by Dan Taylor
Forget scrapple, Tastykakes, soft pretzels and anything with the words "Pennsylvania Dutch" in front of it. The glorious, magnificent cheesesteak is – hands down – the Philadelphia area's main contribution to the American culinary landscape.
No foodstuff says "Philly" like this highly-addictive blend of meat, cheese and roll (and sometimes lettuce, tomato, onion, mushrooms, pizza sauce, etc.). Don't believe me? Watch any sporting event originating from the City of Brotherly Lunch and you're more likely to see shots of sizzling steak and bubbling cheese than the Liberty Bell.
I grew up in South Jersey about 20 minutes outside Philly and like any good area native won't touch a cheesesteak that wasn't prepared within 30 miles of Billy Penn's hat atop City Hall. These days, though, I live in the Baltimore area where they make a mean crabcake sandwich but haven't quite mastered the art of the cheesesteak.
The closest I've come to having a passable PCS (Philly Cheesesteak) here in Charm City was at a place called Pizza John's [113 Back River Neck Road, Essex, 410-687-7733/pizzajohns.com]. Their Cheesesteak Hoagie was good, featuring fried rib eye and plenty of fresh fixings, but cheese choices are limited to Provolone and American (no institutional-sized cans of Wiz here) and the bread was flat and bland, totally missing the crusty outside and chewy insides that make a PCS roll a PCS roll.
Desperately needing a fix of the landmark foodstuff of my youth, I jumped at the chance to trek from Baltimore to Philly for what was being billed as The Cheesesteak Tour. A fellow Roadfood.com member who goes by the name of CheeseWit was arranging the tour, providing opportunities to check out some famous and not-so-famous PCS hotspots.
With the sun blazing down and humidity creeping towards 112% we met in South Philly and set out to determine – as best we could in one short day – the area's top PCS offerings. Armed with scorecards, paper plates and utensils, we ventured to 9th and Passyunk, Center of The Philly Cheesesteak Universe and home to Pat's King of Steaks [9th & Passyunk, 215-468-1546/patskingofsteaks.com] and Geno's Steaks [1219 S. 9th, 215-389-0659/genosteaks.com].
Arguably the world's best known PCS purveyors, both establishments appeal more to wide-eyed tourists than roadside gourmets. Both joints feature sliced steak and proudly offer Cheese Wiz, but the sandwich at Pat's is bland, drenched with Wiz and unmemorable. Hardly what you'd expect from the originator of the steak sandwich. (Geno's claims to have originated the cheesesteak in 1966, the same year THG was born. Coincidence? You decide.)
Head to Pat's after last call at area bars, though, and you'd think theirs was the greatest sandwich – perhaps the greatest food – in the galaxy. Even CheeseWit confided he once waited 20 minutes for a Pat's and lines on a Friday or Saturday night around 2 A.M. will literally stretch around the block. Too bad the place is on cruise control, totally relying on its rep to bring in the cash.
The short walk to Geno's does nothing to work off sandwich number one, but the bright, friendly atmosphere rates well above Pat's. The sandwich isn't as meaty but a sweeter roll that gets cheesed before the meat is added gives Geno's the early edge. (See below for scores and comments.)
Whether you're a Pat's fan or a Geno's fan is a serious bone of contention in South Philly. One couple found wolfing down sandwiches in the summer heat admitted they were simply there for a fix. She prefers Dalessandro's while he digs Steve's (both future stops on our tour), but sometimes you just need a PCS. I nod my head in agreement because my mouth is full. Another local sandwich lover stops by to tell me that he's making his first ever stop at Pat's and Geno's so he could compare them to his personal fave – and our next stop – Jim's.
With two sandwiches down in an alarmingly short time we hop in the car and drive through Philadelphia's famous, still-thriving Italian Market, home of fresh pig's heads, Frank Rizzo murals, and a cardboard box touting "Vine Pipe Tomatoes." Mmmmm, pipe.
As we walk from the car to Jim's [4th and South Streets, 215-928-1911/jimssteaks.com] I'm shocked by the changes to the "hippest street in town." Once a haven for mom and pop shops, cool eateries and wallet-emptying establishments like The Book Trader, it's now home to Johnny Rockets, Starbucks, and Abercrombie & Fitch. Equally unwelcome is the sight of a line at Jim's which stretches out the door and around the corner. Did I mention it's 90-some degrees with rainforest-esque humidity?
