A truly great cheesesteak harnesses the powers of bread, meat, and cheese, and, like Captain Planet, becomes an ass-kicking sandwich hero far greater than the sum of its parts. It is a magnificent trifecta of juicy, thin-cut beef; crisp, chewy roll; and tangy, salty, gooey cheese. Let's just say that if Proust lived in Philadelphia, he would have written about cheesesteaks instead of madeleines.
But finding a truly great cheesesteak in Philly is hard. Like, alarmingly hard, especially for a sandwich whose name starts with 'Philadelphia.' It's also totally worth the effort, just to savor one of those delicious, meaty, cheesy, sandwich unicorns in the wild. And so we struck out to find the best the city has to offer—an undertaking of two days and some 30-odd sandwiches—mostly so you'll never have to (it is an experience that, medically speaking, should probably be avoided).
The Guiding Principles of the Philadelphia Cheesesteak
Our project was, first and foremost, to find the best of Philadelphia's cheesesteaks. But we learned some important lessons along the way. Our guiding principles, if you will.
Chopped meat is usually better than sliced: With one exception, all of our favorite sandwiches were packed with nicely browned, griddle-chopped steak. Sliced sheets of beef that were left whole tended to be dry and shriveled, with far less moisture and flavor than their chopped brethren, more likely to steam into a stiff pile than brown in their own juices.
But even the best cheesesteak beef isn't very good: While the texture and beefiness of our steaks were markedly different from vendor to vendor, not one sandwich contained beef that, on its own, we'd call "delicious." Even cooked fresh to-order, the meat was consistently unseasoned, bland, and often dry.
Therefore, Cheeze Whiz: Which is why Cheeze Whiz turned out to be our saving grace. We expected to prefer American or sharp provolone cheeses to the ubiquitous neon-orange whiz, but the latter's salty tang and liquid form made it the perfect beef seasoning. Where sliced cheese tended to coat only the bread or a single layer of meat, whiz proved far more easily integrated into the entire sandwich, enveloping each piece of meat in a layer of fatty flavor.
Order like a pro: To order a cheesesteak with provolone, merely say, "One provolone." Doesn't matter what else the place serves—if you just give the name of your preferred cheese, it's assumed you're ordering a cheesesteak.
Throw on some onions: Same thing goes for a topping of sweet, tender onions. They're such a crucial part of the experience that locals just say "wit'." So "Whiz wit" actually means "One Cheeze Whiz cheesesteak with onions, please." Really don't want onions? Best specify "wit-out." Yes, young grasshopper, true meaning lies in that which remains unsaid.
Don't judge a cheesesteak joint by its line: Some of our favorite cheesesteaks came from restaurants that were virtually empty, even during prime business hours. And some of the worst came from big-name, commonly praised joints with long waits and lines that wrapped all the way out the door.
Eat quickly: Just dig in. Now. We promise, you really don't want it later.
The whiz wit' is to Philly what a pastrami on rye with mustard is to New York City. And when it comes to iconic sandwiches, we have some high standards for each individual component. Let's talk criteria.
First off, a cheesesteak should come on a fresh, chewy roll with a crisp exterior. Sandwiches definitely lost points for stale or cottony bread. We looked for beef that was sliced in-house and cooked to order, but ultimately what mattered most was tenderness and flavor. Ideally, the beef should be pulled as soon as it browns so it stays juicy enough to moisten the inside of the roll. In our fantasy land, it would also be well-seasoned with salt and pepper as it cooks on the griddle; unfortunately, this seemed to be the case at a whopping nowhere places.
As for the cheese half of the equation? In a whiz-less scenario, we're fans of extra-sharp, tangy provolone. But any cheese option, from American to whiz, should be thoroughly integrated into the sandwich, evenly coating all the meat for that essential fatty flavor boost. And finally, we were on the lookout for nicely browned, tender, evenly distributed onions, chopped into manageable, bite-size pieces.
Of course, it all ultimately boils down to who does it best. So, without further ado, meet the four best cheesesteaks we tasted in Philly.
Dalessandro's Steaks and Hoagies
We've applauded Dalessandro's before, and we're pleased to announce they're still making exemplary cheesesteaks. The unassuming Roxborough joint may be a trek from Center City, but it certainly doesn't want for business. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon to a well-deserved long line. Even though each sandwich is made to order, the team behind the counter has their assembly line down pat, so things luckily move along surprisingly quickly. The meat at Dalessandro's is the real prize—it's actually juicy enough to send rivulets running down your hands and chin, and the roll hits just the right balance of chewy and soft. Best of all, as you can see in the photo, the whiz envelops the steak from top to bottom, in all its creamy, salty, tangy glory.
Just look at that gooey meat-baby. We recommend grabbing a bunch of condiments and a seat at one of the tables right outside—these are so moist, you'll want to eat 'em before they sog up.
John's Roast Pork
John's Roast Pork is a real-deal, old-school kinda joint. The sort of place where you'll be humorlessly sent back in line if you place your order at the wrong end of the counter. The sort of place that predates Cheez Whiz by about 40 years and would never, ever put it on their menu. The sort of place that serves up one helluva classic cheesesteak.
Yup, that's right. Despite all the pork imagery you'll find at John's Roast Pork, it's their cheesesteak that truly stands out. The fresh-sliced meat is chopped on the flat-top, and the provolone is powerfully sharp, a great complement to the tender shards of meat. Plus, the sandwich wizards at John's wisely put provolone on top of the meat on the grill AND in the bun, so you get plenty of cheese in every bite. Add in a just chewy enough sesame seed hero roll and plenty of slightly browned onions and you're staring down some serious cheesesteak greatness.
Sonny's Famous Steaks
Sonny's Famous Steaks, with its mid-century signage and sparse, open interior, has a welcoming, accessible vibe that's echoed by its friendly, gung-ho servers. The Old City sandwich and burger joint is also serving up some ridiculously savory cheesesteaks. In fact, it's the only place we tried that really made relatively big, coarsely chopped slices of steak work in its favor. The trick? By cooking that meat in small, to-order batches, they manage to bypass the steamed-dry pitfall that other full-slice joints seem to encounter. Just look! You can practically see the beefy flavor emanating from that meat. We would've liked a little more heft and substance to the soft bread, but all whizzed up and juicy, the overall balance of cheese, meat, onion, and roll was probably the best we encountered in the city.
Just a stone's throw from Sonny's, you'll find the warm and bustling Campo's Deli. The two have a prime set-up for a Pat's and Geno's-quality rivalry, and it just so happens to be a pretty close race. For those looking for a sit-down meal with a wider variety of menu options, Campo's is your better bet (we really liked their roast pork sandwich, too). But we're here to talk cheesesteak, and Sonny's ultimately packs in more beef flavor. Campo's onions were also a little on the unmanageable size, but minor qualms aside, their roughly chopped whiz-wit is a totally rib-sticking close second.