- The humble cheesesteak is Philadelphia’s most iconic meal.
- I was raised in the Philly suburbs, and cheesesteaks were an essential part of my adolescence, with Pat’s, Geno’s, Jim’s, and Tony Luke’s serving as my go-to spots in the city.
- Recently, I returned on a personal pilgrimage of sorts, taking down four cheesesteaks in one night to determine which sandwich reigned supreme.
The Philly cheesesteak is not an enigma.
A coalescence of cheese, steak, bread, and sometimes fried onions, a good cheesesteak creates a whole supremely greater than the sum of its parts.
But despite its simplicity, the sandwich evokes strong emotions amongst Philadelphians. Like any food a local community takes pride in – pizza in New York, tacos in Los Angeles, or barbecue across the South – cheesesteaks are plentiful in Philadelphia, with many outlets vying to be the best in the city.
I was raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, and cheesesteaks were a fairly regular staple of my childhood diet. Trips into the city, whether for concerts, movies, or Phillies games, were often capped off with a trip to one of four spots – Pat’s, Geno’s, Jim’s, and Tony Luke’s – for our favourite sandwich.
In college I would learn the beauty of John’s Roast Pork and Dalessandro’s, but in my youth these four were the greatest cheesesteaks on the planet, and in Philadelphia fashion, I was ready to fight anyone who disagreed.
While attending the Phillies’ season opener last month, I decided to put the memories of my youth to the test, taking on all four steaks in one day.
After a day that ended with pure Cheese Whiz coursing through my veins, here’s how the meals stacked up.
Our journey of cheesesteaks began at the Tony Luke’s in Citizens Bank Park.
As you can see, the line was long, filled with Phillies fans looking to get their cheesesteak fix. In addition to cheesesteaks, the ballpark menu also included its popular roast-pork sandwich with broccoli rabe and provolone.
Sandwiches were $US13 each – a bit steep, but hardly unreasonable when accounting for the stadium tax that accompanies any purchase at a ballpark.
I ordered my usual “Whiz wit” along with a Yuengling to start the day.
Tony Luke’s was at an immediate disadvantage compared with some of the other cheesesteaks that would be eaten this day, as its sandwiches are pre-wrapped to make for a more efficient purchasing process at the stadium. This meant that the fried onions came on the side and that the cheesesteak lacked a bit of that “fresh off the grill” brightness that is a vital component of the sandwich.
After some work, the cheesesteak was satisfying, especially given the atmosphere of the ballpark.
Once I had constructed my cheesesteak with onions and a few hot peppers, it was a delight.
The ratio of meat to cheese was sound, and while it wasn’t as fresh as you’d typically desire a cheesesteak to be, the ambiance of the ballpark and a Phillies win went a long way in making Tony Luke’s a positive experience.
I would not ordinarily recommend starting your day with a cheesesteak, but after skipping breakfast and dealing with car trouble on the way to the stadium, I found Tony Luke’s was a beautiful and tasty respite from a chaotic day.
Next, I headed north on Broad and down Passyunk Avenue to Geno’s.
After completing a Phillies-Sixers doubleheader, my travelling companion and I headed north to the cheesesteak epicentre of Philadelphia, Passyunk Avenue.
First we went to Geno’s, answering the siren call of its bright lights and delectable offerings.
Geno’s bright lights make it impossible to miss from a few blocks away, though things weren’t too busy when I arrived.
Geno’s is catty-corner from Pat’s King of Steaks, its fierce rival.
In my experience, Philadelphians’ preference between these two purveyors of cheesesteaks comes down to which you tried first in your youth.
While many heated debates over which reigns supreme have been had, I can tell you with total confidence that both make a fine sandwich. If you have a strong preference, by all means, patronize one over the other – but should one line be absurdly long, shuffling to the other side of the street won’t be a disappointment if you’re in a rush.
I ordered “Whiz witout” to save myself a bit of onion breath. It cost an even $US10.
Geno’s made a fine cheesesteak.
Its freshness stood out from Tony Luke’s, but again, that was to be expected due to the stadium experience of my first sandwich of the day.
