When the Flyers debuted Gritty at the end of September last year, he was an instant sensation. He was weird and sort of scary looking and easy to mock, which people did instantly and en masse. That made liking the googly-eyed, Cheeto-colored Abominable Snowman seem cool and contrarian—which in turn made everyone quickly fall over themselves to about-face and profess their utter adoration for the Internet-era mascot.
And, as things are wont to do these days once they have entered the annals of Online, pseudo-ironic fandom of Gritty begat serious obsession that blossomed into a political moment as Gritty became an icon of the Antifa movement. The New Yorker weighed in; the Wall Street Journal tried to reclaim him from the left; Vox wrote an explainer, the Ringer published a cultural recap, and the Washington Post memorialized Gritty Mania in a mini doc.
We like Gritty. We just also think all the hype is a little bit of a sad commentary on how desperate everyone is for something unimpeachably good (mascots can’t talk, shouldn’t be able to say something problematic, and yet Gritty insists on “giving interviews”) to get excited about these days.
So why did we decide to go to Philadelphia on a chilly Sunday in late January to eat all the Gritty foods? Because Philadelphia is the best fucking city in the world and you bet your ass we’re gonna jump on the chance to expense a cheesesteak. And if that’s not precisely the spirit of Gritty, we don’t know what is.
We went into our first stop at Mac Mart, a macaroni and cheese takeaway spot in Center City, too hungry to pace ourselves, which was a mistake. Having skipped breakfast in preparation of the all-day gorge-fest, we didn’t even bat an eye when they said that they didn’t have the Cheetos and would be replacing them with Buffalo-flavored Cheez-Its. We love Cheez-Its, but we do not think they need to be flavored any more aggressively than they already are in their (completely un)natural state.
This is awkward, but we realized later that Mac Mart gave us the wrong thing. They debuted their Gritty Mac and Cheese Fries just after the actual Gritty was unveiled back in the fall, and it featured “Shoestring fries, smothered in our 7 Cheese Mac topped with buffalo sauce, PamPam’s Buttermilk ranch & @cheetos crunch!!!!”
By the time we got to Philly, that was no longer their #MacOfTheMoment, but the women working at Mac Mart on Sunday afternoon were happy to oblige our request for the "Gritty." However, what they served us was: Mac and cheese (deliciously decadent without veering grossly gooey or too homogenous, can understand how a business would be built around this single item), with chicken, buttermilk ranch, the aforementioned Buffalo-flavored Cheez-Its, and more Buffalo sauce—fitting for a city that hosts Wing Bowl, or at least did until this year.
It tasted like something your stoner friend would bring to a Super Bowl party.
It’s sort of strange to try to parse whether getting the “wrong” thing impacted the Gritty-ness of the experience. It was definitely orange, just as intended. Are French fries more Gritty than chopped up chunks of grilled chicken? Probably? But if pressed, we couldn’t exactly explain why. In the end, we picked around most of the add-ins and toppings to polish off the pasta smothered in the proprietary seven-cheese sauce, which is a strong endorsement of Mac Mart, and less so of Buffalo-flavored Cheez-Its.
Big Gay Ice Cream
As a firm believer in the superiority of soft-serve, we appreciate and admire all that Big Gay Ice Cream does to elevate the form. But right now, we’re a little mad at Big Gay Ice Cream, because we're not entirely sure we'll ever be able to eat a Dorito ever again.
We knew that we were getting an ice cream sandwich, and that it was orange from some sort of exterior adornment. We assumed, naively, that the ice cream itself would be vanilla, or some other traditional flavor, which would then be rolled, Chipwich-style, in some sort of crushed orange snack. The ice cream itself was not vanilla. The ice cream itself was…Doritos-flavored.
Because we’re professionals, we knew enough in that moment to simultaneously order the Salty Pimp—Big Gay Ice Cream’s unimpeachably popular soft serve cone of vanilla with salty caramel sauce and a chocolate shell—to combat the Gritty Puckster’s forthcoming negative impact on our relationship with all things ice cream.
The man tasked with selling frozen food to Philadelphians in the dead of winter assured us, against our misgivings, that the Gritty Puckster was their most popular ice cream sandwich, and that Big Gay Ice Cream had even given some to the Flyers themselves. He did not know whether the Flyers enjoyed the Doritos ice cream or how often people purchased the “most popular ice cream sandwich.” But our Gritty Puckster was stale, frozen so solid it could have moonlighted as the puck itself, and the worst thing we have ever eaten that tasted the way it was intended to.
It tasted, sorry, like if you ate a bag of Doritos and then a bowl of ice cream and then, perhaps because of that combination, puked. It tasted like the flavor that would be left in your mouth after you puked up ice cream and Doritos. It brings us no joy to have to write the words that will inspire your brain to consider such a hypothetical.
We took exactly two nibbles each of the Gritty Puckster before deciding no content was worth it. This is proto-Gritty, before the sheen of memes and irony and activism made the mascot a mainstream idol. It’s alternate-universe Gritty, one where he never made it to the "you know what, he ain't so bad after all" stage of acceptance and still sends children screaming in terror upon first sight. This is the Gritty that makes people wonder why. Why would a place that’s capable of so something so right (the Salty Pimp) make something so wrong (Doritos-flavored ice cream)?
