There's just something about a cheesesteak in Philadelphia. I can't put my finger on it. Maybe it's that the meat drips with just the right amount of grease. Maybe it's the specific composition of the bread. But the truth is, I've never found a cheesesteak outside of the Delaware valley that got it right.
I briefly attended college in Philadelphia before the city and I permanently parted ways. My first cheesesteak experience happened at Jim's - a world-famous place to go on South Street if you like cheesesteaks or standing in long lines. My first time through the line I got yelled at in an episode that would make the Soup Nazi seem like a pacifist. Philadelphians take their cheesesteaks seriously and ordering them correctly is essential, especially if you're a naive, small-town 18-year-old who just moved to the big city and might have nightmares about an irate, hulking, grill-master for the next ten-or-so years of his life (I didn't know 'wit' meant 'with onions', I swear!).
After leaving the city, I explored unrelated Philly's Best outposts across the country with a shred of hope that I might stumble across that familiar taste of brotherly love. Time and time again, I came to the conclusion that any establishment outside of Ryan Howard home run radius was merely serving up wannabe sandwiches. On occasion, it seemed unclear whether the vendor had even tasted a cheesesteak before. "Would you like lettuce, tomato and mayo on your sandwich?" Um... pardon?
For all of our DC-based readers who've ever traveled down M street you'll spot a boarded up 'Philadelphia Cheesesteak Factory'- a now-defunct, one-time distributer of bland atrocities. Like Donovan McNabb, this is where all good Philadelphian things come to die.* For the real thing, you gotta pack up and get out of DC, and on a recent day-trip that's exactly what we did.
A quick drive up I-95 brought us to the pearly crud-stained gates of cheesesteak heaven. Traffic was a little backed up, but not nearly as backed up as our arteries would be after a whirlwind tour of three tried-and-true cheesesteak temples.
PAT'S KING OF STEAKS
Pat's is declared the 'King' for good reason. Boasting a wall of celebrity photos (just like Geno's and Jim's) you'd almost think a prerequisite to being famous or running for office was to make an official cheesesteak pit-stop along the road to success. At Pat's, the 'King' label comes from being the first. Pat Oliviera created the greasy Philadelphia staple at his hot dog shop in 1930 when he threw some chopped beef and grilled onions on his grill. The rest is gastronomic history as countless other shops copied his recipe for heart-stoppingly savory sandwiches.
The first thing we noted about Pat's cheesesteak (above) was that the bread is pretty thicky and chewy. Chewy bread may not sound like a plus, but this greasy beef needs its thick roll like Richard Simmons needs a headband. Once the bread had soaked up all the juice/grease/cheese, it was a lot more manageable and pretty tasty. And somehow, it's not the grease but the flavor of the steak that dominates. It's clear that the meat is pretty good quality and nicely seasoned, and manages to hold its own against the glop of Cheese Whiz slathered on top.
Geno's Steaks sits across the intersection of 9th and Passyunk. It's only fifty yards away, but crossing the street from Pat's might feel like you've wandered into some Arizonan border-town. Ever since Joey Vento became Pat's neighbor, there's been a heated and oft-publicized rivalry. But recently, Vento's restaurant has been making headlines with something other than cheesesteaks. There is, of course, the matter of his storefront sign telling patrons, 'This is America, when ordering, speak English!' and an arguably tongue-in-cheek promise to antagonize anyone who fails to do so. Vento has stated that the signage is aimed at the illegal immigrants living in the community, though I can only imagine that literal attempts to order in any language other than English have spitefully risen from next-to-never to more frequent since the introduction of the sign.
The rest of the store has become a shrine to fallen fire fighters and police officers, specifically Daniel Faulkner, the officer allegedly slain by Mumia Abu-Jamal. Beneath the glass covering of our table were old magazine covers gracing Abu-Jamal's image beneath the words 'Cop Killer'. The socio-political message may not be hard to miss, but what I couldn't find is why this message is being served along with my cheesesteak. If Vento has offended any major segment of his market, it was certainly hard to tell. By the time we were licking our fingers clean, the line had grown from five or six people to about fifty.