Like Tony Luke’s, Geno’s opts for a slightly thicker cut of steak. Hefty slices of meat lining the sandwich provide a series of satisfying bites.
By the time I wandered across the street, I was already satiated by my cheesesteak consumption, despite being just halfway through my night of indulgence.
After Geno’s, I ventured across the street to Pat’s.
Pat’s King of Steaks identifies itself as “the originator and inventor of the steak and cheesesteak sandwich,” owned and operated by the Olivieri family since its founding in 1930.
Signage tells customers “don’t eat a misteak,” with a healthy dose of side-eye directed at Geno’s across the street.
Pat’s has a helpful sign that informs customers to order either “wit” or “witout” fried onions and encourages them to practice their order before arriving at the window.
This helpful sign instructs first-timers how to correctly order their steak, explaining their options for cheese – Whiz, provolone, American – as well as the distinction between “wit” or “witout” fried onions.
When I was younger, I was confident that an incorrect order at the counter would be met with a court order and a monthlong stay at the jail under Veterans Stadium. But in reality, as long as you know what you want and are communicating your order, things will be fine.
Just don’t ask for recommendations, especially when there’s a line of hungry Phillies fans standing behind you, ready to eat.
For $US11, I got another steak “Whiz witout” for my third meal of the day.
First, apologies for the photo quality of this shot – with our car parked next to Geno’s, I had run back over once I made my purchase at Pat’s but felt uncomfortable eating Pat’s steak at a Geno’s table. Some lessons learned in my younger years have stayed with me.
Regardless, Pat’s impressed. While the distribution of cheese could have been a bit more even, the cheesier side of the sandwich was divine. Next time I might order extra cheese, though given my goal of four steaks in one day, the idea seemed ill-advised at the moment.
The bread was superb, allowing for all parts of the sandwich to meld together in harmony. And while the steak came a bit more chopped than at Geno’s or Tony Luke’s, it still offered plenty to chew on.
More than any sandwich so far in the day, this one came just seconds off the grill – and was devoured almost as quickly as it was prepared.
Finally, I ventured up to South Street to visit Jim’s.
Feeling full but unfinished, I forged on to South Street for a stop at Jim’s.
Its dinerlike exterior was an inviting beginning to the finale of my cheesesteak adventure.
The cheesesteaks at Jim’s were again in the $US10 range, depending on additions. I went back to “Whiz wit,” while my friend opted against onions for his final steak of the day.
Despite being the fourth cheesesteak of the day, my cheesesteak from Jim’s was still a highlight.
Jim’s distinguished itself from the pack with a much finer chop to its steak than the three previous sandwiches and a hearty slathering of Whiz that seeped all the way through to the bread, making it the most balanced cheesesteak in my marathon of munchies.
If anything, there was a bit too much meat – but after a few bites and a bit of encouragement across the sandwich, everything evened out in perfect harmony.
After four of the best cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, the winner was clear: me.
In conclusion, Philly cheesesteaks are not a land of contrasts.
They are a concoction of bread, meat, and cheese that join together in beautiful simplicity and can be enjoyed in myriad places and myriad ways.
For some peculiar reason, the magic disappears outside Philadelphia’s city limits – venture to New York, and suddenly you’ll be offered cheesesteaks with lettuce and tomato, or some other terrifying configuration of an already perfect sandwich.
Looking back on my night of indulgence, I found that Jim’s reigned supreme. But in the City of Brotherly Love, it’s tough to go wrong.
At the Phillies game and in need of something a bit heartier to go along with your Chickie’s & Pete’s crab fries? Head over to Tony Luke’s!
In town for just the night and eager to compare and contrast the offerings of the city? Shoot over to Pat’s and Geno’s and do a taste test of your own!
Downtown after a movie or show and looking for a satisfying meal in and of Philadelphia? Indulge at Jim’s.
The cheesesteak is a working person’s sandwich with mass appeal. If the idea of meat, cheese, and bread triggers a salivatory response, you’re in for a treat.
My only word of advice is that attempting to eat four in one night is probably best left to professionals.
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