With recent mentions of Philly cheesesteaks served at Jersey Mike’s and the Crest Bar & Grill, reader George Gillburg wrote to inform me about how wonderful the cheesesteak is at Leo’s Burgers on Ming Avenue. Specifically he thought the East Coast provost at the Crest was less a French dip (as described in a previous column) and more like a legit cheesesteak.
George recalled the good Philly at the long-gone Wood’ys Grill and Bar, and recommended the ones at Leo’s, Charley’s Philly Steaks in the food court at Valley Plaza and that stated “Jersey Mike’s Big Kahuna isn’t bad if they leave off the jalapenos.”
I wrote back asking him if he’d ever tried the late, great Philadelli’s on Ming Avenue, but he wasn’t as impressed with what they offered. That started a discussion of whether ingredients like peppers or mushrooms have a legitimate place in a Philly cheesesteak.
“I've seen pictures on the Food Channel of the menu board at one of the two places that claim to have originated the sandwich,” he wrote. “Peppers is one of the options they offer as are mushrooms but then they offer just about anything you might want. I guess the proper ingredients are whatever floats your boat. Oh yes, if you haven't been to Leo's Burgers recently, you ought to check them out. They are what John's Burgers aspired to be. The place is always very clean, well-staffed by friendly, helpful people and the food is very tasty and reasonably priced. They are also very accommodating to requests. Of course, if you print a favorable review, they'll get even busier and I may not be able to get in ...”
He went on to recommend various breakfast items, and continued to rave about the staff being “very accommodating to requests such as my asking for fried eggs to be plated on top of the hash browns.”
I understand why George loves the place even though I’m less enthusiastic than he was after a couple of visits. The good news is they did a remodel awhile back and it’s as spiffy as the average coffee shop inside. The staff is a friendly group that give you a lot better service than you usually get at this price level. For example at breakfast a woman was wandering around offering coffee refills. It does look like a locally owned David to the corporate Goliath (McDonald’s) across the street and it’s home-cooked food instead of big chain fast food.
Let’s talk cheesesteaks. Bon Appetit magazine recently posted a video online of a staffer with Philly roots who tried to visit 14 different places that specialized in that city’s namesake sandwich in one day, and the variety of what you find there is amazing. While so many places chop up the beef mixing it with the cheese and the onions, some serve it just the way Leo’s does, with the “steak” stacked in flat, thin strips about the width of cardboard. Though I do love the Jersey Mike’s version made with provolone, the one we tried here ($7.25) was good enough to get me back, though they do put mayo on it unless you ask them not to. I think that would get you beat up in the City of Brotherly Love.
My companion that night ordered a chile verde burrito ($6.95) and was massively disappointed, probably because the beans tasted as if they were canned, not fresh-made, and the chili was really bland. Leo’s is one of those places with a menu that offers Mexican, American and Greek food in all sorts of ways, and my experience in places like that is to avoid the Mexican food, which seems like it’s up there only to please the customers who won’t eat anything else but that.
Breakfast is truly a happening. When you walk in, behind the counter you see about four people minimum working the grill, with hash browns in the back browning, eggs, pancakes and French toast on the front, and a burger grill to the right. An exhibition kitchen of sorts. They give you a number and bring it to the table after you order it and pay at the counter. The breakfast sandwiches are worth ordering, as George recommended. One visit we sampled the bacon ($5.80) and it was like a scramble folded over six times and presented on toast with a thick bit of lettuce and tomato slices. There are two salsas in the bar: red and green. George loves red, and I understand why. It’s a chunky pico de gallo with big pieces of tomato in it. The green is soupy and less assertive in the Flavor Town department. Try that on your bacon breakfast sandwich and you’ll never go buy an Egg McMuffin again. And you can get practically anything here, including pastrami cheese fries made with those ever popular crinkle-cut fries.
On another breakfast visit I ordered the bacon omelet ($9.50), which was made in a similar fashion as something of a scramble, but with two melted slices of American cheese on top. American is not really a cheese — it’s time we all admit that. The plate was full of crispy hash browns, which are not up to the standards set by Milt’s Coffee Shop, but theirs are so good even I can’t make them that perfect at home. Put Leo’s as a close second.
Another item George loves is the rib-eye steak sandwich ($8.25). It’s like a good carne asada sandwich, really, with the beef prepared in a similar way and presented on a French roll with a thick layer of iceberg lettuce and a few tomato slices. Much like the cheesesteak, I’d order that again. George asks them to keep the lettuce and tomato off and subs in the salsa, but I left them in and added the salsa anyway.
I’m giving him the last word: “Leo's is one of the cleanest, friendliest restaurants in Bakersfield. The staff is always busy, rarely, if ever, to be seen just standing around.” And he forgot to add they put a Bible quote at the bottom of the receipt: Psalms 37:4.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.