On this side of the street, my brown-skinned companion and I ate our cheesesteaks a little bit quicker before scurrying back across the street towards Pat's. Vento's version is, for all intents and purposes, quite similar to Pat's, while Pat's chops its beef, Geno's (below) does not. The bread at Geno's was not quite as chewy, but then again, the beef was not quite as drippy. This was partially due to the fact that the meat was not as greasy, but also because there just wasn't as much stuff in the Geno's cheesesteak - less meat, less cheese, less onions. Still, much like Pat's, the quality of the meat was pretty good, and everything was seasoned as it should be.
With a Flyers playoff game just down the street and a Phillies-Red Sox game brewing later that evening, the corner of 9th and Passyunk was overrun with hungry sports fans. My recommendation to Geno's Steaks? Find common ground with everyone in your community and if you have to alienate, offend or refuse service to people in this tough, South Philly neighborhood, why not those intolerable Mets fans?
After Pat's, Geno's and Jim's, the next biggest name in Philly Cheesesteaks is Tony Luke's, another south Philly establishment that boasts greasy cheesesteaks and long lines. Tony Luke's cheesesteak shop is parked across the street from the more formal Seafood and Steakhouse, on Oregon Avenue. While at Pat's and Geno's, we had fresh cheesesteaks in our hands within five seconds of placing an order, Tony Luke's took our name and had the nerve to make us wait for one, maybe even two minutes before our order was ready. In all seriousness, a part of me prefers this. While I appreciate the readiness of Pat's and Geno's to handle a crush of patrons, there is something to be said for making cheesesteaks to order.
A little cheesesteaked out at this point, Angela opted for another Philadelphia specialty in the Roast Pork (above, right) and we wanted to get a vegetable to balance out our meal so we tried the pizza fries (above, left). Angela crushed the roast pork, loving every bite of it, and the pizza fries were soggy, but I think that's kind of the point. I deposited a few of the sopping wet fries into the toxic whirlpool that had become my stomach, but mainly stuck to my glorious cheesesteak (below).
The beef, like at Geno's was unchopped, and the sandwich was less packed than Pat's. Tony Luke's version was less drippy than the other two, with less Cheese Whiz (more "dressed" than "drowning"). In terms of chewiness, the bread was pretty much smack dab in between Geno's and Pats. And the meat? I might have been imagining it, but it seemed to be slightly better quality. Or maybe it's just that meat tastes better when it's right off the grill.
There's not a whole lot that separates the good from the great, but as were packing up to leave, fingers dripping with grease, we both noted Tony Luke's strategy to outclass the competition: Wet Naps.
So, who has the best cheesesteak in town?
According to local radio station WIP, it's none of the above. Recently WIP's Glen Macnow tackled the challenge of ranking the best cheesesteaks in and around Philadelphia (taking him as far away as Atlantic City). He came up with a final list of 45 places and while Tony Luke's placed 8th, Pat and Geno slipped all the way to 42nd and 35th, respectively. The winner in Macnow's challenge however was the much lesser known John's Roast Pork, which serves up 'ecstasy on a toasted Carangi's roll,' according to Macnow. Angela and I mapquested our way over to John's, attempting to try the alleged best cheesesteak in the world, but found instead a restaurant that - odd as it may sound - is closed on the weekends.
And that is why this is only Part One of our own Philadelphia Cheesesteak throw-down. Perhaps a weekday trip is in order so we can get our hands on some John's. Perhaps I'll overcome my nightmares and step foot inside of Jim's on South Street again. Maybe we'll even make it to Atlantic City to try the White House Sub Shop's cheesesteak (#9 on Macnow's list).
As for ranking them, the sandwiches are all so similar, I'm not sure I could even distinguish between them in a blind taste test. My preference for one over another could change with something as subtle as the wind changing directions or the number of gold chains the person making my cheesesteak is wearing. All I know after eating so many cheesesteaks in one weekend, is that I never want to eat another cheesesteak again. At least not for a couple of weeks.
Tony Luke's. Pat's. Geno's. In that order.
*Angela's note: You may assume that any comment made by Mark about the Redskins or the Eagles is violently and vehemently opposed by me. Welcome to the District, Mr. McNabb, you're going to do great this season!