Depending on whom you ask, the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia is either at the pizza shop without a phone number, in a Home Depot parking lot, or only available in the visitors’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park baseball stadium.
Other regions may have their signature dishes, but in Philly, the cheesesteak is our civic identity. It says who we are: a people not afraid to roll up our sleeves and get a little messy.
The endless obsession with who does it best obscures what actually makes the Philly cheesesteak special: its ubiquity and variety. Philly’s best cheesesteak is the one you can get, and you can get one almost anywhere. The cheesesteak made by your local deli or lunch cart is probably just as good as the one you’ll find at some of the most famous places.
On South Street you can find both the hole-in-the-wall that invented the chicken cheesesteak, and a more-than-passable vegan cheesesteak from one of the street’s funkiest bars. You can stumble on an Indian version in a South Philly strip mall, find a halal take at a West Philly deli, or shell out US$140 for one made with wagyu beef and truffles, and served with a half-bottle of champagne, at Barclay Prime, one of the city’s finest restaurants. Don’t worry, though: the average cheesesteak will only cost you $10 to $15. Steak itself isn’t even a requirement.
History of the cheesesteak
Almost 100 years ago, Pat Olivieri ran a hot dog stand near the Italian Market in South Philadelphia. Bored with his typical lunch, Olivieri got playful one day and threw some chopped meat, fresh from the butcher, onto the grill. He stuffed it into an Italian roll and tossed some onions on top. He never intended to share his concoction with anyone else.
At that moment, a cabbie who took his lunch at the stand every day arrived. Catching a whiff of the new creation, he demanded Olivieri make him one of his own. Forget the hot dogs, the cabbie insisted, this is what you should be selling.
And so, in 1930, Pat’s King of Steaks was founded. As time went on, cheese was added to the mix, and neither Pat – nor anyone else – looked back. The Olivieri family still runs Pat’s at 1237 E Passyunk Ave.
Thirty or so years after Olivieri’s fortuitous discovery, Joey Vento opened a grill directly across the street at the corner of 9th St and Passyunk Ave. His Geno’s Steaks grew wildly popular, and the two venues have shared the intersection in an occasionally contentious but mutually beneficial rivalry ever since. Their neon and fluorescent signs illuminate the street around the clock, posing the eternal Philadelphia question: Pat’s or Geno’s?
Cheesesteak Times Square
For many a Philadelphian, myself included, the answer has often been neither. We’ve derided the landmark corner as a tourist trap, a recommendation that betrays the ignorance of a true cheesesteak aficionado. You wouldn’t catch any true New Yorker trundling willingly around Times Square, would you?
But that’s probably a little unfair. You could say Pat’s and Geno’s have become so overrated they’re underrated. Open 24/7, the twin icons are at their best when you’ve just closed down a nearby establishment.
These are not the best cheesesteaks you can get. But they are the ones you can get when the bar has closed, or when you’ve just stepped off a red-eye flight and your hotel won’t let you check in yet. They are the ones that provide the singular Philadelphia experience of waiting in line under the warm glow of the window as the aroma of fried onions draws closer.
This isn’t about the steaks, it’s about the experience. It’s about the delicate act of balancing your sandwich atop a trash can when all the picnic tables are inevitably occupied. Or it’s about taking your steak to watch a pickup game of soccer or basketball at neighboring Capitolo Park.
Which is better: Pat’s or Geno’s?
Pat’s and Geno’s have their idiosyncrasies. Want fries? You’ll order those at a separate window. Plan on using a credit card? Both only accept cash. You might have to visit the ‘cheesesteak ATM’ just up the street.
So, who does it better? It’s a matter of personal taste. The main difference is that Pat’s chops the steak while Geno’s leaves it flat. For the ultimate Philly taste test, order one from each and take them both to Garage, a repurposed auto shop across Passyunk Ave that claims the largest selection of canned beer in the city.
How to order the perfect Philly cheesesteak
You’ve stepped up to the window. Now what? Don’t let the Philly guy next to you slinging local phrases like “Whiz wit” intimidate you.
Your first decision is cheese. There are three main options: American, Cheez Whiz (a yellow, liquid, goopy cheese), or provolone, an aged pasta filata cheese. American cheese and Whiz are the most popular. At its best, American provides a creamy consistency but sometimes fails to adequately smother the meat. With Whiz you’ll never have to worry about your steak being dry, and it provides a great cover for inferior or stringy meat. But some, like me, find it overwhelming. Provolone sounds fancy but doesn’t have the right degree of meltiness.
