind is the cheesesteak. The sandwich, which usually consists of thinly-chopped steak, cheese and bread, is an edible metaphor for the city: hearty, substantive and unabashedly no-frills. The city that brought America Rocky Balboa and the Broad Street Bullies deserves no less in tribute.
Whiz, a new Philly cheesesteak concept that opened up in Koreatown earlier last month, sought to bring the concept made famous by the likes of Pat’s, Geno’s and Jim’s to Los Angeles. It stands to reason that chef Wes Lieberher, the mastermind behind the artery-clogging menu at Beer Belly next door and the head chef at Whiz, would be the one to translate the hearty foods from the City of Brotherly Love. Unfortunately, Whiz falls victim to all of the Hollywood stereotypes of glitz without substance.
To call this a restaurant review would be a mistake because Whiz is not a restaurant. The indoor area is relegated to a cashier and a kitchen with scant standing room for patrons looking to order. There is no indoor seating, and there is no service staff, save for a sassy, tattooed cashier who seems to sincerely hate his job. Whiz would be more of a food truck stuck in a brick-and-mortar body, looking to make most of its business with take-out orders, deliveries and patrons who enjoy eating in their cars, or while standing up. There are a couple of benches adjacent to the sidewalk outside, but that wasn’t very helpful with the inclement weather of late.
What would make all of this perfectly acceptable is if Whiz actually made good food. It doesn’t. The signature item, the Whiz Wit, is Lieberher’s take on the Philadelphia favorite. The sandwich takes thinly chopped steak with a housemade “Cheez Whiz” and onions and puts them all in a nine-inch Amoroso’s roll. The supple-yet-substantive Amoroso’s roll, imported from Philadelphia, is a nice touch. The bread stands up well to the hefty grease of chopped steak. The problem is the sandwich itself: Despite fantastic bread, the meat completely overwhelms the taste of anything else in the sandwich. The restaurant’s eponymous Whiz is nowhere to be found, completely buried underneath a mess of unctuous grease.
The restaurant fares no better with its other sandwiches: The Balls O’ Bacon sandwich purports to be a spruced-up meatball sub, using pork shoulder meatballs wrapped in bacon in lieu of traditional meatballs. The marinara sauce is sloppily executed, under-simmered where the acidity of the tomatoes hasn’t been fully balanced and with cardboard-thick slices of garlic sprinkled throughout. One bite leads to an unpleasant revelation: The meatball crumbles away like overcooked falafel, with no discernible presence of bacon.
The Fried Chicken Sammy sounds excellent on paper: a tarragon panko-crusted chicken with applewood-smoked bacon, Italian mayonnaise and a spicy pickled jalapeno and carrot relish served up on a brioche bun. What’s troubling, again, is that the ideas are overwrought and poorly executed. The chicken arrives two shades darker than golden brown, overcooked to a chewy consistency that Ronald McDonald would find offensive. The applewood-smoked bacon is crunchy, and the sweet and spicy relish is nothing if not interesting, but the overall textures fail to work together to deliver a satisfying balance and the sandwich fails to amount to more than a sum of its parts.
It stands to reason that Whiz might be able to redeem itself with strong side dishes, but the Sriracha Beast Fries quickly do away with such pitiable expectations. The fries are a Sriracha-adulterated take on In-N-Out Burger’s Animal Style Fries, but Whiz’s rendition is decidedly half-a–ed. Crinkle-cut fries are topped with the restaurant’s Cheese Whiz, grilled onions and a Sriracha-Thousand Island dressing. The last ingredient is the most befuddling — the combination of the dressing and cheese is salty enough to make your stomach turn, and the addition of a spicy kick from a barely-present Sriracha is little more than a nauseating flourish.
To Whiz’s credit, their chicken wings are surprisingly good: The Sweet & Spicy Basil Wings are neither too sweet nor too spicy, but a neatly balanced combination of the two that brings out the fresh taste of Jidori Chicken. But if a sandwich shop’s claim to fame is its chicken wings, perhaps Lieberher needs to reconsider his strategy.
Whiz is open from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., which suggests that it’s trying to be a lunch spot. It’s hard to imagine a place with such greasy, hearty food like Whiz providing lunch for the surrounding population of office workers. Mixing greasy food of this extreme with Excel spreadsheets and a mailbox full of emails is a recipe for disaster. Perhaps Whiz would do well to extend its hours to cover nights and after-hours, when its food could be the exclamation point on a night filled with regrettable decisions.