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. But cheesesteaks are an undeniable staple in Philly, 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.
Cheesesteak from John's Roast Pork (Philadelphia, PA)
Known for their roast pork, John's is also the James Beard Award-winning gold standard for the non-tourist cheesesteak, made with a giant pile of sliced and semi-chopped ribeye on half-loaves of crusty Italian Carangi Bakery bread. No Whiz here; your choices are American or provolone. Most places this busy pre-cook piles of meat but John's steaks are all cooked to order. We tried the "Milano," which adds grilled tomato slices and mild provolone. Delicious. Get there before 2 p.m., weekdays only, and make sure you bone up on the ordering practices—cheesesteaks are ordered from the grill while roast pork and beef come from the station closer to the register. One of the best sandwich places in Philly hands down.
When talking about South Philly steaks, Pat's and Geno's are the big names, but venture further south and west towards the highway onramps to find a far superior cheesesteak at Philip's. Thicker sliced ribeye gives this steak a semblance of, well, steak, instead of the chopped and rechopped meat that many places opt for. Philip's has a predilection for all things spicy. You can add tingly long hots to your steak for heat or head to the condiments area where all sorts of chiles, peppers, and hot sauce are available. And for a bit of added South Philly street cred and intrigue take note that founder Philip Narducci is currently serving time for mafia-related activity.
This tiny South Philly convenience store has video poker in the front, a grill and deli counter in the back, and a line out the door for some of the biggest cheesesteaks in the city. A soft hoagie roll barely holds together the pound and a half mess of chopped steak, onions, and oozing American cheese (don't even think of asking for Whiz here). Plenty of customers buy one sandwich along with some extra rolls to feed three or four. Definitely not the place for a "delicate balance of meat to bread" but for one of the best examples of a "sloppy style" cheesesteak Gooey Looie's is the spot.
Gooey Looies: 231 McClellan Street (Pennsport Mall) Philadelphia PA 19148 (map); 215-334-7668
Across the river in Camden, New Jersey, Donkey's Place is a former speakeasy turned bar that opened back in 1947 by Olympic boxer Leon "Donkey" Lucas. The steaks are grilled up along with onions boosted with "secret spices" in a huge pile on a tiny grill behind the bar, filling the whole place with the smell of meat and onions. Instead of the usual long roll or Italian loaf, Donkey's steaks are served on soft round poppy seeded buns from Del Buono's. Nice slabs of steak topped with lots of onions and your choice of garnish from the jars of hot pepper relish, banana peppers, and marinated dried chilis on every table.
Wash down your cheesesteak with plastic cups of Budweiser ($1!), sides of pickled green tomato and fries dusted with Old Bay seasoning. Old Bay fries are usually associated with Baltimore but they made there way up to Philly where they're usually known as "crab fries." This small place seats maybe a dozen at the bar with a few tables in the back. Everybody says it's in a "bad part of town," which adds to the mystique but honestly felt safer than my block in South Philly. No late nights here; they close up shop around 8 or 9 p.m.
Adding shredded lettuce and tomatoes to a cheesesteak transforms it into a cheesesteak hoagie, which in and of itself is truly genius, giving the steak an air of fast food-style burger-ness. Our favorite version of the cheesesteak hoagie comes from our local, go-to steak and hoagie joint, Cosmi's. It's a monster of a steak with a base of creamy, oozy American on a chewy, crusty half loaf of Sarcone's seeded Italian bread, the lettuce is finely shredded iceberg, and the tomatoes come from Cosmi's secret stash of bright red, meaty Jersey tomatoes that are for sale in the deli all summer long.
Sammy Chon's K-Town BBQ's Koagie
One of the more exotic variations on our cheesesteak eating trail comes from Sammy Chon's K-Town BBQ, a tiny Korean barbecue joint tucked into a Cherry Hill, New Jersey strip mall. The majority of the menu at this family-run establishment is made up of expertly prepared, super fresh Korean standards, but they also serve something a bit out of the ordinary, a Korean take on the cheesesteak, called a Koagie that stuffs a locally made, long seeded roll with thin sliced beef bulgogi (see the cheesesteak connection here?), a sweet sesame slaw, and a side of chile marinated cucumbers that are just waiting to be tucked into the sandwich. It's drippy, creamy, and spicy, just like a great cheesesteak but with a awesomely bright Korean flair.
A surprise find from a lunch truck in University City advertising "the best steaks on campus." Expecting the usual low-end tasteless, processed, frozen and dried out cheesesteak meat that a lot of trucks use, instead we got a super moist combination of juicy sliced steak and Whiz on a soft Amaroso bun. They use sirloin which has a great hamburger-esque flavor, also a nice medium-small size so you can eat the whole thing and not feel the need to immediately sit down or take a nap. They also do breakfast sandwiches served on the same roll including a cheesesteak and egg for under $5. Look for Steak Queen in the cluster of food trucks that runs along 38th Street.
Johnny's Hots is a walk-up on a busy and bleak stretch of Delaware Avenue best known for their deceptively spicy sausages, hot dogs, and hefty take on the Philly Surf-n-Turf, a fish cake wrapped dog served with pepper hash. In fact, Johnny's Hots didn't add cheesesteaks to their menu until 2005. And while they might not have the years behind them that other steaks shops in the city do, what sets Johnny's Hots apart is their thin sliced top round from Kissin Fresh Meats, a local purveyor that specializes in "hanging beef." We're assuming "hanging" also means aging, giving the steaks at Johnny's Hots an extra tangy beefiness that even the gooiest American cheese can't overtake. If you're planning on visiting Johnny's Hots, make sure to take their working dude hours into consideration. Doors (or windows in this case) are open at 4:30 a.m. and shut promptly at 3 p.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. on weekends.
Johnny's Hots: 1234 North Delaware Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19125 (map); 215-423-2280
One of our favorite Italian hoagie spots from the best hoagie roundup, Carmen's Deli also makes an amazing cheesesteak. We went for the Big Daddy, stuffed with ribbons of meat cooked with hot cherry peppers, fried onions, and American cheese. Incredibly juicy, spicy but not insane, and perfect with the incredible, just-soft-enough-but-doesn't-fall-apart roll from nearby Del Buono's Bakery. Carmen's kills it again with a cheesesteak that's probably in our top 5 of all time.
While most classic Philly-style cheesesteak adopted the no-nonsense, order-at-the-window style of customer service, Chink's is a refreshingly friendly, frozen in time cheesesteak-diner-cum-soda-fountain. Staffed by a handful of cheerful, steak slinging young ladies, there are two reasons to make your way up to the Northeast—textbook perfect beefy, drippy steaks (go with Whiz and onions, you won't be sorry) and concrete thick milkshakes in flavors like banana and orange creamsicle. The bread here comes from Liscio's, and has a great squish and chew, and the ribeye is hand-cut on premises, most likely by one of the waitresses that's serving you. Of course, enjoying your steak and shake along with a side of pickles and peppers, in a sitdown booth with its own personal jukebox doesn't hurt either.