Editor's Note: Fearless sandwich eaters Hawk Krall and Caroline Russock decided to take on this hefty project (hopefully you two aren't regretting it now!). They'll be tackling Philadelphia's sandwich scene, from the best hoagies to this week's classic cheesesteaks. —The Mgmt.
For years nearly every article about food in Philadelphia proudly proclaimed that the city "wasn't just about cheesesteaks any more!" as if the thriving new restaurant scene meant the city had to reject its lowbrow, neon orange cheese covered past.
Cheesesteak shame aside, some prefer the more authentic Italian roast pork as the signature sandwich of Philadelphia, which definitely deserves its moment in the spotlight along with all manner of veal and chicken cutlets, meatball sandwiches, and roast beef (which we'll be covering in the next couple of weeks). But really, there's no reason all of these awesome sandwiches can't co-exist in delicious harmony.
Legend has it that the cheesesteak was invented at 9th and Passyunk, when hot dog stand owner Pat Olivieri decided to throw some sliced steak from a nearby butcher on the grill with onions for his lunch. Whiz didn't come into play until the 1950s, enabling a faster sandwich-making process as well as that delicious Whiz-meat-grease-onion-hot pepper juice slurry that tastes like magic. Like the hoagie, another crucial element of the cheesesteak was is the bread, where the best places have rolls delivered daily from local Italian bakeries.
If you notice the cook pulling out a stack of wax-paper-lined meat slices that actually resemble real steak—or better yet somebody slicing the meat to order—chances are, you're in the right place.
The best steaks are made with sirloin, ribeye, or top round, cooked to order. The meat is cooked on a flat top grill (technically a griddle but no self-respecting short order cook or Philadelphia cheesesteak eater uses that term) alongside big piles of onions that end up on top or mixed in with the meat. Sub-prime cheesesteak spots often use processed and frozen pre-sliced steak or even "emulsified steak product" (think Steak-umm) of varying quality levels that range from "pretty good" to "tastes like cardboard."
Eating cheesesteaks across the Philadelphia area, a few distinct styles begin to emerge. Your standard cheesesteak served at Pat's and Geno's usually consists of slightly chopped ribeye served on soft, medium sized long rolls with Whiz as the cheese of choice. Then there are the more "authentic" cheesesteaks from John's Roast Pork or Cosmi's served on crusty half loaves of seeded Italian bread, with almost twice as much meat, and a funny look if you ask for Cheez Whiz. Then you have your "sloppy pizzeria" style, usually a massive amount of meat chopped to oblivion and served on a squishy roll.
Our favorites tend to be in the middle ground between "standard" and "authentic," places like Chink's, Johnny's Hots, and Carmen's that serve bread that's a bit bigger and sturdier than a standard Amoroso roll, but not chewy and crusty like seeded Italian, all using a good (but not over the top) amount of high quality meat.
Last but not least are the ethnic cheesesteaks, a non-traditional and relatively new phenomenon with endless amazing possibilities. Korean "koagies" or bulgogi cheesesteaks are becoming fairly common, but we've also seen jalepeño steaks at Mexican pizzerias, teriyaki cheesesteaks from Asian lunch trucks, and a few others that are hopefully just the tip of the iceberg.
And while there seem to be a lot of rules for these things, most places will put whatever you want on your sandwich. Thousands of cheesesteaks are consumed in Philadelphia every day slathered in ketchup, pickles, mayo, and even Ranch dressing. Meat, cheese, and onions make up the holy trinity of traditional Philly steaks, but this city is certainly not opposed to mixing it up as far as toppings are concerned.
Hot peppers in all guises are standard steak topping fare—charred long hots, pickled cherry peppers, and crumbly-crisp dried chiles are just a few of the heat-upping additions typically offered.
Then of course there are the toppings that happen behind the counter. We're talking about the pizza steaks doused in tomato sauce and covered with melty mozzarella, the ones with mushrooms and sweet green peppers tucked alongside the meat, and the shredded lettuce and tomato slices that transform the cheesesteak into a cheesesteak hoagie.
Many places offer up everything-but-the-kitchen-sink style steaks stuffed with pepperoni, bacon, and pretty much every other steak topping option imaginable, just look for over the top names like Animal Farm or Jacked Up Cheesesteak. And while beef is the standard, Philadelphia has adapted other steak fillers over the years including chicken and lamb, as well as vegetarian and vegan variations.
We decided to stick to beef for this particular round up, focusing on a survey of the city's most exciting steaks.
In a city where cheesesteaks are a staple on virtually every menu—no matter if the house specialty is Thai, pizza, or Chinese—we traveled throughout Philadelphia and South Jersey gathering a selection of truly solid steaks to share with you.
We opted to forgo the South Philly intersection of Passyunk and Wharton a.k.a. Cheesesteak Vegas, home to the famous and ever feuding Pat's and Geno's, more interested in seeking out the lesser known places serving up both standard and reimagined takes on the sandwich that is synonymous with Philadelphia.
Give these awesome steaks a try next time you find yourself in Philly and please feel free to share your picks, pans, and thoughts about Whiz in the comments section below.
For more cheesesteakery, check out phillysteakout.com, which rates cheesesteak joints based on Foursquare check-ins, and even gives "tourist vs. local" percentages; or pick up The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book by Carolyn Wyman, easily the most comprehensive study of the cheesesteak to date.
The Cheesesteak Map
View The Best Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia in a larger map
About the authors:
Hawk Krall is a Philadelphia-based illustrator who has a serious thing for hot dogs. Dig his dog drawings? Many of the illustrations he has created for Hot Dog of the Week are available for sale: hawkkrall.net/prints/
You already know Caroline Russock from all her Cook the Book, Bake the Book, and Drink the Book recipes each week. After attending Pratt Institute with a focus on fine arts, Caroline worked in restaurants everywhere from San Diego to Sicily.