A beef with revitalization

Institution: Plans to improve Dundalk could lead to the loss of the flagship Captain Harvey's, long popular for its mile-high cheese steaks.

April 29, 2002|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Amid a cacophonous din, Angie Jessee is balancing an avalanche of orders with the steely nerves of an air traffic controller.

"You get extra hots, right?" Jessee shouts to a guy mesmerized by heaps of shaved beef and sliced onions sizzling on Captain Harvey's grill in Dundalk. Another customer yells for a large order of Spudsters, deep-fried mashed potatoes.

For the lady in the business suit, just lettuce and pickles - hold the hots.

Phones ring, a spatula clangs, a pinball machine clatters.

They're still streaming through the door at Captain Harvey's for the ultimate cheese steak sub - steelworkers, judges, long-distance truckers and college professors. All are more than willing to sacrifice their bodies at this revered altar of gastronomical delights.

But now, since slapping together its first cheese steak in 1956, Captain Harvey's is facing the biggest threat to its existence since tofu and sprouts. And Dundalk could lose an institution.

A nationally recognized group called the Urban Design Assistance Team has recommended community improvements including links to Canton in Baltimore, a Technology Trail celebrating Dundalk's rich blue-collar history, and the addition of waterfront sites with marinas, parks and new housing.

Hardly noticed in the designer's 48-page blueprint for the new Dundalk is a recommendation to replace Logan Village Shopping Center with Logan Sports Center, part of a zippy "Key Quay" vision, a "broad tree-lined esplanade linking all the new opportunities."

If Logan Village Shopping Center on Dundalk Avenue goes, Captain Harvey's will be no more. At least, not in its original location, tucked between Pete's Barber Shop and Big Daddy's Beauty Supply. A second Captain Harvey's is on Merritt Boulevard, but it lacks the ambiance, the charm and the bouquet of the original cheese steak emporium at Logan Village.

Captain Harvey's owner, Stephen Sharon, doesn't appear worried. He said he has a long-term lease for the Logan Village location into 2006, "and that's when we're going to celebrate our 50th anniversary."

Plenty of loyal customers hope so.

"I've been here for 12 years, and you see all kinds of people wanting our cheese steaks," said Jessee, the day manager at Captain Harvey's. "We do any type of order, we even Federal Express our cheese steaks around the country. ... People move, but they miss our cheese steak."

During the Persian Gulf war, an enterprising military pilot expedited cheese steaks to some ration-weary airmen. Long-haul truckers along the East Coast sport Captain Harvey's bumper stickers on their rigs after stopping to eat at the restaurant across Dundalk Avenue from the sprawling Dundalk Marine Terminal.

Sharon's grandfather, Cecil Kessler, opened Captain Harvey's at Eastern Avenue and Lehigh Street in Highlandtown in the 1940s. He moved to Logan Village in 1956; the second Dundalk sub shop opened in the 1980s.

A somewhat private man, Sharon said his cheese steaks "are made by feel, not a prescribed weight. I won't tell you how many cases of meat, cheese and onions we go through each week. We use American cheese, not Cheez Whiz like up north. I stick to my grandfather's recipe: quality."

A rookie eater confronted with a Captain Harvey's cheese steak might be intimidated. A fresh sub roll is piled high with meat, cheese, fried onions, lettuce, tomato, pickles, some hots and a slather of mayonnaise. Unlike most conventional submarines, the roll serves as a raft, a mere platform for the meal. Cost: $9.50 whole, $4.75 half.

And the bravest of the brave can order a side of triple mozzarella sticks and top off the meal with chocolate pudding.

`Place pulls me back'

"I would bet there are more people outside Captain Harvey's wrestling with those cheese steaks and slopping up the interiors of their cars and trucks than all the dashboard diners outside all the convenience stores in Maryland," said Joseph "Turkey Joe" Trabert, a former Fells Point tavern owner and school teacher.

Although the popularity of Dundalk's cheese steak can't compete with South Philadelphia's more enduring tradition, for many the thought of tearing down Captain Harvey's borders on the sacrilegious.

"They can't do that to us," said Russ Aldrich, who lives in Dundalk with his family. "It is next to impossible to meet someone in this community who has not eaten a Captain Harvey's cheese steak. It's such a solid deal.

"They never get an order wrong even though they have lines of customers stretching out of the door," Aldrich said. "We would go there as teen-agers on weekend nights when we were, uh, hungry after various activities. Today, I can't eat a whole sub at one sitting, but the place pulls me back like the tide."

Deborah Cornely, associate publisher of the Dundalk Eagle and an authority on all things Dundalk, hails the local cheese steak that "could feed a family of six. I try to eat one at least every year. Captain Harvey's is so Dundalk."

It's `an institution'

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