By Matt Wake
The smile. The headband. The swagger. The classic LL Cool J track “Rock the Bells” playing in the background. Right off, you can tell there’s something special about the guy looking out from the kitchen window inside this South Huntsville gas station. Turns out the sandwiches he’s doing here are special too.
About a month ago, Carlton “Cap” Williams and his wife Tresha Williams opened Cap’s Philly Cheesesteaks, an embedded eatery at Nail’s Convenience Store at 2603 Mountain Gap Road.
They’d started the venture first as a pop-up at local events. But Tresha felt they needed their own space to be viable and grow. After looking around for a Huntsville space that would work for them, she came across Nail’s kitchen, a hallway-sized spot formerly home to a barbecue venture and next to the store’s soda machine. “It was perfect,” Carlton says.
Sometimes meat, cheese, bread and fixings are a sandwich and sometimes they’re more than that. Such is the case with the fare at Cap’s. The Williams’ Philly cheesesteak is melty, textural and seamless ecstasy. Satisfying without being heavy. A cheesesteak may not be the most photogenic sandwich on Earth, but these from Cap’s sure eat pretty.
So what separates a legit Philly cheesesteak from the pretenders? Carlton says, “First it starts with the bread. Our bread comes from Amoroso’s Italian Rolls in Philadelphia. Most Philadelphia restaurants use provolone and [white] American [cheese] and Cheese Wiz. You can get it with all three, but you’ll have one [cheesesteak that comes] with Cheese Whiz, you’ll have one with provolone and one with American cheese.”
Cap’s started off with using white American cheese and, at the time of this interview, were about to add provolone and Cheese Whiz options. Tresha will be making the Cheese Whiz in-house.
For cheesesteaks’ titular protein, Cap’s uses chopped ribeye. Diced onions are grilled with the steak. Although Carlton says ketchup is the norm condiment in Philadelphia, Cap’s forgoes that for mayo instead as that’s his personal preference.
In addition to trad versions, Cap’s does chicken and plant-based cheesesteaks, for more menu variety and accessibility. There’s also an homage to Carlton’s late brother Jerold, in the form of the Cap’s “Crazy Jay” style (available in cheesesteak, chicken and plant-based versions) which adds bell peppers and mushrooms to the mix. The chicken “Crazy Jay” is Carlton’s personal go-to.
Carlton is a Huntsville native who attended Oakwood Academy, but in the summers he’d visit relatives in Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, he fell under the spell of the city’s signature sandwich, the cheesesteak.
“You’d go into a corner store,” Carlton recalls, “and they were making cheesesteaks and hoagies, and I would just be amazed. Just how they would chop it up making all this noise and popping onions and vegetables and cheese on the cheesesteaks. And I would watch them closely.” He was particularly fond of fare from local haunts like Max’s Steaks and Paganos.
Carlton started trying to make cheesesteaks at his relatives’ homes and back in Huntsville. He started making them for Tresha too, who he met back in the summer of 1990. They married in 1997 and have two children together.
Tresha has her own backstory. At one point, the couple moved to Los Angeles, and Tresha, who’d attended Johnson and Lee high schools back in Huntsville, got a job doing hair. A coworker noticed Tresha’s skills, and recommended her to Prince, the musician known for songs like “Purple Rain.”
Tresha ended up working for Prince for six years, as both a hairdresser and personal assistant on tour and at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios in Minnesota. Carlton eventually also started working some for Prince, both in a security and personal assistant capacity.
Prince’s talent and eccentricities are the stuff of legend. Tresha says the music legend also had an incredible sense of humor. His nickname for her was “Alabama.” Tresha says, “He would joke about this and that and was just such a comedian.” Other times, “he would be mad at you for no reason.” Anyone who really knows Prince’s history, knows this was how it went with those in his inner circle.
When Prince died in 2016, it cut Tresha like a blade. It was Carlton who told her the news. “I was a mess,” she recalls. Tresha was fighting her own health battle at the time, going through chemotherapy. She’s a liver cancer survivor. Today, she looks bright-eyed, healthy and pretty. Tresha has also worked with rap star Drake she says, but has since stepped away from touring life, even though she loved the traveling and luxury hotels and everything else that came with that.
For the past 10 years or so, Carlton was working an office manager at a Huntsville doctor’s office. Before that, he worked as a bank manager, he says. “Never in a million years,” Carlton says, “would I have thought I would be a cook, a chef, running my own deli.”
The idea was actually Tresha’s. They were dining out in Huntsville at a chain restaurant, and she ordered that restaurant’s version of a “Philly cheesesteak.” And, well, it was less than OK. Later, when they were driving in their car, and Carlton was complaining about his job and wanting a change, Tresha suggested, out of nowhere, that he give cheesesteaks a try because he had a talent for it.
“She’s a go-getter,” Carlton marvels at his wife. “We did a couple of [local event] pop-ups and we got the love and support from the Huntsville people.” After Tresha found them their Mountain Gap Road space, it saved them all the set-up and breakdown work required of a mobile food venture. Tresha says, “They’ve been great to us here.”