P. G. White - 2011-12-12
With outstanding restaurants for all budgets and tastes, ethnic neighbourhoods, culinary festivals, fabulous farmers’ markets and dozens of food blogs, Philadelphia is a ‘foodie’ destination par excellence. And yet the city’s emblematic meal is a simple sandwich: the Philly cheesesteak. People come from all over the country (and beyond) to order this aromatic celebration of cholesterol and calories at the source.
The original steak, born at Pat’s in South Philly in the 1930s, was a beef sandwich topped with pizza sauce. Not much has evolved since then: the sandwich is still made from thinly sliced ribeye steak fried on a grill and served on an Italian roll. Add cheese - provolone, american or the distinctive orange goo called Cheese Whiz - and you have a cheesesteak. Fried onions, peppers, mushrooms and pizza sauce are optional. Any fancier than that and you might get sneered out of the city. However - modern times oblige - chicken steaks and even veggie and vegan versions made with meat substitutes are now available for nostalgic beef-shunning cheesesteak lovers.
The sandwich, which should be dripping with fat and juices, has its own physical stance: the Philadelphia Lean. As in: stand firmly, grab the sandwich with both hands and lean forward as you eat so that the grease, cheese and onions don’t end up on your clothes. A teenaged friend who takes his steak with fried onions and american cheese says that the bread is the key. It has to be made at the century-old Amoroso’s Baking Company in Philly. He also explains that ‘if it doesn’t fall apart, it isn’t made right. The sandwich should be bursting with steak and onions.’
Cheesesteaks are sold throughout the Philadelphia metropolitan area. The most famous establishments are Pat’s and Geno’s, two ‘frienemy’ steak joints catty corner from each other in South Philly just below the Italian Market. Pat’s King of Steaks, father of them all and still wildly popular, is open 24/7. Bright orange rival Geno’s made news a couple of years ago when its infamously outspoken owner posted signs at the ordering window stating, ‘This is America. When ordering, speak English.’ He explained on national TV that if you weren’t willing to speak English, ‘you shouldn’t a came here, you shoulda stayed where you was.’
To find the best place to send cheesesteak pilgrims from out of town, I conducted an informal survey amongst mummers, city workers and people on the street. Pat’s and Geno’s were mentioned, as were several restaurants outside of centre city such as Tony Luke’s in South Philly and Dalessandro’s in Roxborough. But the name that came up the most often was Jim’s on South Street. And I did see the line at Jim’s reaching around the block onto 4th Street at lunch time, even in the dead of winter. Go for one of their excellent cheesesteaks with provolone, fried onions and mushrooms. And then go for a nice, long walk.
A cheesesteak with fixings generally costs around $8.00 - $9.00.
400 South Street
Tel: (215) 928-1911
Pat’s King of Steaks
1237 East Passyunk Avenue
Tel: (215) 468-1546