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Omnivore - Weirdness at Woody's Cheesesteaks

A not-so-happy trip to the past

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Apparently, I'm on something of a cheap food binge this week. So, when I saw Scoutmob was featuring a 50-percent-off deal at Woody's Cheesesteaks, I decided to check it out Monday about 10 p.m.

This rickety spot, beloved by many Atlantans, has been open since 1975. I remember picking up a cheese steak or a sub there in the '80s and heading across the street with friends to Piedmont Park, where we joined the other sun worshipers. (Some preferred Subway.) I always thought the sandwiches were pretty good, despite the rather spongy bread, which is now regarded as iconic there. (And, please, don't go telling me I know nothing about cheese steaks and hoagies. I was born in the Philly area.

Woody's closed a while but reopened with a new owner in 2010. I don't really remember the last time I ate there. I did stop one night and found them only accepting cash, so I had to move on. They accept cards now and they also serve beer, incidentally.

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My visit Monday night was, of course, a bolt of nostalgia. The place has changed little since the Dark Ages. But, alas, my experience was not good. In fact, it was weird.

The guy at the order window was as nice as he could be. But it seemed that a cloud of confusion had settled over the kitchen, where another man was also at work. "I would like a cheese steak and a caramel milkshake," I said, showing him the Scoutmob coupon.

"We love Scoutmob!" he exclaimed. "Now what do you want?"

"A cheese steak and a caramel milkshake."

"A cheese steak and a Nutella milkshake," he said.

"No, caramel," I repeated.

"Huh?" he said. I replied twice. He still looked confused.

Finally, I started to spell "caramel." He got it!

Okay, I have brain farts too.

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The confusion thickens
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The two other people in the place drummed their fingers on one of the varnished wood tables that have been there since '75. They were looking around. I could feel their impatience growing. The man at the window finally summoned them and handed them their sandwiches. Meanwhile, a third of their party had come in and confusion about his own order developed.

I was finally called to the window and handed my sandwich, wrapped in butcher paper. I waited momentarily and said, "Where's my milkshake?"

"Oops! I forgot it," he said. "What flavor was it?"

"Caramel." I went back to my seat. I watched the man looking around the kitchen. He went outside, I guess to find the caramel. I waited. And waited.

Meanwhile, I unwrapped the sandwich and took a bite. It was completely flavorless. Now, I know that there are two cheese-steak factions in Philly. One wants the steak roughly cut. The other wants it finely chopped. This was the latter. I suppose it always has been, but it tasted like pure mush to me. A decent amount of cheese quickly melted into the beef, never to assert its flavor. I don't expect much from white American cheese, true, but the goo can be good.

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How to find some flavor
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One end of the table was covered with bottles of hot sauces, including a vinegary barbecue type I liked. I tried about half the others too, trying to boost the sandwich's flavor. They didn't just boost it; they created the flavor.

I was well into my sandwich when I was notified my milkshake was ready. I took a gulp. Caramel? Where was it? I was expecting something like dulce de leche, I guess. I got only a faint taste of caramel amid the vanilla. The shake was otherwise well enough made, but next time I'll head up the road for a better and cheaper Arctic Swirl at Zesto.

As I finished the sandwich, a few stragglers came in. One rummaged desperately through the King of Pops' freezer case for his favorite flavor. A couple debated milkshake flavors. Woody's closes very late - 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday and midnight the rest of the week. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more had I arrived at 2 a.m. after clubbing for hours. Maybe my nostalgia made my expectations unrealistic.. The present rarely lives up to the remembered. I really wanted it to.