Written and photographed by Christine Galanti
After five months in France, I, like Christine Miksis, craved a taste of home. Never had I been so happy to be in Philadelphia as I was on the day of my return. I felt uncharacteristically sentimental, with an overwhelming sense of patriotism I’d never experienced before. I wanted to kiss the ground and the Liberty Bell. I wanted real American food, comfort food. I wanted Philly cheesesteaks.
Like oysters and scotch, I didn’t discover a taste for cheesesteaks until my twenties. Growing up outside of Philly, indisputably a sandwich town, I cut my proverbial teeth on American hoagies and their marinara-soaked, melted-provolone meatball cousins. Former mayor Ed Rendell may have declared the hoagie the official sandwich of Philadelphia, but the cheesesteak has long since stolen the hoagie’s thunder as the city’s most famous food.
I had walked past Jim’s Steaks, an Art Deco landmark at the corner of 4th and South Streets, at least a hundred times without ever going in. The line at Jim’s frequently snakes outside around the corner, which in retrospect should have piqued my curiosity about what people were waiting to get. After a few minutes, I was inside Jim’s, facing the glass that separates customers from the cooks’ stations. The place was steamy and noisy from the grill activity and orders being called out. But it smelled good—really good. I was now feasting my eyes on slices of cheese—provolone or American—laid to melt on top of slices of steak on the grill, with a kaleidoscope of accoutrements: onions, peppers, mushrooms, and Cheez Whiz.
I briefly considered ordering a plain steak with onions, but as I watched sandwich after sandwich being dressed with Whiz, I knew the best choice was probably the most popular: “Whiz wit,” meaning Cheez Whiz with grilled onion. Unwrapped, my cheesesteak looked uneven and a little haphazard. After a bite, I realized the Jim’s paradox: it wasn’t much to look at, but it tasted like wonderful greasy goodness. (I didn’t know it at the time, but Jim’s cooks their already marbled thinly sliced ribeye in a combination of oil and lard. Redundant? Maybe. Unnecessary? Not at all.)
Each steak shop has their own tried-and-true philosophy of sandwich composition, including both method and ingredients. While the recipes vary, the end goal is the same for all: savory, juicy, tender meat magic. An emulsion of juices drips from freshly grilled steak and, when combined with cheese, transforms itself into a buttery jus you’ll have no choice but to lick from your fingers. The soft, fresh interior of the Italian roll sops up this quasi-gravy, without you even having to wipe a plate. N.B.: You’ll be wearing this magic if you neglect to lean forward as you hold the sandwich at least a foot away from you as you eat it, as the juice leaks readily from the end of the roll.
Pat’s, Geno’s and Other Contenders
At the corner of 9th and Passyunk, the competition between neighboring rivals Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks has been hot since 1966. While the ingredients are almost identical, Pat’s chops the steak into small pieces, allowing a generous smear of melted cheese to mix with the meat, oozing through the nooks and crannies. Geno’s serves steaks sliced, not chopped, but the real difference between the two is the experience: Pat’s has maintained a no-frills façade, where as Geno’s exterior resembles a glowing orange-and-neon palace suitable for the Vegas strip.
And then, there is of course the contention over the customer experience. Pat’s is well known for their Soup Nazi-esque ordering instructions, which notify you to go to the back of the line if you’re undecided. Geno’s scoffs at this formality, but a sign at the take-out window informs customers that orders must be placed in English. Pat’s has informed the press that they don’t discriminate against customers whose native tongue isn’t English.
Steve’s Prince of Steaks, with three locations in the Philly area, offers a unique innovation: a homemade melted American cheese sauce, which spreads like Cheez Whiz but has been designed specifically to provide perfect cheesesteak flavor. Rather than adding it on top of the meat, Steve’s ladles the cheese sauce directly onto the bread.
Tony Luke’s purposefully uses the same meat-on-cheese instead of cheese-on-meat method to create the ideal mixture inside the sandwich. The great debate over who makes the best cheesesteak isn’t expected to be resolved sooner than the conflict in the Middle East. (Tony Luke’s has in fact introduced the cheesesteak in the Middle East, with a location opened a few years ago in Bahrain.)
This is not an exhaustive list of the best steaks in town, and I won’t take sides and declare one the best. I encourage you to take your own cheesesteak challenge, with at least one partner, and sample what Philadelphia has to offer. You’ll discover that each purveyor offers not just a sandwich, but an authentic local experience. See, smell and taste for yourself what all the buzz is about.
But please, don’t call it a hoagie.
Christine Galanti is a kangaroo-cooking, five-dollar-Polish-dinner-hunting, baby-octopus loving freelance writer in New York.