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South Philly Steak Sandwiches

March 14, 2009

A Phine Philly Cheese Steak, originally uploaded by vladcole.

Merriam-Webster (yes the actual dictionary publisher) defines a cheesesteak as follows:

Pronunciation: \stāk\
Function: noun
Date: 1977
: a sandwich consisting of thinly sliced beef topped with melted cheese and condiments (as fried onions or peppers)

In local vernacular, a cheeseteak is also know as a Philly, a steak sandwich, and a sometimes (though incorrectly) a hoagie. You should also know that a steak sandwich doesn’t necessarily require steak.

As far back as April, 2008, N. and I have been sampling the Steak Sandwich joints of South Philadelphia. Since then, we’ve hit many and all of the big names. We’ve sampled Pat’s, Geno’s, Tony Luke’s, Cosmi’s Deli, and Snyder Pizza’s sandwiches. In addition to having some great food, we’ve also developed what we believe are some very specific criteria for our ideal sandwich.

Now, these are the criteria that N. gives high marks for in a cheesesteak:
1) Firm, but not crusty bread that is soft on the inside, but doesn’t soggy when meat and cheese are added
2) Provolone cheese. Non-negotiable
3) No onions, no mushrooms, no peppers. Meat and cheese only.

And these would make the ideal sandwich for me (J.):
1) Meat
2) Cheese
3) Hot

Yesterday, we tried Tony Luke’s. We consider this to be the last of the “Big Three” (with Pat’s, Geno’s) in South Philly. In terms of variety, Tony Luke’s wins hands down. N. had a classic cheesesteak (basically as defined), without onions or peppers. I had something quite a bit more exotic (at least for a steak sandwich): a pepperoni cheesesteak with provolone. N.’s major beef (no pun intended) with Tony Luke’s was that she couldn’t get provolone on her cheesesteak. I would have to agree…cheese selection is quite key. Though I did find the bread at Tony Luke’s (almost crusty on the outside, and medium-soft to firm on the inside) to be my favorite. Also, their fries are quite excellent.

Tony Luke’s, originally uploaded by Glyptodontidae.

Pat’s, on the other hand, has a much more stripped-down menu, and, of the Big Three, is the most down-home in overall feel. When I think of Pat’s King of Steaks (the long form name), I think of Philly; clean but not new, excellent food but unpretentious, far less flashy than Geno’s (just across the street from Pat’s) but who cares? That’s Pat’s, and I love them for it. It’s also the restaurant where Rocky gets a steak sandwich in the original film.

Of the three, Geno’s is quite clearly a temple to the steak sandwich. If you came from out of town and stood between Pat’s and Geno’s (they’re only about 40 yards apart), you’d probably choose Geno’s. In terms of the menu, it’s pretty spartan but everything is good. Their steak sandwiches are quite comparable to Pat’s, or rather they’re similar to eachother (and that’s NOT a bad thing).

In 2008, Cosmi’s Deli was voted best cheesesteak in South Philly by Philadelphia Magazine. And rightly so. Of all the sandwiches we’ve had in South Philly, Cosmi’s is, overall, the best. Best Bread, best beef, best variety of cheese. They’ll also put just about anything they have in the deli that you want on your steak. While not a restaurant (there are no tables or chairs), this is where I’d go if I had to leave my immediate neighborhood to get a steak. Since they’re a deli, you can also pick up a bag of chips, a 2 Litre of Soda, and head back home (if you live in South Philly like we do), or walk to the park down the street and enjoy your steak there.

Cosmi’s Deli, originally uploaded by Ryner12.

There are other steak sandwiches in South Philly, and N. and I hope to enjoy many of them. There are also steak sandwiches that don’t have beef, and one of them is actually my favorite sandwich in Philly. Down the street from us is a take out pizza shop called Snyder Avenue Pizza. They have a buffalo chicken cheesesteak that is truly outstanding. I’ve had that sandwich, well… several times. It’s always consistent, and I’ve never had a bad one.

What are your favorite sandwiches or favorite local foods?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2009 10:15 am

    Mmmm…Cheesesteaks… Did you have it ‘WIT?’ or ‘WIDDOUT?’ My husband is originally from Reading, PA so we’ve sampled lots of cheesesteaks. I must say, though, you can’t find a good cheesesteak in midwest- and I’m not sure why that is. How sad.

  2. March 15, 2009 2:38 pm

    Pennsylvania soul food! I’m going to have to share this post with my not-from-around-heah husband, who has nonetheless grown to love the cheesesteak almost more than I do. I confess: I like them with onions. I don’t know if I can ever indulge in them again though, since I’m moving more and more towards only eating pasture-raised meats. They’ve been a very rare treat for many years already. It may be a while before the cheesesteak joints feature local grass-fed beef. But maybe we’ll get there yet. Lotta good grass-fed beef in Lancaster…

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