Many of us may remember when Elbert’s Cheesesteak first opened in the basement level of Rockwell Power Plant nine years ago. It served one sandwich and one sandwich only—the cheesesteak. For many Filipinos raised on cheese pimiento sandwiches, this cheesesteak—originating from the south side of Philadelphia—was an exotic marvel.
Having lived the grad student life in Philly in the 1990s, I had had my share of cheesesteak—thin strips of beefsteak, sometimes topped with sautéed onions, slathered with Cheez Whiz, and held together by a soft hoagie roll. I remember well its greasy pleasures, as I would squish the sandwich until the cheese sauce and meat juices would drip to take my first bite.
Elbert’s Cheesesteak may have spawned the true coming of the “gourmet” sandwich in Manila. Since then, we’ve had our share of fancier sandwiches in all shapes and flavors—lobster roll, croque monsieur, banh mi, pastrami on rye, patty melt, and the list goes on.
While Elbert’s Cheesesteak eventually moved to Alabang and became Elbert’s Sandwich Shop, earlier this year, Elbert’s decided to come back to its first spot, but now relocated to the second level of Power Plant’s new wing.
Adrian Cuenca, executive chef and co-owner (along with elder brother Elbert), was on hand to greet us and show off the new space. “It feels great to be back in Rockwell after three years,” he smiles. “We didn’t realize how many people missed us until we came back… And so we just like to say thank you for missing us!”
The menu has gone beyond cheesesteaks. It's now offering burgers, hotdogs, and specialty sandwiches like the Cubano, Porchetta, and Truffle Mushroom Melt. While Filipinos may still consider the sandwich more of a snack than a meal, Adrian believes his sandwiches can help change that mindset. “Most Pinoys still like to eat rice for lunch or dinner, but we want to tell them that a sandwich can be a whole meal. Most of our sandwiches here are big enough for a big person to finish, and even for two people with small appetites to split into half.”
In essence, the sandwich is close to the perfect meal—meat or seafood, vegetables, cheese, condiments ensconced in a bun or roll, delivered without need for utensils or plate. It’s tasty, filling, versatile, and convenient. For Adrian, a good sandwich should be easily eaten with your hands, not with a fork and knife. “The bread can’t be too crusty," he points out, "because if it’s too crusty, you can’t bite into it. The meat has to be soft enough that you can bite through it with your front teeth, and also it can’t have too much things going on. Too many things going on, and it will be very hard to eat.”
Each component, from filling to topping to bread, is experimented on until Adrian and Elbert are happy with the results. Adrian admits, “Each item here is still evolving and evolving.” He cites their cheesesteak as an example of that continuous tinkering. To replicate an authentic Philly cheesesteak, Adrian started with Cheez Whiz only to find out that the local brand melted too much. He then switched to processed cheddar cheese, until he found a supplier of real cheddar cheese from England, offering better quality and with only a small price difference.
Another sandwich that Adrian is constantly improving is the burger. Many Elbert’s Cheesesteak fans may remember the super-indulgent, bestselling Umami Burger they used to sell. Sorry folks, it’s not back (just yet). Instead, Adrian is focused on perfecting the House Burger, with its house blend of 100% US beef, with sautéed onions, lettuce, tomato, on buttered brioche. It also comes as a Cheeseburger with a choice of cheddar or Emmental. He’s especially proud of the way the beef patties are grilled. Shaped round, they’re smashed on the grill to flatten, which give the patties a crustier exterior.
The hotdogs at Elbert’s are just as special. “We use very good hotdogs which you can’t find anywhere in the Philippines,” states Adrian. These all-beef “quarterback” dogs come from the meatpacking town of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, considered by many as “the sausage capital of the world” thanks to the German immigrants who settled there, bringing their sausage-making skills with them. Adrian let us try the Chili Dog, made with a special chili topping using a hard-to-find ancho chili powder sourced from the United States, that gives the chili a bittersweet, almost chocolate-like dimension.
Aside from the holy sandwich trinity of cheesesteak, burger, and hotdog, Adrian has added a few specialty sandwiches to the menu, including the Cubano, inspired by the movie Chef. But he made sure his version is a bit different. Instead of the usual roast pork, he uses Italian porchetta, which he rubs with rosemary, lemon rind, sage, then slow roasts for 2 to 3 hours. “It gives the Cubano a bit of a kick,” he adds. Admittedly not quite authentic, but ever the realist, he proclaims, “I’m a Filipino serving a Cuban sandwich which uses Swiss ham, Swiss cheese… It doesn’t matter if it’s not authentic. My point is to come out with something that tastes really good.”
To round out the menu, Elbert’s offers classic sides, whether the Famous Fries, house-cut fresh and double fried, or the humongous Beer-battered Onion Rings, plus milkshakes in chocolate, strawberry, malted milk, salted caramel, and Madagascar vanilla flavors.
Throughout the menu, the Cuenca brothers take care of every detail and, as Adrian says, “Focus on quality, quality, quality!” That mantra has allowed them to maintain the longstanding success of their other restaurant, Elbert’s Steak Room, and will certainly guide them as they are soon to open Elbert’s Pizzeria in Salcedo Village. From steak to sandwiches, and soon pizza, we can’t wait to indulge.
Level R2 Power Plant Mall Rockwell, Makati Amapola Corner, Estrella, Makati
Photographs by Berwin Coroza