I am not from Philadelphia. In fact, in my entire life, I’ve only been to Philly twice -- once in high school, when I was passing through on my way to Princeton, and again, when I was living in New York and visiting friends on a day trip. And I can say, with sunken shame, that both times, I ate at the same cheesesteak joint. I’m also from Texas. Our “cheesesteaks” are served with chips and salsa, and it’s just all very wrong.
So I conducted a completely non-scientific and non-statistically significant survey of my friends--some of whom are born-and-raised Philadelphians and others who have spent a good amount of time in the City of Brotherly Love
. I also perused the Internet for blogs, forums, Travel Channel features, local magazines, etc. I can say with mild confidence that I have a definitive list of Philly’s most classic cheesesteaks--though I would encourage native Philadelphians to add and subtract where they see fit...and also refrain from any obscenities.
What is a Cheesesteak?
This isn’t a “duh” question. With the way culinary culture shifts toward “new takes” on American classics, it’s possible that the definition of a true Philly Cheesesteak has been lost. So for clarification, Visit Philly
writes that a cheesesteak is a “long, crusty roll filled with thinly sliced sautéed rib-eye beef and melted cheese.” Generally, people opt for Cheez Whiz, but American and provolone cheese are also common, acceptable choices. The art of the cheesesteak “lies in the balance of flavors, textures and what is often is referred to as the ‘drip’ factor.”
At the recommendation of my friends, I’ve decided to leave Pat’s
off the list. Ask most Philadelphians, both native and transplant, and they’ll tell you with opinionated rage that Pat’s and Geno’s aren’t the real thing. A good friend of mine, who grew up in Philly and who becomes emotionally entangled and yells a lot during Eagles games, said to me, “People from Philly don’t go there. Everyone thinks it’s an overrated touristy place. I mean, if you’re doing a visitors’ guide, you should probably tell people about them. But meh.” Such lukewarm sentiments. But he’s right, if you’re looking for “classic” cheesesteaks, the ones that embody Philadelphia from an outsider’s perspective, you probably should stop by Pat’s and Geno’s. But this list is for those who want to know where the locals go.
The following is not in any particular order.
1. Dalessandro’s Steaks and Hoagies:
This joint’s been serving up deliciously greasy cheesesteaks in Roxborough since 1960. The word on the street is Dalessandro’s seasons its grill with fat. 600 Wendover St., (215) 482-5407, http://dalessandros.com/
The bar-style setup makes this joint unique from the more typical cafeteria-line setups in Philly. 5826 Henry Ave., (215) 487-2575, http://chubbysofhenryave.com/
3. Campo’s Deli:
Tourists rejoice! This joint is conveniently located in Old City, just blocks from the Liberty Bell and the Independence Visitor Center. It’s generally more famous for its hoagies, but Campo’s dishes a respectable cheesesteak. 214 Market St., (215) 923-1000, http://camposdeli.com/
4. Jim’s Steaks:
The aroma of fried onions and grilled meat floats seductively down South Street, which makes this location the most memorable. But time your visit because the line at Jim’s often stretches out the front door and around the corner. 400 South St., (215) 928-1911, http://www.jimssouthstreet.com/
5. Ishkabibble’s Eatery:
Here, customers call the shots and their cheesesteaks are made-to-order. It’s believed by many to be the origin of the chicken cheesesteak. While you’re there, help yourself to the “Gremlin,” Ishkabibble’s half-lemonade/half-grape juice beverage. 337 South St., (215) 923-4337, http://www.philacheesesteak.com/
6. Sonny’s Famous Cheesesteaks & Burgers:
Sonny’s is, in comparison, a newcomer, having opened in 2000. The meat’s cooked in its own juices instead of oil. 228 Market St., (215) 629-5760, http://www.sonnyscheesesteaks.com/
7. Tony Luke’s Cheesesteaks:
Tony Luke’s is a South Philly institution. Order and pick up your sandwich from the street-side windows and dine at the outdoor picnic-style tables. Don’t be offended if the staff seems unfriendly. It’s just part of the tradition to give both the regulars and first-timers a hard time. What a better sample of that East Coast charm. 39 E. Oregon Ave., (215) 551-5725, http://www.tonylukes.com/
8. Cosmi’s Deli:
This corner shop’s been around since the 1930s and barely has enough room for half a dozen people. A classic Cosmi’s cheesesteak has coarsely chopped beef and should be ordered with Whiz and onions and a side of long hots (hot peppers). 1501 S. 8th St., (215) 468-6093, http://www.cosmideli.com/
9. Joe’s Steaks + Soda Shop:
At Joe’s, you can order a great cheesesteak with a variety of flavored sodas and egg creams. 6030 Torresdale Ave., (215) 535-9405, http://joessteaks.com/
10. Steve’s Prince of Steaks:
The original location is on Bustleton Avenue, where it’s served a devoted clientele for the past 30 years, but the new location in Center City will make it more accessible to out-of-towners. 41 S. 16th St. (Center City), (215) 972-6090, http://www.stevesprinceofsteaks.com/
How to Order a Cheesesteak
Avoid eye-rolls. Follow ordering etiquette. Each joint may have its own rules, but here’s a general guideline.
1. Refer to the cheesesteak as “one.”
2. Pick your cheese: Whiz, Provolone or American.
3. Do you want onions? If yes, say “with.” If no, say “without.”
4. It should sound something like, “One Whiz/Provolone/American with/without.”
5. Have your order and money ready to go, or you might be sent to the back of the line.