Salem Diner’s recipe for Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich

By Lynn Grisard Fullman

Kurt Kralovec of Trussville e-mailed a succinct request.

“I would like the recipe for the great Philly cheese steak sandwich at Salem’s Diner in Homewood,” he wrote.

Kralovec is not the only one to take note of the sandwich.

When Craig Ferguson, host of CBS’s “The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” was in Birmingham in early 2007 to perform at The Comedy Club, he visited Homewood. Following his stay in Birmingham, Ferguson recounted his lunch at Salem’s Diner where, he reported, “I had an experience that shook me to the core.”

In his monologue, the Scottish host reported on “the best Philly cheese steak sandwich I’ve ever tasted — and I’m including Philadelphia.”

The diner’s owner, Wayne Salem, cannot suppress a smile when he tells about Ferguson’s nationally televised endorsement.

Despite all the fanfare, the restaurateur claims that making the sandwich is no mystery.

“It’s really simple,” said Salem, whose great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Beirut in the 1920s.

How was the recipe born in Birmingham, a city typically known for its barbecue?

Long a fan of Philly cheese steak sandwiches (although he only once visited Philly during an airport layover), Salem figured he could make a good thing better.

“I was at one of my family’s bowling businesses, at Pinson Super Bowl, when one of the cooks and I decided to figure out a way to make a better Philly,” he recalled, explaining that he has never liked onions, peppers or meats that are stringy. Neither has he preferred sandwiches with thick, thick bread.

“I am a fan of grilled onions,” he said when explaining one of the key ingredients in the sandwich, which is the most often ordered item at the diner that opened three Julys ago.

Salem’s restaurant roots run deep in Birmingham. In 1950 his father, Ed Salem, opened a drive-in restaurant on 26th Street North where it quickly became a popular hangout. (An All-American football player at the University of Alabama, the elder Salem later played pro ball for the Washington Redskins.)

Still feeding hungry diners as his father did before him, Wayne Salem offers a full breakfast menu (which many have equated to what their mamas once prepared) and lunch choices of sandwiches, salads, hot dogs, hamburgers and lunch specials (typically $7.99 with a drink and most with fries or onion rings) such as chicken fingers, grilled chicken with rice, country-fried steak, hamburger steak and grilled tilapia that is seasoned with Salem’s secret blend of 20 spices.

If your favorite special isn’t being featured the day you visit, just ask and Wayne likely will produce it anyway. “I do everything on a wing and a prayer,” he jokes as he nods a welcome to an arriving guest.

With seating for 25, including booths and stools at a counter overlooking a grill, Salem’s Diner serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Saturday from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Sidewalk tables offer additional seating for six.)

Is there some special dish that you’ve tasted in a Birmingham-area restaurant that you’d like to try to duplicate? Send your request to: Food Detective, The Birmingham News, P.O. Box 2553, Birmingham, AL 35202; fax Food Detective, 325-2494 or e-mail [email protected].

Philly Cheese Steak Wayne Salem pic.JPG
Salem’s Diner’s Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich
6-inch hoagie roll, toasted on grill in margarine
5 ounces break-away sirloin steak
3 ounces white onion, chopped
3 ounces green bell pepper, chopped
2 slices Swiss/American (white) cheese
margarine, for grilling
mayonnaise, as desired

Using a pastry brush, brush melted margarine onto outsides of hoagie roll. As the roll browns, saute chopped onion and chopped bell pepper in small amount of margarine.

Grill steak in margarine, using spatula to break meat into bite-size pieces.

Blend steak, onions and bell peppers into one heap as they continue cooking.

Quickly pass cheese across grill just long enough to soften; then quickly place softened cheese onto meat-vegetable heap.

Spread mayonnaise, if desired, onto roll. Heap meat, onion, bell pepper and cheese onto grilled bun.

Note: Salem buys breakaway (sliced and shaped) sirloin from Monarch Direct on Crestwood Boulevard. He uses heavy-duty, Bakers & Chefs mayonnaise that is sold at Sam’s Club. Hoagie rolls are by Merita Bread.

Serving suggestion: Serve with deep-fried onion rings or french fries. Salem uses Ore-Ida golden crinkle fries and seasons them with Lawrys seasoned salt.