We’ve covered tons of hybrid foods over the years: from sushirritos, to cronuts, to Donnolis, and more. After a while, we kind of agreed that we wouldn’t heed their siren calls anymore… until we heard a new shop had opened up in Manhattan that was getting a reputation for their scallion pancake cheesesteaks.
Brendan loves scallion pancakes and as an expat Philadelphian, he has had many torrid relationships with cheesesteaks. So, he paid a visit to Johnny Shek, the owner of a restaurant called The Bao Shoppe to examine this so-called “cheesesteak.”
On how he came up with his “cheesesteak”
Johnny Shek: I always like scallion pancakes, and I was like, “You know, it’s pretty versatile if people use it correctly. It’s thin, crispy, you can do a lot of different things with it.” So, the first one we made was the braised beef wrap. And then we [said], “OK, now let’s make a vegetarian one.” So we did a portobello mushroom one.
And then one day I was like, “I really want a cheesesteak, but I can’t really leave the restaurant to get a cheesesteak… let me see what I can do making it.” And, you know, we do thin sliced beef and bulgogi beef for our bao. So I was like, “Ok, let me take some of that un-marinated beef, add some cheese here, add some onions, OK.”
And [then] I was like, “The only I didn’t have was like regular bread… what do I have? OK, scallion pancakes… Wow that tastes pretty good.” Made it a couple more times, had a couple other people try it, they’re like, “It’s good, you should sell it.” I’m like, “Yeah, I should.”
So then I just slapped it on my menu. You know, people are like, “Oh it’s not a Philly cheesesteak.” …I can call it just a cheesesteak wrap, but if I put the Philly in front, people understand like, where it’s coming from, what kind it is.
…More than not we’re just trying to educate people on what the food is. That’s the hardest thing to do is always educate people on what the food concepts are. So, the fastest way to do that is just to brand it correctly right away.
On his favorite classic Philly cheesesteak
Johnny Shek: I’ve had tons of Philly cheesesteaks, I’ve been to Philly a bunch of different times throughout my life.
Brendan Francis Newnam: What’s your favorite?
Johnny Shek: I mean, they’re very different, it really depends on my level of, I guess, inebriation… depends on how much I wanna chew.
You know, like, you go to Geno’s, there’s a little more chewing involved. You go to Pat’s, it’s a little more chopped up. So it was like, if I’m kinda had a couple too many… I’ll go to Pat’s because it’s less chewing involved ’cause it’s pretty chopped up. But if I feel like I want a little more bite and like, I’m a little more head on straight, I’ll go to Geno’s just ’cause I like the texture a little better.
On the sandwich’s popularity at the restaurant
Johnny Shek: It’s been very popular. It’s one of our most popular items, I mean, we’ve done this at, like, outdoor events.
Since we put it on the menu, I find a lot of people who come into our restaurant aren’t sure what to order the first time, so I tell them try this. So they order this and they’re like, “OK, I understand this. This is very familiar to me.” They’ll try this and they’re like, “OK, now I understand where this place is going. So they try the other things after.
On the pancake cheesesteak experience
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well I’m a little nervous ’cause this could be too much of a good thing for me. This could be two good things colliding which may ruin both of them for me.
Johnny Shek: Yeah, it might ruin it. Like after you have this, you’ll have a regular cheesesteak, you’re like, “It’s kinda bread-y”, just like, kinda like that thin, thin-
Brendan Francis Newnam: Oh, you think this might ruin an actual cheese steak for me?
Johnny Shek: Yeah. It could. I’m telling you it could, I mean, if you like scallion pancakes, it’s thin and crispy. I mean, the best part about it is you can have two of them and not feel like you’re so full. I’ll have two cheese steaks, I’m like, “I’m dying already… it’s coming out my neck,” you know?
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, let’s see. I’m willing to risk it here ’cause it looks so good, so I’m gonna go in. Do you wanna have part of my other half here?
Johnny Shek: Dude, I had like, three yesterday, so I can’t be doing that everyday, man. My doctor’s saying my cholesterol is way too high. I was like, “It’s ’cause of the Philly.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: This tastes like, this tastes like the legitimate, the same sort of steak they use in Philly with the fried onions. What’s the cheese situation here? I don’t see the cheese whiz here.
Johnny Shek: It’s a roll so it has a hole in the bottom. So if we put cheese whiz, it kinda falls out because the cheese whiz is very liquid-y. We find with the American cheese, it’s melty, but it’s still kinda like, sticky at the same time, so it kinda holds integrity of the cheese steak in the wrap.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, it holds the integrity of the cheese steak, but that really, you know, not using cheese whiz as you know is like… I don’t know if technically we can-
Johnny Shek: I know, that’s the only thing that we were fighting on for a while. Like, how can we not put cheese whiz in it? But then, if you pick it up, the whole thing falls out the bottom, so you basically have a pancake with a little bit of essence and you’re eating it off the plate. I’m like, “No I can’t do that.”
Brendan Francis Newnam: I mean, I think technically this can’t fall under the phylum [of] cheesesteak, but I think this is a good thing for me ’cause there’s no longer a threat to my love of the cheese steak. This is something altogether different.
Johnny Shek: Different category now on its own.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]