Inspired by our favorite diner in Baltimore, the Papermoon Cheesesteak is a quirky and nontraditional take on the classic Philly sandwich.
In the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore, MD is a restaurant called the Papermoon Diner. When we visited Baltimore before moving there in 2014, it was the first place one of our friends brought us for brunch. And it’s really not the kind of place you can ever forget.
Aesthetically, Papermoon is the epitome of camp. It’s a colorful, eccentric, kitschy fever dream (featuring the wild mannequin artwork of David Briskie) that just happens to serve amazing food. Their breakfast classics, like eggs Benedict and massive, stuffed omelettes served with perfectly crispy home fries are always good but, for my money, the best item on the menu is the cheesesteak sandwich.
Jimmy and I love the Papermoon cheesesteak so much that we had the caterer at our wedding imitate it in the form of a grilled cheese sandwich. (Yes, we had a grilled cheese station at our wedding.)
Served on a chewy, floury ciabatta roll with thick-sliced sandwich steak, caramelized onions, and buttery, melty, slightly sweet havarti cheese, the Papermoon cheesesteak might not be a traditional cheesesteak (don’t @ me, Philly), but it is one of the best interpretations of one I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.
how to make a papermoon cheesesteak
I’m going to give you the benefit of doubt that you know how to assemble a sandwich, so I’m not going to spend too much time explaining that.
Once your meat is cooked and your onions caramelized, you basically melt the cheese on the open faced halves of ciabatta, stack your meat and veggies between them, and you’re ready to eat.
If you can’t find the pre-sliced stir fry or cheesesteak-style sliced steak at the grocery store, there is one part of the cheesesteak making process where you can actually go wrong though.
So let’s take a moment to talk about what kind of steak to look for and how to slice it to get it sandwich-ready.
how to slice your sandwich steak
The cut of steak you want is called “flap meat” or “flap steak.” (It’s usually pretty cheap, especially since you only need about a quarter-pound of steak per sandwich.)
When you take the steak out of the packaging and lay it out on your cutting board you’ll notice lots of thin white lines of fat and connective tissue running parallel to each other. That’s called the grain of the steak.
Because this is such a thin cut of meat, you’ll cook it before you slice it up for sandwiches — this makes it harder to accidentally overcook. (Depending on the size of your pan, you may have to cut your flap steak in half before you cook it.
To cut it in half, slice with the grain of the steak. Think of the grain like a guide for cutting, running your knife blade down one of the center lines. This is the only time you’ll cut the steak in that direction.)
Once the meat is cooked, let it rest for a few minutes (this helps the meat retain its juices) before slicing it against the grain into thin strips — anywhere from 1/4″ to 1/2″ wide. Instead of using the lines like a guide, you’re going to slice across them, perpendicularly.
Why does this matter? If you were to cut with the grain you’d end up with chewy, tough pieces of steak that are hard to bite through and prone to slipping out of your sandwich with every bite. Cutting against the grain makes the steak tender, chewy, and easy to eat.
a note on caramelizing onions
Caramelizing onions, done right, is a lengthy process that can take up to 45 minutes or more. Every time I see a recipe that calls for them, I think of Tom Scocca’s excellent Slate piece, in which he concludes, “In truth, the best time to caramelize onions is yesterday.”
I’ve purposely written this recipe to have you start by getting your onions in a pan to begin caramelizing. That gives them the longest amount of time to brown and soften before you’re ready to assemble your cheesesteaks.
Since the peppers need less cooking time, you’ll add the peppers to the onions closer to the sandwich assembly stage instead of starting them at the same time as the onions.
don’t blow your budget on cheese
While I’m sure you can find Havarti cheese pre-packaged, sliced or in brick form at the grocery store, you can save a lot of money by going straight to the deli counter.
I do this all the time, especially when we’re making cheeseburgers and only need like, 2-3 slices of American cheese. For these cheesesteaks, you probably only need 3-6 slices (depending on how cheesy you want your steaks to be).
So if you’re hesitant to buy Havarti cheese because you’re not sure what else to do with it and you don’t want to waste it, hit up your grocery deli and ask for the exact number of slices you want.
other recipes you might like
- grilled cheese chicken cordon bleu
- southwestern egg rolls
- roasted garlic and fennel olive oil ciabatta
- the secret ingredient in grammy’s deli’s tuna salad
papermoon cheesesteak sandwiches
- 2 TBSP butter
- ½ white or yellow onion (thinly sliced from root to tip)
- 1 poblano pepper (thinly sliced, seeds and ribs removed)
- ½ pound sandwich steak (or stir fry steak or flap steak)
- havarti cheese (sliced thin or shredded)
- 2 ciabatta sandwich loaves (sliced in half)
- whole grain mustard
- 1 TBSP mayonnaise (or butter, for toasting)
- Preheat oven (or toaster oven) to 350°F.
- Heat 2 TBSP butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add thinly sliced onions and stir until soft and translucent (2-3 minutes). Season with a pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Reduce heat to medium low and continue stirring occasionally, about 20-30 minutes. NOTE: If the bottom of the pan begins to brown as the liquid cooks away, add a splash of water or chicken stock as you stir and scrape the browned bits off. Those brown bits are full of flavor that the onions will reabsorb.
- While onions cook, season the steak with salt and pepper.
- Heat 1 TBSP oil in large skillet (cast iron if you have it) over medium-high heat. When oil is shiny and coats the pan, cook steak to desired doneness. It's thin, so it will cook fast — approximately 4-6 minutes total. Remove from skillet and let rest 3-5 minutes on a cutting board.
- Add thinly sliced peppers to onions in skillet. Stir occasionally to soften, approximately 10 minutes.
- On a sheet tray lined with aluminum foil, arrange the two split ciabatta rolls so the insides are facing up. Spread the insides with butter or mayo (and whole grain mustard, if you're using it). On the bottom halves of the ciabatta rolls layer approximately ⅓ of the Havarti cheese. On the top halves, layer the remaining ⅔ cheese. Toast in the oven for 3-5 minutes until cheese is bubbly and melty.
- Remove the ciabatta halves from the oven. Layer the bottom half of each sandwich with the sliced steak and as much of the onion/pepper mixture as you want. Then immediately close the sandwiches, pressing down so the melty cheese seals the bread together. Serve warm.
- If you’re feeling exceptionally lazy or don’t feel like taking the extra step, you can cook the peppers and onions all at once in step 1.
- Add a bit of extra flavor to your onions and peppers by finely grating a clove of garlic and tossing it in with them halfway through the cook time.