When I found myself at the Indiana State Fair this year, I noticed recurring themes on the colorful, big-lettered signs at the food stands.
Some of them were expected. Corn dogs, fries, fried versions of things that aren’t usually fried. Kettlecorn, lemonade, lots of things on a stick. Funnel cake, pork tenderloin… and (less expected) “Philly cheesesteaks.”
Yes. 600+ miles away from Philadelphia. By my count, at least four vendors advertised it on the facades of their stands in capital letters — and yes, with the “Philly” label attached.
Pennsylvania doesn’t hold a summertime state fair (we’ve got the PA Farm Show in January instead), so if you’re unfamiliar, they typically involve agricultural competitions, livestock showcases, live performances, carnival rides, games, and exhibits showing off some aspect of a state’s culture.
And, of course, there’s lots and lots of food.
Cheesesteaks are apparently somewhat of a classic fair food, because Indiana is far from the only place where you might come across a vendor (or multiple) selling them. The Philadelphia-born sandwich has been known to appear at state fairs in Alaska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and West Virginia.
And then there are the variations: This year’s Ohio State Fair featured “Philly Tots” (aka cheesesteak loaded tater tots), and last year’s Arizona State Fair offered cheesesteak fry bread. At past state fairs in North Carolina and Kentucky, vendors have served up cheesesteak egg rolls and cheesesteak donut burgers, respectively.
Since the opportunity presented itself, I decided to seek out some of the Indiana State Fair interpretations of one of Philly’s signature foods.
I passed on trying any of the vendors’ versions of a classic cheesesteak, since I knew from experience that eating that volume of beef tends to give my stomach a not-so-pleasant, don’t-you-dare-put-anything-else-in-me-or-I’ll-explode feeling for at least 12 hours after. (I really needed to save room for my other, non-work-related gastronomical endeavors that day.)
Instead, my quest led me to foods adjacent to the classic version of the sandwich. Were they any good? Read on.
When I spotted a stand with “PHILLY CHICKEN” written in big letters across the top, I stopped in my tracks.
Did Philadelphia have a signature chicken dish I had missed the boat on? Were they hiding some FedNuts chicken sandwiches back there? I ordered it to find out what the deal was.
It turned out that “Philly chicken,” priced at $12, actually meant a chicken cheesesteak, which was kind of what I suspected after I’d given it a tiny bit of thought (and noticed a picture of one on the stand’s signage).
After all, in some non-Philly places, the word “Philly” is used as a stand-in for “cheesesteak.”
The sandwich itself presented a classic cheesesteak predicament: it was so stuffed full that I didn’t know where to bite first without making a mess. (Spoiler alert: There’s no way to not make a mess.)
An added challenge with this particular sandwich: the ingredients were layered in distinct strata. Shredded meat at the bottom, then a clump of peppers and onions, then the very melty cheese on top. It was difficult to get a bite that combined them all, and the cheese was so separate that the chicken tasted a little bland. The most flavorful layer was definitely the peppers and onions.
The bread part of the sandwich tasted pretty good, but it only took a couple bites until the soft roll fell apart underneath the weight of the rest, so I had to switch to eating with a fork. Oh well.
Bison cheesesteak egg rolls
This item — from a vendor specializing in Indiana-raised bison products — notably did not have “Philly” in the name. It was the only cheesesteak-related offering I could find without an explicit reference to the City of Brotherly Love.
The concept of rolling cheesesteak meat into an egg wrapper and frying it isn’t new, of course: check the menu at a brewery or restaurant in the Greater Philly area and you’ve got a decent chance at finding them on the appetizer menu. The bison meat element was more of a novelty.
These egg rolls were definitely a bit pricey (it was $13 for two), but they were DELICIOUS. The exterior was delightfully crispy, and the inside was a perfectly-balanced gooey mixture of ground bison, melty cheese, peppers, and onions. (Per the vendor’s website, the egg rolls also included carrots — seems kind of unconventional for a cheesesteak item? — but I don’t remember encountering them, so they must not have been very noticeable.)
Bison meat is leaner than beef, and I was grateful for that. It seemed to make the egg rolls more… digestible than they might’ve been with ribeye, which was particularly important for a day when I had plenty of other heavy foods to enjoy.
Good as it was, it didn’t really scream “cheesesteak!” Yes, it included the basics of the dish, but the vibes were different enough that you might not peg them as cheesesteak-inspired in a blind taste test. That aside, they were easily one of the best foods I tried at the fair, overall.
Ordered from the same stand selling the “Philly chicken,” the “Philly steak and cheese fries” ($15) were exactly what they sounded like: steak, fries, and cheese sauce on top of a bed of crinkle fries. In this case, I opted for no onions and no peppers.
Unlike the situation with the chicken cheesesteak and the layering, the steak and the cheese on top of the fries seemed decently mixed together, which I appreciated.
But the fries, like the chicken cheesesteak bun, weren’t exactly robust. They got weighed down and soggy beneath the heaping amount of steak and cheese, and seemed a bit lifeless. A stronger, crispier type of fry (waffle fries, maybe?) might’ve resulted in a more successful dish.
The main thing that held me back from gobbling the full boat was actually the most authentic element: the impending stomach-rumbling and sluggishness shortly after starting to dig in. Congrats, Indiana. You got That Cheesesteak Feeling™ down pat.