“You can’t come to Philadelphia and not have a cheesesteak.”
Given that the cheesesteak is practically Philly’s symbol, that statement is so true. But we’ll do one better. In fact… we’ll do three better.
The best thing about hanging out with foodies is that everyone is enthusiastic about eating and hunting for good food. The best thing about visiting locals is that they know where all the best spots are. The perfect combination. And because everyone has a different opinion of their favorite spot, that is how we came to eat at FOUR different cheesesteak places in half a day (plus an actual real dinner).
This is a story of absolute gluttony. Of long standing rivalries and search for the truth. This is the story of the hunt for Philly’s best cheesesteak.
On my last full day on my NJ/NY visit, we went on a little day trip to Philadelphia (side note: I think it’s so cool that you can just go visit another State in a day!). It was Ray’s cousin’s birthday and we planned to surprise him by showing up to dinner.
The plan was to get into Philly in the early afternoon, eat at Reading Terminal Market and visit the Magic Gardens, before our 5 pm dinner reservation (which was at a fancy Cuban restaurant in downtown). However, because we dilly-dallied on the way down to Philly, we didn’t arrive until 4 pm.
At this point, the rational thing to do is to not spoil our appetites and just wait for dinner. But you already know this is a food story of epic proportions.
“Alright guys, we have ONE hour to stuff our faces before dinner,” Carmela instructed.
“That’s the fattest statement ever.”
But knowing us, that’s exactly what we were gonna do.
Cheesesteak #1 – Carmen’s
Reading Terminal Market was amazing! Part gourmet grocery story and part ready-food vendors, there are a TON of food options in there. The main thing Carmela wanted from there was the roast pork and broccoli rabe sandwich at DiNic’s. We were devastated to find its counter and see that all sandwiches have sold out for the day. Guess we got there too late.
Not to be deterred, we walked around to look for other food. We picked up cookies at the Famous 4th St Cookies and each wolfed one down. Ray got ribs and Jay got donuts.
By now, we had 20 minutes left. I was determined to find a cheesesteak in these 20 minutes. I didn’t think I’d get another chance and I wasn’t about to leave Philly without eating one. After looking at a few different cheesesteak vendors, we settled on Carmen’s since it had the longest line. And plus, there was a photo of Obama eating there!
For my first Philly cheesesteak, I probably should have gotten the classic one. But the spicy kamikaze one – made with pepper jack cheese and roasted, pickled spicy peppers – really caught my eye.
And it was delicious! Definitely not classic, but really good. The meat was tasty and the peppers gave just the right amount of kick. The only thing is that they ran out of white rolls and only had whole wheat left, so the bread was a little drier. Since this was my first cheesesteak, I really have no basis for comparison and can’t comment on much more besides it being really good.
But now, we had to hurry to dinner.
— stand by for a dinner & ping pong break —
The birthday boy, Arnold, was super pleasantly surprised. We had a delicious dinner at Alma de Cuba. Afterwards, we hung out at a hipster ping pong club, where we played some pong and partook in their Friday night games (which involved an embarrassing dance contest). Since this isn’t the main point of the post, I won’t share those details.
— end stand by —
When we finally left a little after 1 am, someone had the brilliant idea to go for some late night Philly cheesesteaks. “You can’t come to Philly and NOT eat at Pat or Geno’s,” Jared said. “They’re the most famous ones.”
“Ok, but we can only do one. So pick the better one.”
“You have to do BOTH! So you can compare.”
Cheesesteak #2 – Pat’s Steaks
A few minutes later, we pulled up to Pat’s, which is an outdoor diner with bright fluorescent lights and orange picnic tables. Pat’s has been around since 1930. This is where the cheesesteak sandwich was first created (though I didn’t realize it at the time).
It’s kinda an interesting story. Pat’s was originally a hot dog stand operated by two brothers. But one day, they got so sick of eating their own hot dogs that they grilled up some sliced beef instead. A passerby smelled the delicious aroma and asked for one too. But they only had enough for their own lunch, so they shared it with the passerby. Since then, a legend was created.
This time, we ordered the classic cheesesteak with Cheese Whiz.
