Burning Question: Who would win the culinary big game, Philadelphia or Kansas City?

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What do people look forward to come Super Bowl Sunday? The game?—yeah, there’s that. Those hyped-up 30-second television slots haven’t amounted to much in recent years. And the halftime extravaganza? Might as well watch The Masked Singer.

No, it can be argued that food matters more than anything.

Demand for chips, whether tortilla or potato, jumps almost 39 percent nationally because of the big game. According to SNAC International, a trade association for the snacking industry (their banquets must be impressive), Americans stock up on $487 million in empty calories during Super Bowl week alone. 

Numbers from other studies back this up. Statista, for instance, reports that close to 80 percent of families shell out for food or drinks just for the game. Team apparel purchases pale in comparison, at just 12 percent.

So while the Eagles and Chiefs battle for the Lombardi Trophy, there is something more important at stake: culinary bragging rights.

Philadelphia is a sandwich (or should we say hoagie) city, while Kansas City lends its name to one of the nation’s most noted barbecue styles. And because it’s easy to assume that “let’s go for barbecue” is more likely to get your friends off the couch than “let’s grab a sandwich,” KC would seem to have a decided edge.

The result may not be that clear cut.

Philly’s best known creation is the cheesesteak—typically shavings of beef, grilled peppers and onions, pulled together by melted provolone (let’s not talk about Cheez Whiz; ghastly stuff), but easily customizable. “It’s such a versatile sandwich,” explains Alejandro Tuesta, owner of the popular food truck Oli’s Cheesesteaks. “Man, it’s so good.”

While Kansas City barbecue is more welcoming than that of other regions—with everything from brisket to pork, ribs and even chicken (as well as opossum, raccoon and other meats, judging from yellowed newspaper ads)—the star is tidbits carved from brisket known as burnt ends.

“We don’t have enough of them,” reports Parker Fisher, manager of Bear + Flag Roadside in Carmel Valley. “We sell all of our brisket.”

Would one easily dominate the other on a culinary playing field? Well…

“That’s tough,” Fisher says, pondering the matter. “I’m a barbecue guy. The flavor is great and it’s great with a cold beer.”

“We do love barbecue,” Tuesta admits. “Barbecue is a close second. Cheesesteaks all day.”

Oli’s has a reputation for serving sandwiches that make Philly natives envious. Tuesta brings his love of street foods and Peruvian flair to his creations. They are hardly the rapid-fire cheesesteaks of Pat’s or Geno’s, where line cooks sling ’steaks 24/7.

But it’s also possible to find versions at restaurants around Monterey County. At 3 Mundos Sandwich Shop in Monterey, the sirloin is cut a little chunkier than tradition allows, but the brawny swagger remains firm against the pops of earthy-sweet vegetables and the nutty calm of the cheese. A tangy sauce with a steady glare of heat plays off all of this, making it a purposeful—as in filling out the love handles—but nuanced sandwich.

Burnt ends are more difficult to muster around here. The Salinas food truck Show Off BBQ smokes pork belly burnt ends on occasion, but hardcore KC-style calls for brisket.

Bear + Flag serves its burnt ends in breakfast burrito form. It’s enough, however, to understand just why people have come to covet these bites. 

A wrap—no matter how crowded with grilled onions and peppers, scrambled eggs, potatoes and all—cannot contain their smoky might. The burnt ends are swarthy and rough-hewn, yet equally lustrous. They tell of firewood, of hearths smudged by time as a bittersweet haze settles over the whole.

The burnt ends on offer at Bear + Flag are prepared by The Meatery in Seaside, cut from their 18-hour brisket, the county’s best. For Super Bowl Sunday, chef Todd Fisher plans bacon-wrapped burnt ends as a nod to the culinary marvel that Kansas City made famous.

But that’s about it. Just why the barbecue favorite is so difficult to track down on and around the Peninsula is…well, there must be a reason.

“It could be being in California,” Parker Fisher points out, mentioning the prevalence of tri-tip, suited to the Santa Maria-style pit.

Both the cheesesteak and burnt ends come from humble beginnings. The larger end of the brisket was always a troublesome piece that pitmasters tended to carve off and set aside for other purposes. Somewhere along the way, frugal sorts learned to render the scraps further, giving them a smoky insolence to go with the rich savor of beef. The Kansas City barbecue haven Arthur Bryant’s began treating guests to burnt ends as they waited in line, and did so for decades.

What became a Philadelphia staple reportedly got its start in the early 1930s, when food cart owner Pat Olivieri grew bored of eating hot dogs for lunch. One day he grilled slices of beef with onions and threw both onto a bun. As the story goes, a cab driver noticed, tried one himself and praised the sandwich so highly that Olivieri soon opened Pat’s King of Steaks.

When cheese entered the picture is a matter of debate. In one version, a Pat’s employee named “Cocky Joe” piled provolone on the steak sandwich, likely while a bit tipsy. This happened in the 1940s.

On the other hand, Joey Vento claims that he was the first to add cheese—but two decades later, since he opened Geno’s Steaks in 1966, on the same corner as Pat’s. Depending on the telling, Cheez Whiz was initially adopted by Geno’s, or Pat’s.

Carolyn Wyman, author of The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book, lends more credence to the cocky one. Tuesta, of Oli’s food truck, rightly rues the introduction of processed product to the sandwich.

“Whiz is on the chemical side,” he observes. “It’s just better to melt provolone on top.”

Doug Worgul, author of The Grand Barbecue: A Celebration of the History, Places, Personalities and Techniques of Kansas City Barbecue (which all somehow fits on a dust jacket), credits the competition circuit for breaking burnt ends from their Midwest isolation, at least in part.

Burnt ends first gained national attention in the 1970s, when Playboy food writer Calvin Trillin boasted that Arthur Bryant’s was “the best restaurant in the world.”

His reasoning?

“The main course at Bryant’s, as far as I’m concerned, is something that is given away free—the burned edges of the brisket,” Trillin wrote. “I dream of those burned edges. Sometimes, when I’m in some awful, overpriced restaurant in some strange town, trying to choke down some three-dollar hamburger that tastes like a burned sponge, a blank look comes over me: I have just realized that at that very moment, someone is Kansas City is being given those burned edges for free.”

That’s not something Philadelphia can easily counter—and it gets worse for the cheesesteak. Before the 2005 game between Philadelphia and New England, the governors of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts made a unique wager: The losing elected official and his family would sing the national anthem before an NBA game that spring.

“I think it’s safe to say Gov. Rendell and his family will be getting a birds-eye view of the Fleet Center’s parquet floor in April,” said a confident Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in a statement at the time. “Watching the governor sing the national anthem…is a lot more interesting to me than winning a Philly cheesesteak.”

So it’s looking like a culinary victory for the Chiefs, although the margin isn’t great. We know sports fans from the City of Brotherly Love will be gracious in defeat.

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