Jim’s, Geno’s, and Pat’s are my fondest memories of my trips to Philly as a young kid and teenager. I fell in love with the cheesesteak and while I know some food memories can become romanticized I have spent all my Midwestern life trying to find a decent sandwich west of Philly. I’m happy to report my love has finally found a home at Big Red’s Steaks here in Madison, Wisconsin.
Walking into Big Red’s I was instantly put at ease by the laid back if not sloppy look of the place. I was worried I was going to get a glossy version of a steak place like you find at the mall. Nope, here we just have a counter with a menu board and a number of paper reminders about specials and what not. The staff is knowledgeable and certainly was patient with my partner’s first attempt at ordering a cheesesteak and my own rustiness as I attempted to “wit” and “wiz” my way through.
As my partner pointed out, if you want to get to the bottom of a place like Big Red’s you start out by ordering the standard and that’s just what we did. Two steaks wit fried onions and wiz. I know many folks who cringe at cheese wiz on their steaks as opposed to provolone but dammit I’m a purist. The sandwiches were tightly wrapped and dripping with grease which was a good sign right off the bat. Inside the imported bread and meat (from Philly of course) hit all the right notes. The meat was thin and tender and while the portion size was a bit small, it was clearly the star of the sandwich. Next up was the bread which was firm on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside. Finally there was the wiz and onions which worked in perfect harmony. This was it, after 20 plus years of searching my taste buds had hit pay dirt.
On top of the sandwich we got an order of cheese fries with more of the aforementioned wiz. The fries were also very good and I’m tempted next time to order the Philly fries which also have pieces of steak on them. Then again they also offer mac and cheese bites.
While she loved her cheesesteak, my partner was more excited at the prospect of the Tastykakes Big Red’s carries. For those unfamiliar, Tastykakes are the Philly equivalent of Little Debbie’s but according to my partner, so, so, much better. As a child, her father who was a Philly native, often regaled her with tales of Tastykakes and once in a while would share some with her when friends and family would bring them from out east. After sampling their equivalent of a Ho Ho I’m inclined to agree with her that these are the best packaged snack cakes ever. My partner thinks the secret ingredient is better lard.
Perhaps the biggest downside to Big Red’s is the location. The two owners who started the business as a late night food cart were smart to leave it in the downtown/campus area however the exact spot is difficult for anyone hoping to pick something up on the fly. The nearest meter is about a block away and the only other alternative is one of the State Street parking ramps. Granted I’m guessing that they do most of their business thanks to students and downtown workers, as lord knows if I was either I’d be there multiple times a week, but it’s a gigantic pain for any of us driving in. Still in light of the quality of the food it’s a small inconvenience. Thank you Big Red’s for finally ending my quest.
Big Red’s Steaks, 610 University Ave, Madison, WI (608)255-1183