By Alan Richman, Food Correspondent for GQ magazine

Frank Olivieri at Pat's
Frank Olivieri at Pat’s

Five of us rode out. All of us returned. That wasn’t guaranteed, which is why our traveling party included Dr. Benjamin Abella, an emergency room physician from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. We tried 23 different cheesesteaks in one afternoon at 10 spots generally considered the best in Philadelphia. (Crazy, I know, but there wasn’t room in the car for a psychiatrist.)

So many cheesesteaks, so much to learn, even for a Philadelphia native, which I am. Who makes the best, a debate that has consumed the city for decades? Which is the best cheese, sliced provolone or Cheez Whiz, the legendary goop invented by Kraft in the early 1950s? (American cheese, a third option, is too feeble to be a viable choice.) Which establishment chops, caramelizes, and adds the correct quantity of onions, which is my particular passion, given that the grilled beef in these sandwiches tends to be bland? And, finally, just how good is the bread, a judgment we tended to leave to Maria Gallagher, a former restaurant critic for Philadelphia magazine?

Also with us was an outsider, Jeff Ruby, restaurant critic for Chicago magazine and cheesesteak novice, although he was pretty cocky for a man with so much to learn. After eating his first on this trip, he cruelly remarked, “It’s the Billy Joel of beef, tender but no taste.” Our final eater was Ray Didinger, member of the writers’ wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a current Philadelphia sportscaster, and the most devoted cheesesteak eater I know. I’ve eaten cheesesteaks with him in each of the last six decades (1969-present), starting when we sat at adjoining desks in the sports department of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. He is a celebrity in Philadelphia, and I figured that with him along, superb service was guaranteed.

I love cheesesteaks, but until this trip I considered them little more than a local phenomenon, not to be taken seriously. After all, with most cheesesteaks, the bread is insubstantial, the meat overcooked, the onions undercooked, and the cheese tasteless or drippy (your choice). What I learned on our excursion changed my mind about almost everything.

We all learned to appreciate Cheez Whiz, which Didinger had never tried, believing it a useless, artificial product. Yet it does have appeal, providing it is applied properly: It must not be slopped on, as is usually done, but instead artfully blended with the meat, in much the same way that the great barbeque restaurants of North Carolina apply sauce to their chopped pork.

We also learned of the existence of an almost-extinct style of cheesesteak that turned out to have a lot in common with the hoagie, Philly’s given name for a sub.

Here are our Top 10, in order. I cannot say the list is entirely democratic. Although all five of us voted, and all votes were counted, I tinkered a little, moving some places up a notch, some down. We were unanimous in our choice of the best and the worst.

1. Sonny’s Famous Steaks, 228 Market St. Located near the Liberty Bell, the very heart of Philadelphia tourism, Sonny’s is ideally situated for visitors hoping to try the best cheesesteak in town. The shop is a few doors away from the more celebrated Campo’s, setting up a potential 21st century competition between the two, much like the classic 20th century duel of Pat’s vs. Geno’s, the fading ex-champs of South Philly. Sonny’s is eerily uncluttered, with a few chrome-rimmed, 1950s-style, communal tables. It feels like a small-town meeting space occasionally occupied by the Cub Scouts or the Lions Club. Service is terrific—the folks behind the counter can’t do enough for you. I asked for more onions, and they were brought to our table. Want more napkins or more sauce? Help yourself. The rolls are very soft, the beef juicier and more plentiful than most, the provolone nicely gooey, the Cheez Whiz well integrated into the meat. What a combination—wonderful cheesesteaks and attentive service. That’s almost impossible to find.

