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March 29, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Philly Boys Cheesesteaks: playing my tune (up) in Sodo

When John Schofield ate his first prime steak at Andy’s Diner in Sodo, he was a Philly-expat living in Seattle and working at Walt’s Radiator. Then, in 1995 he opened A.C. Automotive at 3201 Fourth Avenue South — next door to Andy’s.

In the years since things have changed: These days they’re serving Chinese food in the railcar-restaurant long known as Andy’s Diner. And if John wants to get his hands on a great steak, all he has to do is step outside his shop, throw on an apron and make it himself.

I caught up with the mechanic-turned-meat-chopper in the parking lot of A.C. Automotive, now home to Philly Boys Cheesesteaks — the Cheez Whiz-colored mobile unit where he’s been putting up steaks since early March alongside another Philly boy, Frank Bucci.

Frank Bucci (left) and John Schofield, the Philly boys behind Philly Boys Cheesesteaks.

[Seattle Times/Ken Lambert]

Nancy: Yo, John! How does a guy go from running a shop where they change your oil and change-out your spare tire, to making sandwiches that give you a spare tire?

John: I’ve been making cheesesteaks forever. When I was 16, I worked at the Station Luncheonette under the El at K&A [translation for the rest of yez: the elevated rail stop at Kensington and Allegheny in Philadelphia]. I always wanted to open a cheesesteak place, because I make the best ones around. Here, I made them for fundraisers at Eastside Catholic, where I met Frank. Our girls went to school together.

NL: You gotta love that Frank Bucci — a home-construction guy adept at constructing cheesesteaks, among other eats, including those excellent hand-cut fries.

JS: Yeah, that’s Frank’s baby, those fries. The hot dogs are his, too. They’re no-nitrate Hempler’s, cooked in Rainier beer. We’ve got sauerkraut out for the hot dogs [next to the cherry peppers for the steaks] and people were putting sauerkraut on their cheesesteaks. Frank’s over here sayin’, “What are they doin’?” I never heard of it — but they liked it.

You want fries with that? [Seattle Times/Ken Lambert]

NL: Sauerkraut on a cheesesteak? That’s as bad as the cream cheese and Cheez Whiz Frank’s putting on his cheese dogs! (Yeah, yeah, it’s a trend. Feh!) And what’s wit the Whiz? When I was growing up in Philly, where there’s a family-run steak shop on every corner, I never heard of such a thing. It was white American cheese (we called it “square cheese”) or Provolone. You?

JS: I eat mine white. Whiz is for tourists. I tried it last week for the first time in my life [on his 60th birthday, no less!], and I felt like a traitor doing it. Forget it! Why would you eat that? Frank loves it, though. He’s over at the window asking, “White or Whiz?” Customers say, “How do you do it in Philly?” and he’ll tell them, “White. You can work up to Whiz.”

“White or Whiz?” asks Frank. Nathan Gottlieb (left) and his pal Alex Leake, split the difference, ordering one of each.

NL: That’s not the only disagreement you’ve had. After driving cross-country to fetch your new concession trailer — 7,300 miles in 9 days through three snowstorms — there was some disagreement about what to name the joint, right?

JS: It’s Philly Boys Cheesesteaks. Frank wanted The Only Philly Cheesesteak, and that’s what it says on the trailer. I’m easy. We compromise.”

NL: From the taste of things, you haven’t compromised on the classic steak sandwich, nor the bread, which in my opinion makes the steak.

JS: Our whole deal was to keep it simple, really good. Our meat’s top round. There’s sauteed onions. Salt and pepper. The bread’s made at Borracchini’s. The GM there went to school with my son. Years ago, when we’d do the school donations, I’d say, “I need Italian rolls, 10-inches long, this wide — and he’d do it.” So when I needed it for this, he said, “Let’s go!” Last week I cooked 50-60 steaks three days in a row and didn’t have one for myself. Then I decided to see if I still like ’em. I’m telling you. It was heaven.

“First you oil the grill. Next, toss on the steak. Yo, Frank! Drop some fries!”

NL: So, what’s next on the agenda? Water ice?

JS: Eventually, we’re hoping to get a few of these trailers going. And when baseball starts up, we’re thinking of heading down there. We’ll see how it goes with the Mariners. [For now, they’re open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays only. Call in orders welcome at 206-414-7707.]

NL: Speaking of which: M’s or Phillies?

JS: I met my wife, Christine [who hails from the Philadelphia area] in Renton. I had a Phillies shirt on, so she figured it out. I’m a Mariner’s fan, but when they’re out, I go to the Phillies.

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