For those of you who don’t know, I’ll briefly explain what a cheesesteak is. It’s simple, really. Just sauteed very thin slices of beef with melted cheese. It’s served in a soft long hoagie roll. You can add stuff to it like grilled onions, peppers, or mushrooms. The cheese is the important part though. Arnold, who’s allergic to dairy, said that some places refuse to give him just a plain steak sandwich.
I was still feeling full from dinner. So the sight of that sandwich with all that meat and cheese didn’t look too appetizing to me. But I had to try some since I was finally in Philly. I took a bite and –
The thin slices of beef are super tender and juicy and the cheese went so well on it. Apparently, classic Philly cheesesteaks are made with Cheese Whiz. I admit I’m a total cheese snob, so usually I’d turn my nose up at Cheese Whiz, but I actually really loved the taste in this sandwich! Another thing I liked is that there was the perfect ratio of bun to meat to cheese. Not one overpowered the other and there wasn’t so much whiz/sauce that it was soggy. The sandwich stood intact the entire time.
As soon as I had one bite, I wanted more . I wasn’t even hungry and still put away half a sandwich because it was that good.
The fries (no pic, oops) were really good too. They have some sort of a flavored crust, so they’re extra crispy on the outside.
Cheesesteak #3 – Geno’s Steaks
Geno’s is literally located just across the street kitty-corner from Pat’s. This is the ultimate cheesesteak rivalry. And it looks the same too – even brighter fluorescent lights and orange picnic tables. Geno’s came much later in 1966, in an attempt to out-do the inventor of the cheesesteak himself. Apparently, the rivalry began when Rocky was taken to eat at Pat’s in the movie Rocky in 1976. With Pat’s new gained popularity, Geno’s started the trash talk and calling himself the better cheesesteak. Ever since then, both sides have been playing up the rivalry for the media.
At Geno’s, we ordered a mushroom cheesesteak.
The sandwich is just COMPLETELY drenched in sauce. I don’t know if their cheese whiz is more runny or something, but it covered the meat like gravy. Geno’s doesn’t cut up their steak slices as small as Pat’s. Their steak is really tender though, so I’d give points for that. But I just didn’t like how much sauce there was. It was too overpowering and by the end, the bun was completely soaked.
I also didn’t like the huge mushroom slices. I feel like that added to the runny-ness of the sandwich.
We also didn’t like the fries as much as Pat’s fries. It doesn’t have that extra crust, so the flavor and crispiness aren’t as good.
My verdict: not a fan. It’s too messy. There is a thing as too much cheese.
Our group had a long discussion over which is better. Everyone had their own preference for meat size, amount of cheese, bun chewiness. But we all agree the fries are much better at Pat’s.
“These two are okay. But my favorite is Jim’s,” Ray finally said.
Well! I guess this meant we had to make one more stop.
Cheesesteak #4: Jim’s Steaks
Jim’s has been around for forever too, since 1939. It was completely packed when we walked in shortly after 2 am. And because this is an indoor restaurant (though it’s standing counters only), the whole place just smelled absolutely drool-worthy. So far, it was looking very promising.
We decided to do something new. We decided to order a cheesesteak with provolone cheese, because I had to compare what kind of cheese is better. The people at Jim’s advised against it and said that Whiz is the only way to eat a cheesesteak, but I still stuck to the original order.
At Jim’s, they chop up the steak into really tiny pieces. While this makes the meat more chewable, I also felt like it made it more dry. I did really like the quality of the sandwich – good bread, good meat, good flavor – but I have to agree that provolone doesn’t do well at bringing out flavor. I think I would have liked it a little bit better with Whiz.
Verdict: really good sandwich, but just ordered bad.
And that, is how we ended up at 4 cheesesteak places in less than 12 hours. Though I disclose that we shared all of them, so really, I had just about 1.5 cheesesteak total – completely reasonable!
What’s my final verdict?
It was a toss up between Pat’s and Jim’s, but I would have to give my first place to Pat. Though this may not be the fairest comparison since I didn’t get the same thing at both. But I do prefer Pat’s larger pieces of meat over Jim’s chopped up steak. Pat’s also seemed to be juicier without being soggy. So I think I would have to agree – the originator of the Philly cheesesteak sandwich remains King.