After thirty minutes in line we receive over-stuffed sandwiches filled with chopped steak and head to the air conditioned dining area, where every table is packed. Even in my PCS-pounding heyday Jim's was never at the top of my list. For one thing, whatever cleaning solution they use to keep the joint free of grease has the same headache-inducing, nostril-burning stench as the stuff used in the city's grimiest porno shops. Um, or so I've heard.
When I think of any other PCS joint I think sizzling steak, sauteed onions and bubbling cheese. Jim's makes me think of Seka.
As we search around for a table another diner offers to share his and I find out he's a Chicago native here on business. While it's my third cheesesteak of the day, this is his first. Ever.
"I think it's great," he says, "but I have nothing to compare it to." Unfortunately, I do, and Jim's sandwich may be hefty, but it's dry and flavorless. At least they serve beer, and I drain my ice cold can of Yuengling Lager in record time.
A scenic tour through Manayunk delivers us to 5820 Henry Avenue, home of Dalessandro's [215-482-5407], a small, diner-like establishment that isn't for the meek. If you don't step up to the counter and order there's a good chance nobody's asking.
In a wonderfully Philly moment, a group of college-aged guys enter and order their steaks. One stays behind while the others head across the street for who knows what. When their sandwiches appear, the left-behind food-watcher leans out the door and bellows, "Hey retards! The food is ready!" Ah, brotherly love, indeed.
If you like your steak chopped, I guarantee that the PCS from Dalessandro's will make your knees weak and your arteries harden. Slices of cheese placed atop grilling mounds of meat result in a gargantuan, gooey, nearly one-pound cheesesteak that's well worth the drive. But don't take my word for it. The shop has earned awards from AOL City Guide for both Best Cheesesteak and Best Takeout, as well as the Frank Rizzo Memorial Award for Lifetime Achievement. And trust me, they didn't get these accolades for their cheery atmosphere and homey ambiance.
In an ironic fit of city planning, the Roxborough Health Center is situated across the street from Dalessandro's, right next to Chubby's [5826 Henry Ave., 215-487-2575], another PCS joint with a better name and sign, though they serve their steaks sliced.
The afternoon sun starts to fade, taking our appetites with it. With four PCS under our ever-expanding belts, only one stop remains – Steve's Prince of Steaks [7200 Bustleton Ave., 215-338-0985].
Located at the end of a residential block, Steve's doesn't look like much of a culinary hotspot, but looks can deceive. The only establishment on the tour that puts meat on the grill after you order, it's not surprising that Steve's has the most flavor. Long, flat, lightly toasted rolls – from a bakery whose name is protected like a state secret – can barely contain the still-sizzling slices of steak laying under a river of melted cheese.
It's hot, I'm full to the point of hospitalization and almost on the verge of heat exhaustion as I proclaim to all within earshot, "Now this is a cheesesteak."
In just a few short hours under a pounding sun and relentless humidity we've traveled from one end of the city to the other, gorging ourselves non-stop on some of the best cheese-steaks Philly has to offer. I Wet-Nap my hands in a desperate attempt to remove the intertwining aromas of fried food and Jim's porno-shop cleanser and put the car in drive. A sharp pain stabs me near the heart and I wonder if there's any salad in the fridge at home.
How We Ranked 'Em
Dallesandro's... though it had "no ambiance to speak of" and featured a layout many found "confusing" this PCS establishment dominated every other category (meat, roll, cheese, extras and flavor). SCORE: 3.7
Steve's... "cleanliness issues" with the bathroom and a few remarks about "tough steak" hurt THG's fave stop, but more than on singled out their unique blend of American cheese and Wiz as a winning combo. SCORE: 3.4
Geno's... reviewers were divided on whether the meat had "better flavor" than Pat's, but a brighter, cleaner ambiance and a "sweeter" overall taste pushed this one up the charts. SCORE: 3.3
Jim's... this "traditional" PCS joint got dinged a lot for the "lengthy wait" but scored bonus points for an air-conditioned dining area and beer. SCORE: 3.2
Pat's... lots of folks on the PCS Tour though this popular spot was just "OK" with "so so" or "not too tasty" meat. For shame, for shame. SCORE: 2.9
Got something to say about Philly cheesesteaks? Have a favorite place you'd like to sound off about? Fill out our contact form or drop me a line and we'll add it to the site.