Earlier this year, I spent four days in Philadelphia, visiting museums and markets but mostly chasing cheesesteaks, determined to answer the question: which is the best?
The picture at upper left is Pat Olivieri, the 1930 inventor of cheesesteak
Of course, as an untrained outsider, I could hardly expect anyone to respect my opinion, but time spent reading reviews and articles and human interest stories about cheesesteaks convinced me that part of the game is 'no respect.'
The mother of them all: Pat's on Passyunk Avenue in South Philly is where the cheesesteak was invented; it's still a family operation
The two best-known contenders, across an intersection from each other, talk trash for reporters on a moment's notice. Any reviewer is subject to mockery by other reviewers for getting it all wrong. So, who cares if they all think I'm wrong? I had something over a dozen cheesesteaks (not all of them whole) and had fun.
Geno's is across the street from Pat's; the owner calls himself Ace of Steaks, but Pat's owners call Geno the court jester of steaks. Rivalry is good for business!
Let's start with the question: What is a cheesesteak? Note that it is never, in Philly, a Philly cheesesteak. As if anywhere else had a cheesesteak anyway. There appear to be basically three required ingredients: beef, cheese, bread. After that you're on your own to order 'wit onions,' or 'wit peppers' or a variety of other items that are either authentic or sacreligious, depending...
The beef comes in thin slices grilled on a medium grill. Mostly, they are chopped into bits with the edges of spatulas while they are cooking, but some places leave it in slices. And you can also choose chicken or non-meat; I can't tell you whether ordering them causes issues because I never saw anyone do it.
The onions, also cooked on the griddle, were in all of my sandwiches; only once or twice did I see anyone order 'witout.' But the onions varied from deliciously fresh with a bit of crunch to soggy-could-have-been-cooked-yesterday. No matte; they are a minor player.
The big question everywhere is the cheese. Almost everyone agrees that when it all started in the 1930s, it was provolone. American cheese gained a following. And then came Cheez Whiz and stole the game. Some 'authorities' claim that American cheese is the big seller, but everywhere I stood in line to order, Wiz (yes, a lot of menus drop the h) was far and away the winner, with provolone seeming like an afterthought. Some purists claim that John Kerry lost the 2004 Presidential election because he ordered 'wit' Swiss cheese.
The menus tend to be hand-written, mostly cash-only and quite extensive. A few places like Pat's and Geno's have hardly anything else, some others have nearly everything else.
So...by the time I arrived, I'd set out my tasting rules. All sandwiches would be wit onions. Cheese would depend on the counterman's preference, but I would also sample a second sandwich in a few places with the other cheese. In a dozen places, only one recommended the provolone. More on that later...
I confess: I actually had the cheesesteak in a pretzel roll. Probably doesn't really count as cheesesteak, but I did enjoy it...
I picked a few places in South Philadelphia, near the Italian Market, including the two most famous: Pat's King of Steaks (invented there) and Geno's (across the street). I tried several in the Reading Terminal Market, and on the last day, on recommendation of an old friend, I took a two-hour-plus round trip to Manayunk in way-north Philadelphia for the one he loves the best...
Before the ratings, the tragedy: two long bus rides with a bad connection took me over an hour to get to the far-south Philly waterfront, with my mouth watering for a double-take of roast pork and cheesesteak. Unfortunately John picked the wrong week to have his counters and plumbing upgraded. Sigh...
Co-Number One: Dallesandro's
Well worth the long ride out to Manayunk. The line was long, orderly and punctuated with constant encouraging announcements. Rival store Chubby's across the street had no customers at all. Tells you something!
Dallesandro's sandwich was top-cheese style (some sandwiches come with the meat and cheese mixed or with the cheese underneath). The beef was juicy and had a tiny hint of pink. Many sandwiches I tried had over-cooked or dry meat; cheese and onions can't really make up for that!
The Other Number One: Tony Luke's
The meat was good but not extraordinary; what moved it up near the top was the definitely fried but still a little chewy onions and a wonderful crusty roll. Cheesesteak puts any roll to a test; some soaked the roll so badly that if it weren't for fear of mockery I'd have asked for a fork.
Tony Luke's is the only one of my winners to have expanded into a chain; I now know there's even a store in Brooklyn!
Number Two: Carmen's, in the Reading Terminal Market
I made the mistake of going to Carmen's on Saturday afternoon; on Friday the line was half as long—and that's only the line to order. There's another line to wait for your sandwich! When you order, you get a playing card and wait until it is called.
If Geno and Pat are the Ace and King of steaks, it appears I'm the two. Which matches Carmen's rating. In fact, until I got to Dallesandro's it was a near competitor for the top spot. Really good flavor in the beef, not dry, a little scant on the cheese. Among the winners, this is the only one where I tried both Wiz and provolone; I chose the sharp provolone and was surprised that it didn't add more flavor than it did.
Number Three: By George Pizza and Cheesesteak
George's was the only one where the counterman suggested provolone; it was chopped into the meat and despite what looked like a substantial amount of cheese, it didn't assert itself. But the beef had a pleasant graviness (is that a word?) and the onions were flavorful.
Co-Number 4: Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks
I was disappointed that I couldn't anoint one of these famous places as a top winner, but that's the way the cheese whizzes...
Pat's sandwich was at 9 am on a Friday, so take the comments with a grain of 'why would you eat a sandwich that early?' There were reasons. OK. Pat's obviously believes in Wiz. And much as I have a low-life taste for it myself, having it over, under and in the meat left me disappointed and yellow-fingered. The meat was quite good, though. Hard to taste the onions over all the cheese.
My Geno sandwich had a better balance of cheese to meat (more cheese than meets the lens here) and the onions were good. But the beef, which remained in slices rather than being chopped) was a bit dry, a bit light on flavor.
Number Five: Spataro's
Only good flavor in the meat and a reasonable layer of Wiz got this one on the list; I was at a table in under five minutes from the counter, took the picture, and then attempted to pick it up and eat it. A fork or spoon would have made it easier; as it was I had to break off mouthfuls because the bread was so soaked I couldn't pick it up.
There! now when you Google 'cheesesteak' you've got one more opinionated choice to look at.
But mine comes with a free oddity at the end. A few years ago in Segesta, Sicily I noticed some puzzling menu items, one of which was a sandwich labeled "bistecca philadelphia." I didn't order it, but inquiry determined that it was not a cheesesteak; it was a sandwich of beef and cream cheese. In Sicily, and maybe elsewhere in Italy, no matter the brand, cream cheese is Philadelphia.
Title Image: waiting in line to order cheesesteak at Carmen's