If there is one food for which Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is primarily known, it surely must be the cheesesteak. Philly cheesesteaks are world-famous, and a sandwich that nearly every visitor to the city insists on trying. But the debate rages on throughout the city as well as foodie forums worldwide as to what makes for the best cheesesteak, and where to get it in Philadelphia and the surrounding area.
A Guide to Enjoying a Proper Philadelphia Cheesesteak
Where and how to order Philly's most famous food specialty. No visitor to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania should miss trying out a real Philly cheesesteak.
Image above: A classic Philly cheesesteak, by sockii.
The Classic Cheesesteak: What makes it great
There are three vital components to an authentic cheesesteak sandwich. First, and to some most importantly, is the roll. The cheesesteak should be served on a quality, freshly-baked roll - not toasted - that is strong enough to hold up to the weight (and grease) of the cheesesteak yet still have a pleasant texture and flavor. Amoroso or Sarcone's are the two most popular rolls for cheesesteaks in the city, the former being more dense and chewy, the latter more airy and crunchy.
The next important element of the Philadelphia cheesesteak is the steak. Ribeye or top round are the preferred cuts of beef for a cheesesteak, and some places serve it chopped, others sliced. Cheesesteak meat is not overly spiced nor marinated, just quickly cooked on a hot grill top, so it needs to be good enough quality meat not to be too tough or chewy when prepared in such a fashion.
Then, of course, there is the cheese. Whiz, Provolone, or American are all acceptable choices; don't make John Kerry's mistake and try to order one with Swiss as it just might cost you a presidential election. Although Cheese Whiz may sound gross, it is the standard and some swear its processed flavor and oily texture make it the only authentic choice for a real cheesesteak. My preference is for the sharper flavor of Provolone.
Fried onions are a common addition to a cheesesteak, which you order in Philadelphia by asking for your steak "wit." You may also dress your steak with hot or sweet peppers and ketchup, but other condiments such as mayo, mustard, lettuce and tomato are distinctly frowned upon. If you end up looking to order a cheesesteak at a place that even offers you such choices, leave immediately as they clearly are not going to know how to prepare an authentic sandwich.
Image: Tailgating before an Eagles game is the perfect time to enjoy a cheesesteak.
Can you do the Cheesesteak Shuffle?
Now that you know the basics, you can go on your own adventure to find Philadelphia's best cheesesteak. Cheesesteaks are best enjoyed late at night after a sporting event, or to soak up excess alcohol after a long night of partying. Here are some of the top contenders around the city to choose from:
- Pat's King of Steaks®
Founded in 1930, Pat Olivieri lays claim to the title of originating the cheesesteak, and Pat's is still a popular destination for many locals and tourists. This South Philly location is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week except for major holidays.
- Geno's Steaks
Located just across the street from Pat's, Geno's is perhaps the most infamous cheesesteak shop in Philadelphia thanks to owner/originator Joey Vento.
- Tony Luke's Cheesesteaks
With several locations, but the original on Oregon Avenue is where it's at. However, many swear by their other classic Philly sandwiches more than the cheesesteak: the roast pork and chicken cutlet in particular.
- Steve's Prince of Steaks
Although less well-known than some of the competition, Steve's steaks have received numerous awards including Best Cheesesteak in 2007 from Philadelphia Magazine, and "Best of Citysearch" in 2005 and 2007. They rule the Northeast part of the city.
- Jim's Steaks
Their original location at 431 North 62nd Street in West Philadelphia, has been in operation since 1939 making it a truly historic cheesesteak destination.
- Jim's South Street
Five-time winner of Philadelphia Magazine's 'Best of Philly' award and Zagat rated, Jim's is your 'must-have' cheesesteak when only the BEST will do.
Ishkabibble's has a serious following with locals who swear by not just their classic cheesesteak but their chicken cheesesteak - they claim to be the originators. Chow one down with their famous "Gremlin" drink of lemonade and grape!
- Joe's Steaks + Soda Shop
Formerly known as Chink's, they changed their name due to controversy over it, but no one can deny they make a mean cheesesteak.
- Campos Deli
This Old City deli is quickly building up a reputation for their cheesesteaks. They use Sarcone's rolls and do offer some nontraditional varieties of cheesesteaks, but stick with the basics to get a real Philadelphia experience.
Image above: A classic cheesesteak "wit" (onions). Jim's Steaks on South Street.