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story.lead_photo.caption The kitchen chops the onions and melts white American cheese into the steak for the six-inch Philly cheesesteak at Rocky's on Country Club. It comes with a side of the house marinara sauce and kitchen-fried potato chips. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Eric E. Harrison

When Rocky's Pub opened in 2006 in the Indian Hills Shopping Center, just on the North Little Rock side of the Sherwood line, it was a big bonanza for exiled Philadelphians and for anyone who craved a true, authentic Philadelphia cheesesteak.

Which, hard to find outside the Philadelphia metro area (pay no attention to the myriad knock-offs that masquerade as "Philly cheesesteaks") we once compared to a foodie Holy Grail.

Rocky’s on Country Club LLC

Address: 117 Country Club Road, Sherwood

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Italian; genuine Philly cheesesteaks

Credit cards: V, MC, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: Beer, wine

Wheelchair access: Yes

Carryout: Yes

Reservations: No

(501) 392-6150

facebook.com/Rockysoncountryclub

A brief diversion on what makes a “genuine Philly cheesesteak”:

No matter what you’ve heard, seen or eaten, a real Philadelphia cheesesteak does not have green peppers. (Yes, some places in the Philadelphia area do serve a sandwich, sometimes called a “Steak Royale,” that adds green peppers and/or mushrooms to the basic cheesesteak. It costs more. And while it’s based on a cheesesteak, it’s not a cheesesteak)

A real cheesesteak — sorry, Arby’s — is NEVER made with roast beef. At best it’s sirloin, at worst it’s chuck, but it is shaved paper thin and then chopped/shredded as it cooks on a flat, open grill (a few aficionados will claim it tastes best if you use yesterday’s grease). Most places add the cheese on top while it’s grilling so the cheese melts down into the meat.

What kind of cheese? It varies — outside the Italian parts of town, most steak sandwiches are made by Greeks, who mostly use provolone or American. Under no circumstances whatsoever, however, will a true Philly cheesesteak come with Swiss or — ugh! — cheddar.

Jim’s on South Street, one of the two Philadelphia establishments that lays claim to having invented the cheesesteak, asks customers if they “want it wit Whiz,” meaning Cheez Whiz, or “widdout Whiz,” which means they’ll make it with white American. Mozzarella doesn’t really have enough flavor to work, but by adding it and pizza sauce to the recipe, and baking the sandwich in an oven until the roll crisps, you can create a pizza steak.

The onions, meanwhile, initially go separately onto the grill, then are added to the steak and cheese melange before it’s scooped into a hoagie roll. Toasting the roll on the grill or popping the completed sandwich into the oven to toast is optional.

— Eric E. Harrison

Owners Kristine and Patrick Dunlap, native Philadelphians — well, suburban Philadelphians — knew that a real Philadelphia cheesesteak doesn't ever involve roast beef, Swiss cheese or green bell peppers. Take it from an Philadelphia expat: their True Philadelphia Cheesesteak was the real thing.

They chopped the onions into the steak and melted white American cheese into the steak, and that was perfectly OK; they scooped the mixture top-down into the bun, so the bottom part of the sandwich, not the top, was where things got gooey. That was perfectly OK, too.

Beyond the sandwich, they — bonus — also had a full and very respectable Italian menu.

Rocky's sudden 2014 closure was devastating; a possibility that it might reopen in a downtown Little Rock hotel fell through. It was beginning to look like that another quest for the Grail would have to begin.

Well, search no longer. Now comes Rocky's on Country Club, a Rocky's revival from Joel Dunlap, who worked for his parents at Rocky's Pub and has inherited their cheesesteak-and-Italian menu mantle.

It has taken him a few years of fits and starts, including an intermediate enterprise called Rocky's Togo (pronounced "to-go," not the like the country in Africa) that he ran out of a west Little Rock commercial kitchen, offering cheesesteak pick-up and limited delivery. Now he has successfully ensconced in a brick-and-mortar former barbecue restaurant that is literally a stone's throw from his parents' former place.