2. Philip’s Steaks, 2234 Passyunk Ave..You order at a stand much like the kind I remember from family trips to the boardwalk in Atlantic City when I was a kid. At Philip’s, you pick up your cheesesteak, then do an about-face and eat standing up at a long, narrow, metal counter that stretches along the sidewalk. Of course, this style of dining is more fun when you’re facing the ocean, not West Passyunk Avenue. Our first sandwich was nice enough—freshly made, juicy meat, not quite enough onions. Then the manager, Joe Bianchi, recognized Didinger and said to him, “Want me to make you an old-fashioned?” I jumped in and said, “Of course he does,” wondering what this was all about. I’d never heard of it. Bianchi claimed this was the original cheesesteak, the real thing. It consisted of beef, provolone, grilled tomato, fried onions, black pepper, oregano, salt, and a few Italian long hots. It was more like a Massachusetts “steak bomb” than the traditional Philly cheesesteak. It was wonderful. Bianchi, who works at the stand six days a week, says his regulars always want it, and he’ll make one for anyone who asks.

3. Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop (formerly Chink’s), 6030 Torresdale Ave. You can probably guess why the name was changed, but it didn’t happen quickly. More than 60 years passed before political correctness found its way to the Wissinoming neighborhood of Philadelphia. Joe’s is where I had the cheesesteak that made me recognize the virtues of Cheez Whiz. Kudos to the cook, a cute young woman in a tee-shirt, the only female cook I noticed at any of our 10 stops. Joe’s is a charming, undersized, old-world luncheonette. It has fantastic milkshakes, no-longer-working jukeboxes in four of the booths, and a wall of photos showing the shop through the decades, back when it was still called Chink’s. Our waitress was another cute young woman in a tee-shirt. For that matter, almost everyone working there is a cute, young woman in a tee-shirt. I wonder if another political correctness crisis looms.

4. Campo’s Deli, 214 Market St. Often talked about as the reigning cheesesteak champion, Campo’s offers a sandwich with plenty of meat. That’s not the problem. The provolone is insubstantial, almost tasteless, and vanishes into the roll. The chopped onions are way too big, much too clunky, and fatally undercooked. The beverage of choice is Campo’s own name-brand bottled water. The space is overcrowded, with tiny tables and uncomfortable chairs. After the five of us sat down with our sandwiches and drinks, I realized we needed more napkins, and that one of us was without a beverage. I went back and had a chat with the woman manning the cash register.

Me: Can I have a cup of tap water?

Her: We only sell water.

Me: May I have a few more napkins?

Her: There’s napkins in the baskets under the sandwiches.

Me: They’re very messy sandwiches. We need more.

Her: If you need to wash your hands, go to the restroom.

Campo’s has a tip jar on the counter. I passed.

5. John’s Roast Pork, 14 Snyder Ave. Note the name. While cheesesteaks aren’t the specialty here, they’re still quite good. Inside the cramped shop, two lines form, one for pork and the other for cheesesteaks. The guys behind the counter sound like carnival barkers, one yelling, “Pork here,” the other, “Steak here.” Pick your line, and don’t expect a kind word if you get in the wrong one. The sandwiches are eaten outside on picnic tables while semis and buses roll by. A whiff of exhaust lingers in the air. The sandwiches are big and hearty, less refined than most, and most cheesesteaks aren’t refined at all. The rolls are pleasingly crunchy, although Ruby thought the sesame seeds were unfortunate, muddling the purity of the product. No Cheez Whiz to be had, but two kinds of provolone are available, one mild, the other sharp. Ask for the sharp. Whenever the opportunity arises, always ask for the sharp.

6. Steve’s Prince of Steaks, 41 S. 16th St. and three other locations. The inside of Steve’s looks like the outside of an Airstream trailer: sleek, shiny, metallic. Outside, it looks like any neighborhood joint, weary with age. Said Ruby, “It looks like my great-grandmother’s house in St. Joseph, Missouri.” An odd style of cheesesteak that I rather liked: The roll seemed thinner than most, and it was filled with meat cooked flat on the grill and served that way, rather than being chopped into bits. The sandwich was so tender and dainty I felt I was at a tea party. This was our first stop and Ruby was unimpressed, expecting brawny, two-fisted eating. The sandwich with Cheez Whiz was a mess, precisely the way I dislike it. The gooey stuff was plopped on top, where it proceeded to dribble off and behave like glue, adhering to the paper under the sandwich, the napkin holding the sandwich, and, in one case, my shirt.

