I wrote this around 1997. The $4, and $5 numbers need to be updated with inflation. Current opinion is that as of January 2014 the correct amount is $8.
Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia
Everyone knows “Philly Cheesesteaks.” Some think of cheesesteaks with Philly. Some think of Philly with cheesesteaks. Nothing wrong with any of that. People know that when you go to Philadelphia, there are foods you get: cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, Tastycakes, and water ice (italian ice). All excellent foods.
Now for the cheesesteaks, the biggest argument is Pat’s or Geno’s. These are the two most famous cheesesteak stores, at 9th and Passyunk in South Philly. I think #3 is Jim’s, on South Street. Many people fight vehemently for Pat’s, or for Geno’s and saying that they can’t even eat at the other one.
My opinion: They both suck. In fact, Jim’s sucks too.
I don’t know the history. Maybe they were first or something. They definitely have a lot of people going – they get a lot of business. Now, maybe because of all that business, they fast-food the cheesesteaks. They don’t dice the meat at any of those places! That’s the biggest problem. Philly Cheesesteaks are supposed to have the meat well-diced. You are supposed to dice, dice, dice until it’s all, well, diced. It’s kind of hard to explain.
When I’ve gone to Pat’s, Geno’s and Jims, they take the steak right off the grill and put it on the roll. (It’s actually been awhile, so I forget what they do with the onions…) Then, they typically slab cheese-whiz on it. Sheesh! If you order American cheese, they take pieces of cold American cheese and put it on the roll with the meat, How lame!
Now, my opinion, again, is that American cheese is the best cheese for a cheesesteak. And, it has to be melted!
Here’s how you should be making your cheesesteaks:
You put the steak on the grill. Optionally, you put raw onions on the grill. You dice the meat. Dice, dice, dice. Turn it over, mix it up, and dice some more. If you have onions, start dicing the onions, too. After a minute or so, mix the meat and the onions. Turn it over, mix it up, and dice, dice, dice. Keep going until there’s no more red. Okay, at that point, you shape the meat into the shape of a roll – about 10 inches long and maybe 3 inches across. Take 3 or 4 slices of American cheese and lay them on top of the steak (and onions). Let it sit a minute for the cheese to melt.
Now, you need to prepare the roll. Cut the roll length-wise. Don’t split it! Many hoagie/sub places all over the country split it, probably out of ignorance. It just makes the sandwich more messy when it’s split. Anyway, cut the roll, open it up. That might be all you need. If you want to add ketchup, mayo, even mustard, do it now. If you have a lot of roll-preparation, do it before you put the meat on the roll.
The cheese should be fully melted, and should kind of be sinking into the steak and onions. Ok, now, with your prepared roll and your steak with melted cheese: Here’s the best way. Open the roll, upside down, and place it on the steak and cheese. Take a metal spatula, and slide it under the whole thing. Hold the roll with your other hand. Now, take it all off the grill and turn it upright – so your hand holding the bottom of the roll is on the bottom, the steak and cheese is on top, and your upside-down spatula is on top.
Now, you can use the spatula to scoop up the remaining steak and cheese, and place in the roll. Make sure it’s fairly even. Cut and serve.
Cheesesteaks in Philly, when ordered, by default have nothing but steak and cheese. Onions are the most popular option. Some places offer peppers and mushrooms, that get grilled with the steak and onions. But you definitely have to ask for it. Ketchup is also popular, and should go on the roll. Mayo and mustard, as well as any other condiments are also possible.
Where to get cheesesteak like this
Most pizza shops / steak shops in Philadelphia and the suburbs make cheesesteaks properly. It’s that simple. In fact, some of the best cheesesteaks come from street carts. Center City Philadelphia, during M-F lunch times, in business districts have cheesesteak-making carts that make great ones for great prices. In fact, they’re usually $4 or less.
A friend of mine suggested a great rule of thumb about the price of cheesesteaks. Never pay more than $5 for a cheesesteak. A terrific rule of thumb. I worked at SmithKline Beecham for awhile at 16th and Race. It was a British-owned company, and people from London would come occasionally for a week or so. Once I went with some British co-workers to the Wyndham Franklin Plaza for lunch. It was a very nice, expensive restaurant. (Lunch was on someone’s expense account!) I forget exactly, but I think the cheesesteak might have been $8.95. Ridiculous. The cart on 16th Street at the corner of Race made great cheesesteaks for under $4.
I grew up in the suburbs, and the cheesesteaks there are great. I worked near Delaware for awhile, and they had good cheesesteaks in Delaware. I recently went down to a South Jersey shore, and the cheesesteak there was pretty good, too. So, maybe you can go 50 miles from Philadelphia and get good cheesesteaks.
Cheesesteaks outside Philadelphia area
Maybe the food places that want to offer Philly Cheesesteaks across the country go to Pat’s, or Genos, or Jims to see what cheesesteaks are supposed to be like. Big mistake. Most places around the country don’t dice the meat.
I’ve also see a mix of sautéed onions and peppers that they put on, without asking. Like everyone in Philly wants theirs with onions and peppers.
Generally, any “Philly Cheesesteak” you see 100 miles away from Philadelphia is not going to be a Philly Cheesesteak. It may taste good, but it might not. Don’t set your impression of the Philly Cheesesteak based on that.