A Cheesesteak Tour of Philly

In food on 09/24/2009 at 1:11 pm

We just returned from a short trip to Philly, as a respite in between camping trips, but mostly to finally eat some real cheesesteak! I’d never been to the City of Brotherly Cheesesteak, but the other half has. Suprisingly, the city is also filled with all sorts of wonderful ethnic nosh, and a Chinatown that rivals Manhattan. We may be moving out of the armpit very very soon…

What is a cheesesteak but a soft Italian roll, thinly sliced steak, and Cheez Wiz? It can’t get any simpler or primal than that. The roll is of utmost importance, the QQ factor has got to be just right, not too thick, but with a very chewy skin you teeth can tear at. I had an authentic one once, at Tony Luke’s, when there used to be a cute outpost on 42nd St., off 8th Ave. The boxy interior was made to look like you were outside, at a carnival, with an awning over the order window. The next time I had a craving, it was gone.

Before we left, we gathered some opinions on which particular joints to sample. The other half made a list. Off we went. We arrived in the late afternoon, and the concierge said, “No, don’t go to Pat and Geno’s, that part of town is way too scary for you two to handle.” Well, he was definitely thinking that because he was trying to steer us to Tony Luke’s around the corner. I told him, “Yo coz, we lived in Harlizzle, fo’ shizzle!”

Well, anyhow, he mentioned Jim’s Steaks, which the other half had heard of, so off we went. His ‘seven blocks down’ turned out to be in the southeast corner of Center City, which is the main downtown area, at least 20 blocks or so. By the time we crawled up to the door, we were expecting A LOT.

funky not so fresh

Jim’s is in the funky South Street area, where it’s more artsy and young grungy types  hangin’ out. The black and white decor is super fresh, like a diner but more edgy. There’s seating on the second floor, with stools and round wooden tables. We made the mistake of ordering onions on our cheesesteak. The taste of onions really overwhelms the whole sandwich, making it unclear which part was oversalted, the limp onions or overcooked meat. The flavor also reminds me of a sausage sandwich with onions and peppers, which you could get at any ol’ street fair. This was not a good way to start the tour:

salt mine

We didn’t know until the second cheesesteak that Jim’s is really hoodwinking those who don’t know by chopping up the steak into tiny bits. This decreases the textural value and makes you think you aren’t really eating steak at all. This also increases the likelihood that the meat will be dry and overcooked. Well, at least the ambience was nice and chill.

That night, I vowed to right this injustice by going to the Tony Luke’s by our hotel. We walked right past it because it looked like this, all commercial chain and stuff:

stick with one logo, dude

This looked nothing like the place in NYC, which had a carnival font and the whole name spelled out. Online, there’s a dispute to whether this place really is Tony Luke’s. On the official website, there’s only mention of one location (it wasn’t this one). The guy is too busy trying to be a famous movie star or something, maybe because of his stint on Throwdown with Bobby Flay, which he won if I remember correctly.

At the time, I assumed it was affiliated, and I asked the guy at the counter, “Hey, when are you going to open another place in NYC?” The guy goes into this rant about franchising and name rights which made my head spin. Our resident trademark expert tells me that when you buy a franchise, you can only use the name so many times, and maybe they violated something in the contract. I don’t know about that stuff, I just want some good-friggin’ cheesesteak when I’m in NYC.

So what about the sandwich? Well, it is good, much better than Jim’s because it has sheets of thinly-sliced steak and is not dried out beef jerky:


You can see it wasn’t pure steak though, check out the bits of gristle. That’s okay with me, adds more flavor. The thing with the Cheez Wiz was there was so much it was gooshing out from every which way, which is not too elegant or tidy when you are eating it on top of the hotel sheets. This one had way more meat in it than Jim’s too. The bread was tops, shiny and chewy on the outside, soft and steamed on the inside surrounding the meat.

The menu at Tony Jr.’s is vast – they even have ostrich burgers. They’re also known for their alt-cheesesteaks: pork and broccoli rabe. I tried their cajun fries, which seemed to be Old Bay covered potato sticks. I wish it came with tartar sauce.

After taking a day off to sample Chinatown and the historical City Tavern, home of 18th century Revolutionary recipes, we stopped by Pat and Geno’s on the way out of town. Philly is the home of the one way street, but once you throw in Passyunk Ave, which runs diagonally, you are really asking for trouble. We managed to squeeze onto a sidestreet and walk onto the corner which houses the two joints staring each other down:

pat's (l), geno's (r)

We headed to Geno’s first. It is really gaudy, all orange. I bet it’s a neighborhood spectacle at night, all neon ablaze. Geno’s give you a lot of attitude, misplaced patriotism perhaps?

cringeworthy decor

Inside I saw there were bright orange booths, but we didn’t sit down because we were going to do a side-by-side tasting with Pat’s. The other half spied these stickers on the window and was pissed. What’s with this hypocritical xenophobic stuff? Aren’t they Italian? Isn’t money an universal language?

self-righteous immigrants?

wiz as thin as the bigotry

The Cheez Wiz on this steak was liquid, not thick and creamy, like maybe someone added some spit or something. It was bubbly like spit anyway. The steak was thicker cut but the thin Wiz really spoiled it. Not to mention the way immigrants are when they think they’re the big cheez now, just because they’ve been here longer. We’re never eating there again.

Onto Pat’s, much more in line with what you want an original cheesesteak place to look like, dingy and mom/pop.

first mover advantage

There was no posturing here, maybe because Pat’s knows their cheesesteak is the best.

meat meat meat

This cheesesteak is so cocky they don’t cut it in half, and it has a right to be: perfect meat taste, savory but not salty, thick Wiz and a hearty QQ bun. Hands down, the best of the four.

Top Round/Ribeye/Strip (whichever cut suits your mood)
salt & pepper
Cheez Wiz (you could try to make your own bechemel, but why bother?)
Italian roll

Freeze the meat for ~1hr to make it easier to slice, by hand or mandoline.

Sauté meat and tent with fresh roll to steam a little. ~ 1 minute (I like my meat rare!)

Spoon on warmed Cheez Wiz on the side.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s