7. Pat’s King of Steaks, 1237 E. Passyunk Ave. The one and only. The cheesesteak was created here in 1930 by Pat Olivieri. The stand is situated on a tiny East Passyunk Ave. plaza, across from a mystifying mural— is that Olivieri or W.C. Fields? Seating is outdoors and exposed, which means the occasional panhandler is likely to stroll by while you eat, testing your kindness of heart. Incredibly efficient service. Walk up to the counter and follow the explicit directions posted on the wall when ordering. Do so awkwardly, as I did, and expect a mild rebuke from the counterman. I asked him to cut our sandwiches in half, no problem elsewhere. “No cutting,” he said. Pat’s operates so efficiently your sandwich will be handed to you at the same time as your change. The meat on the grill looked rosy and appealing but came out overcooked and tough. The onions were artfully done, but the roll was chewy and elastic. The provolone never melted, probably due to the speed of preparation, and the Cheez Whiz was slopped on, ending up everywhere but on the meat. A small mystery: “I would like to know more about that ballet slipper nailed to the awning,” Gallagher said.

(Editor’s Note: According to owner Frankie Olivieri, the ballet slipper is a souvenir for a Philly scavenger hunt: “A few years ago there was a big scavenger hunt in Phildelphia, and various items were put in different places, and they all were uniquely Philadelphian. I think it’s a ballet slipper from a ballerina in the Nutcracker performed here in Philadelphia. It was in the window for the hunt, and then people were amazed by it and it became legend, so I put it up there next to the old pictures of my uncle Pat.”)

8. Steaks On South, 308 South St. A newish place on South Street that’s recently gotten some attention. A major drawback is the absolute absence of ambience. Steaks On South looks like a generic sandwich shop that’s been a bunch of other things before deciding to give cheesesteaks a try. Lots of tables plus a few counter seats. A claw machine for taking quarters from kids. A free Ms. Pac-Man machine on the second floor. The sandwiches meet minimum cheesesteak standards, but lack finesse, style, or an identity. The onions are barely cooked, the beef is ordinary, the rolls unimpressive. The provolone is particularly tasteless, so I suggest Cheez Whiz.

9. Tony Luke’s, 39 E. Oregon Ave. A legendary spot in South Philly famous for its Pork Italian, which is roast pork topped with broccoli rabe and sharp provolone. I’ve always loved it. The cheesesteaks were a flop. The rolls had a little crunch but no taste, the meat was oddly pale and unusually bland, and the onions were sparse and undercooked. Choosing sharp provolone instead of mild helped but not enough. Even the Cheez Whiz tasted off, a little mustardy. Once a swell-looking spot, the walls lined with signed photos of local characters who ate there, the place has been transformed into a self-congratulatory shrine to owner Tony Luke Jr. Now photographs of him are everywhere.

10. Geno’s Steaks, 1219 S. 9th St. Ambience is the best aspect of this famous spot—it’s a riot of bright, neon orange. Pilots on final approach to the Philadelphia airport could utilize the glow as a landing beacon. Lots of photos of Joey Vento, the late founder, with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity. Hundreds of police patches under glass. An infamous welcoming sign: “This is America. When ordering, speak English.” The meat is long, flat, and tasteless. The roll was the worst of all—dry, spongy, and ghostly. The sandwich looks a lot like Pat’s, but it doesn’t measure up, and the bar isn’t set that high. Feels like a place that has stopped trying. No panhandlers here. I suspect any who approach the premises would be met by suppressive fire.


2009.05.03_JBF media awardsAlan Richman covered the Sixers for the late, great Evening Bulletin and has since gone on to other things. He has won 15 James Beard Journalism Awards, a National Magazine Award (and was a finalist five more times), and a Bronze Star for service in Vietnam. When he received his National Magazine Award, the presenter described him as “the Indiana Jones of food writers.” This article is reprinted by permission.


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