PHILADELPHIA - You’d think that something as iconic as the cheesesteak would have a specific method of preparation and a dictated list of ingredients. You’d especially think this in Philadelphia, where the sandwiches are known invariably as Philly cheesesteaks. But the similarities end with the name. There are, likely, hundreds of eateries that include a cheesesteak on their menus, along with pizzas and other sandwiches. But there also are dozens of places for which the cheesesteak is their reason to be, virtually all they do all day long. Each one, of course, claims to be the real deal, but I found that they can be quite different.
And in one specific neighborhood, in South Philly, at the end of 9th Avenue where you’ll find block after block of Italian-owned markets, at the intersection where 9th, Wharton and Passyunk Avenues cross in an X, are two of the largest: Geno’s Steaks and Pat’s King of Steaks. Their proximity allowed me to have a steak-off to see which one made the definitive Philly cheesesteak and which one did it best.
Each obviously has its fans -- well after what would be considered the lunch hour, in mid afternoon, both restaurants had long lines of people waiting for a sandwich. A woman who fell into line after me at Geno’s said to a companion, “This is crazy; it doesn’t matter what time I come here there’s always a line like this.”
At Geno’s, you step up to the counter (neither place offers inside seating or ordering) and give your specific order. For cheesesteaks you can have it with Cheez Whiz, indicated on the menu as Wiz (sorry, but I have a problem requesting wiz on my steak), American or provolone. Say which one you want and not long after forking over your money -- around $9 -- someone slides a cylinder of waxed paper through the window.
I found Geno’s steak sandwich to be rather odd. The meat was layered on the sub roll (called a hoagie roll in these parts) in thin slices, not as chopped meat. And the cheese was layered on top of the meat, not mixed in, and, it must be noted, not melted. And the onions, an essential ingredient, were still mostly uncooked instead of well-grilled and sat in a clump on top. The meat was good, the cheese was good and the roll was fresh, but it wasn’t what I would call a great Philly cheesesteak.
Pat’s, which, according to a sign on the corner in front of the food stand, claims to have invented the cheesesteak, was more like the cheesesteak I know. The meat was chopped and grilled along with the onions, which were properly cooked, and the cheese was mixed in. And again the quality of the meat and cheese was very good. There just wasn’t much of it. Sampling each one side by side at one of the crude picnic tables provided for patrons, I came to the conclusion that neither one was what I would call an iconic sandwich, certainly not one I’d stand in line for. And, frankly, I’ve had better sandwiches claiming to be Philly cheesesteaks in Central Florida.
One thing about Geno’s: his stand is emblazoned with signs and bumper stickers that go a bit beyond patriotism and step into the realm of jingoism if not racism. One sticker: "Press 1 for English; press 2 for deportation." Charming, no? I probably needn’t mention that if you want fries with your sandwich you’ll find them listed as Freedom Fries.
Of course the irony is that this area of South Philly was established by immigrants, most of whom almost certainly spoke little or no English when they arrived here. Some of the people standing in line with me were obviously willing to overlook the patriotic proselytizing. I might have overlooked it if it had been more than just a mediocre sandwich.