The original Rocky's Pub was snug and homey, but also a bit cave-like. The new Rocky's has a big front window and bright, white walls, on which hang equal representations of fan loyalty for the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Philadelphia Eagles. The Liberty Bell in the logo (which also appears on the servers' T-shirts) is a further expression of the Philadelphia legacy.

Seating for about 50 is at booths and half-booth banquettes along the walls and front window, with tables in the middle that can be combined to accommodate larger parties. There are TVs at the corners of the dining room, one of which has full-time sports programming. Rocky's on Country Club is in the building once referred to as "Sherwood's only skyscraper: two stories tall." It was Fred Rains TV & Appliances for many years.

The menu is still in its formative stages; Dunlap and his crew are adding items, marked on a white board at the entrance, as they go along. But it's still smaller than the original, which allows the kitchen to concentrate on making fewer items well.

We ordered a 6-inch cheese-steak ($7.99) because, as memory served us, a 12-inch sandwich ($14.99) was more food than humans should be allowed to eat, still made from shaved and chopped New York strip with sauteed onions and white American cheese. And it was just as delicious and satisfying as our memory serves.

The elder Dunlaps originally imported genuine — one could legitimately get away with the overused term "iconic" — Amoroso's hoagie rolls from Philadelphia. But it was expensive and the buns got a little stiff on the journey, the younger Dunlap says. So he's now getting some of his rolls locally and bringing in the rest from St. Louis (where, as folks in the know know, The Hill is a major center of Italian food).

There's one other significant change — topping the original Rocky's cheesesteaks was the rich, house-made marinara sauce. It boosted the flavor but definitely added to the mess factor: Even now, tilting the overloaded roll as you lift it to your mouth means spilling some of the contents onto your plate and/or your attire. Dunlap now instead puts a little plastic cup of the sauce on the side.

A chicken cheesesteak is available if you're avoiding red meat; if you're not, there's a meatball parmesan and a grilled Reuben ($6.99) and a "Rachel" (made with cole slaw instead of sauerkraut). All sandwiches come with a generous pile of crisp, kitchen-made chips.

Gallery: Rocky's on Country Club

Customers and our server provided unsolicited raves about Rocky's Spaghetti and Meatballs ($11.49), so Intrepid Companion agreed to take that on — and to take it home, because the portion was plenty big enough for two meals. Served in a stoneware bowl (sandwiches and appetizers come in a red plastic basket lined either with foil or red-and-white-checked paper) we got firm pasta — actually al dente, and few achieve that — topped with the house marinara and three large, house-made, nicely spiced, nicely textured, coarse-ground, not-spongy meatballs.

We can also rave about the Lasagna ($12.49). These noodles were also quite firm, layered between comparatively small amounts of of ricotta and mozzarella, marinara and a lively composite crumble of ground beef and Italian sausage. Just like the version we reviewed more than a dozen years ago, there isn't a lot of sauce in or on the lasagna itself, but there's plenty of marinara in the "bed," with plenty of grated cheese melting into it.

Don't pass up Rocky's Fried Ravioli ($6.99), six hand-battered ricotta-stuffed ravioli pockets fried just long enough to turn the outside golden without making it stiff, too crunchy or too chewy, sprinkled with grated cheese and a little parsley, and served with dipping marinara. Other appetizer options: bacon cheese fries ($6.99) and wings ($5.99 for six, $10.99 for a dozen, with choice of BBQ, Bee Sting, Mild, Hot, Atomic and ... Teriyaki).

The original Rocky's had a bar; the new Rocky's serves wine ("ask server") and beer (we saw on the tables plenty of bottles of Yuengling, a good Pennsylvania beer that goes well with cheesesteaks).

Service was good on a weeknight when there were few occupied tables and Dunlap was helping out on the floor; it was, surprisingly, even better on a weekend when the place was comfortably full, there were several servers on the floor and Dunlap was running things back in the kitchen.

Be aware, while the external temperatures are still in the infernal range, that Rocky's AC isn't working too well and the two large circulating fans struggled a bit to keep things comfortable.

Weekend on 09/19/2019

Print Headline: Resurrection of Rocky's has Philly fans all agog

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