The next big decision is whether to add onions, typically fried or caramelized. These provide texture and the signature smell. To order onions is to have your steak ‘wit’ (‘with’ said with a Philly accent), and to skip them you’ll order the sandwich ‘widdout’. So, if you wanted a steak with American cheese and no onions you’d say, “One American, widdout.” Whiz and onions? “One Whiz, wit.”
Most other factors, like chopped steak versus flat, depend on the shop. The roll is similar. Some shops use a soft, long roll; others prefer a crunchier, harder shell.
The classic cheesesteaks are so for a reason, but don’t let anyone shame you out of trying a pizza steak, a mushroom steak, a cheesesteak hoagie (a Philly submarine sandwich), or any other variety. A friend of mine swears by Geno’s Steak Milano, which has fried tomatoes and oregano.
My order is “American, wit” and I prefer it from a place that chops the steak, mixes the cheese and onions on the grill, and places it all on a hard, Italian roll. It’s difficult to execute but when it’s done right the meat, cheese and onions are perfectly whipped into a creamy blend. To me, it’s the true test of a steak place and the pinnacle of the form.
Now you try
Pat’s and Geno’s provide a good baseline, but when you’re ready to venture past Cheesesteak Times Square, these are the spots that turn the humble cheesesteak into a meal worthy of reverence.
- John’s Roast Pork: This place has been catering to longshoremen and blue-collar workers from the corner of Weccacoe and Synder near the Delaware River since 1930. For much of its life, it was a simple lunch shack, open from early morning to early afternoon and mostly serving its namesake sandwich. Then in 2002 the Philadelphia Inquirer launched an exhaustive search for the best cheesesteak in the region and landed here. In 2006, the James Beard Foundation deemed John’s an American Classic and the masses came. After several rounds of expansion, John’s is a bustling enterprise with still-quirky hours.
- Woodrow’s: A relative newcomer to South Street, this sandwich shop elevated the cheesesteak form with homemade truffle Whiz and cherry pepper mayo. There’s no other like it in the city.
- Angelo’s Pizzeria: Takeout and cash only, this Bella Vista shop is the size of a postage stamp. None of that has kept it from being the hottest spot in the city. The bread, baked in-house, is the differentiator – exactly what you’d expect from a place that also makes a case for having the city’s best pizza and hoagies.
- D’Alessandro’s: This Roxborough shop gives an old-school vibe, complete with a dining counter where you can order a classic soda or beer, rare among the places listed here. American cheese rules the day at this recent winner of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Cheesesteak Bracket.
- Campo’s: Located just a few steps from the Liberty Bell and Independence Mall in Old City, Campo’s still manages to feel like a neighborhood deli and is a true Philly experience despite its touristy address.
- Donkey’s Place: Shhh, but the best cheesesteak in Philly may not be in Philly at all. That’s what Anthony Bourdain thought, at least. Just across the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey, this old-school barroom serves its unique twist on the cheesesteak – American cheese only – on a poppy-seeded Kaiser roll.
- Max’s Steaks: This North Philly landmark was featured in Creed, the Rocky sequel. Bring at least one friend to keep you company in the line and to split the two-foot long ‘whole’. These are too sloppy to eat anywhere else than in the adjoining Eagle Bar.
Not surprisingly, Philly’s diverse neighborhoods put their own cultural spin on the classic.
- Little Sicily Pizza 2: This strip mall pizzeria offers a ‘secret’ Indian menu that includes a spicy cheesesteak blended with a mix of hot peppers, cumin, cilantro and mayo. For a double dose of heat, get a side of crisp masala fries.
- Gaul & Co Malt House: This local pub in the historically Polish Port Richmond neighborhood is known for its ‘Wit or Witowski’, which combines chopped kielbasa, caramelized onions and American Cooper cheese sauce on a long roll.
- Saad’s Halal Restaurant: Steaks at this University City staple are West Philly style, which means a roll slathered with mayonnaise and toasted for the perfect crisp
- Mike’s BBQ: Philly’s best BBQ joint puts its smoked brisket on a long roll, along with house-made Cooper Sharp Whiz and fried onions.
Take it with you
Once you’ve had a real Philly cheesesteak, you’ll never want to settle for one of those generic sandwiches that menus around the country call a ‘Philly’ again. But needless to say, you can’t exactly slip a couple in your carry-on.
Good news: the mail-order pros at Gold Belly ship from many of the places mentioned here, including Pat’s and Geno’s, John’s Roast Pork, Campo’s and Donkey’s Place.