If you’re going to South Philly for a sandwich served on a hoagie roll, it’s unusual to end up at a restaurant that’s just about a year old. And if you’re going to call something a cheesesteak that’s actually brisket and even has lettuce and tomato on it in this city, you better make it damn good. And if this sounds like more a local news restaurant review than a Horkfest, that’s because the quality of what we ate at Mike’s BBQ overshadowed the weirdness.
“The Gritty” consists of brisket, housemade cheddar “Whiz,” onions, lettuce, tomato, crispy potato sticks, and a very yellow sauce that at first we thought was the Whiz, but in fact tasted a little like mustard. Someone behind the counter explained that it was a turmeric aioli and that the red spice sprinkled on top was a Takis-like mix of paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, and apple cider vinegar powder.
But is it Gritty? You wouldn’t want to play hockey immediately after consuming such a sandwich—but then again, by now Gritty transcends the sport. It wasn’t all that orange, which seems to be the overarching interpretation of how to translate the oversized Muppet’s essence into something edible. But it was certainly gratuitous, which fits—mascots, after all, are nothing if not Extra in the modern parlance. Even more than that, they’re completely superfluous. They provide a sort of begrudging amusement in their affable uselessness. At their worst, they’re a shortcut to cheap thrills irrespective of the quality of the primary product (again: hockey, hard to remember now that Gritty has gone Hollywood). Kind of like fried potato sticks or an artisanal-masquerading-as-artificial cheese sauce. Or maybe we’re just saying all that to justify polishing off half a Gritty in the middle of a Horkfest.
Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop
Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop, which is located further north in Philly than you’ve likely been if you don’t live there, used to have a different name. From the time it opened in 1949 until 2013, Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop was called “Chink’s.” Yes, just like the racial slur (although, not because it was a racial slur—that just happened to be the owner’s nickname).
They changed the name in an effort to “no longer inadvertently alienate anyone in the Philly community,” but that was their name for a long time and it would be reasonable if you chose not to engage with their cheesesteaks because of it.
Unfortunately, you’d be missing out. On a Sunday evening, Joe’s, which convincingly bills itself as being largely unchanged (except the name) since the ‘40s, was staffed by high school students gossiping about prom and serving up wooders. The “Gettin’ Gritty Wit It” (referencing both Gritty and Will Smith, another beloved son of Philadelphia) is advertised as being available only during Flyers games, but they were happy to crack open a bag of Cheetos for our benefit.
We haven’t the time or space to litigate the cheesesteak hierarchy in Philadelphia so we will simply say, without the use of superlatives or comparisons, that Joe’s makes a sublime cheesesteak that was surprisingly undiminished by the addition of French fries (the kind with wavy edges) at the bottom of the roll and Cheetos on top of the meat. It was the sort of wild-eyed, arrogant spin on the city’s classic that could only be pulled off by an institution that’s fully confident in its Philly bonafides. In that way the sandwich felt like Gritty, who isn’t supposed to be anything except maybe a riff on the Phanatic, who is similarly nonsensical (and GREEN when the Phillies’ colors are red and white). If you have to ask why it works, it means you don’t get it. It means you’re not from here.
The Grittys We Failed to Find
We only ate four Grittys in Philly that day, which was enough to feel uncomfortably full for the drive back up the turnpike, but far fewer than we had intended. We tried to get a Gritty cupcake from Sweet Box Bakeshop, but you have to pre-order the artful icing.
We tried to get a Gritty doughnut from Dottie’s Donuts but the popular googley-eyed breakfast treat that we saw all over our Instagrams was sadly a short-lived offering.
We thought we could convince a barista at ReAnimator Coffee in Fishtown to make us a latte with Gritty foam art, but punked out immediately upon entering the painfully cool coffee shop playing a deep cut Belle & Sebastian song neither of us could even identify.
And we tried to get Gritty beer. At Brewery ARS on South Passyunk, they just shrugged, saying the Gritty Gruel had sold out in “like 40 minutes.” We called Broken Goblet Brewing in Bristol, Pennsylvania to ask if it was worth the trek for their Nightmare Fuel. “That was just a one-day thing,” the woman who answered said with the sort of impatient exasperation that made it seem like she’d explained this many times to other Gritty-grubbers before.
It would be just like Philly to lose interest in Gritty as he became more widely accepted. In the true spirit of "No one likes us, we don't care"-style Philly sports fandom, it had been a point of pride for locals to ardently defend the sentient orange dust bunny no matter how much the rest of the internet found him to be Bad. If you didn't like Gritty, that's fine, because we don't like you. But now everyone does like Gritty, and his literal cartoonishness feels less edgy and more cuddly. More “Brotherly Love” than “Fucking Philly," and the Grittys that remain feel like a shameless attempt to convince novelty-seeking out-of-towners and Philly ex-pats to embarrass themselves by ordering Doritos-flavored ice cream. And we're the suckers who fell for it.