BEIRUT: In the midst of the drab high-rises of Sin al-Fil, past shuttered stores and their faded signs for parquet floors and film photography, is a restaurant that is a bit of an anomaly. With a gleaming red and yellow storefront, Marky’s stands out markedly from just about everything else in the suburb. Its main fare, a remarkably authentic Philadelphia cheesesteak, stands out in the country’s casual dining scene.
Grilled and sliced rib eye steaks, cooked with onions, peppers and mushrooms, served on a firm hoagie roll and slathered with cheese, the Philly steak is something that inspires passion.
In Philadelphia, standby cheesesteak restaurants such as Geno’s, Pat’s and Jim’s have decades-long rivalries over the tastiest steak sandwich. Orders are brisk, lines snake out the door and allegiances are not taken lightly. It’s a serious business.
Marc Kandakji is serving up surprisingly serious cheesesteaks, and he’s doing it in a sprawling suburb far from Beirut’s main streets and bright lights.
After four months in operation, Kandakji has carved out a spot for Marky’s on the saturated market for Lebanese casual food. The cheesesteaks inspired drivers to take the trek out to his suburban location, and Marky’s burgers have even made inroads into the competitive Beirut burger scene.
Kandakji decided he would improve on a Lebanized version of the Philly already popular in the country. The Philadelphia, served with onions and peppers often on flatbread at many street-side sandwich shops, bears little resemblance to its namesake.
“The Philadelphia is very popular. Unfortunately no one does it like they do in Philadelphia,” Kandakji said, speaking in Marky’s small downstairs sitting area, surrounded by pictures of famous Philly steak restaurants.
Kandakji visited Philadelphia’s top cheesesteak joints to gather inspiration for his sandwiches, stepping into the kitchens to see how the gooey sandwiches are made.
“I tried to combine the positive aspects of all the sandwiches,” he said.
He found a baker who could make hoagie rolls firm on the outside but soft inside. He brought in Cheez Whiz and taught short-order chefs how to build the sandwich just so.
The cheesesteak was the biggest draw for the store’s opening, but Marky’s burgers, which are thick, covered with cheese and sometimes served with a grilled potato cake, have also become one of the establishment’s main draws. Kandakji, a Lebanese-Canadian, added poutine, a Quebec dish of french fries covered in beef gravy and homemade cheese curds, as one of the restaurant’s specialties.
Despite Marky’s remote location, it maintains a steady stream of customers and has earned positive reviews from some food bloggers. In addition to the quality food, the low price, around half that of a burger in Downtown Beirut, has people coming back.
Meals for two generally cost between $8 and $15.
“Even though I opened in a tough situation, politically and economically, ... the business is getting stronger and stronger,” Kandakji said. “With every recession fast casual soars.”