For our first HeFedSheFed.com adventure in Philadelphia, we couldn’t pass up the allure of that mythical regional food: the Philly Cheese Steak. Friends who live in the City of Brotherly Love all shared their recommendations about where to go, but we had our minds made up already. How can you not take the ultimate test of Geno’s Steaks vs. Pat’s King of Steaks? So we girded our loins and set out for south of town...
It is a windy, blustery day but still quite nice and sunny. A perfect day to walk three miles in our quest to find the ultimate cheese steak sandwich! (And, secretly, I hope all that walking will help burn off the impending calorie catastrophe.) We stroll from our hotel in the arts district to more run-down neighborhoods, passing by Korean, Spanish and Italian storefronts where loud music plays in foreign languages and sidewalk vendors display wares in flea-market style. Eventually, we make it to that legendary crossroads of Passyunk and 9th. It is the tail end of lunchtime on a Friday, and there are throngs of people at both Geno’s and Pat’s, crowds creeping back out onto the road. We decide to hit Geno’s first.
Juliet volunteers to order, having boned up on proper etiquette. There is a window for cheese steaks, and another window for drinks and fries. While she waits in the longer line, I acquire a Birch Beer and some cheese fries. Signs in the windows proclaim Geno’s support for Trump in the next Presidential race; warnings if you don’t speak English or you don’t order correctly; and plenty of star-spangled banners. It feels like I’m at a Tea Party rally.
With a bit of luck and patience, we secure a small picnic table and unveil the beast. We tear the foot long in half, then dig in. The bread is soft; the shaved meat is juicy; the onions are sweet, weeping; and the Cheese Whiz is...well, Cheese Whiz. In the end, it is nothing special, just a somewhat thin sub with some anemic, salty, and overly-processed ingredients. The Birch Beer does wonders to wash it down. The cheese fries are pretty good, though. Better than the sandwich.
Eager to work our way up the food chain, we cross the street and prepare for Pat’s. I step up this time to order, paying close attention to the instructions printed next to the window. I say, “One provolone wit”. Translation: “One cheesesteak with provolone cheese and with onions.” I feel like a local when the guy takes my money, hands back the change, and another guy shoves a sub at me. I’m getting the hang of this!
Unfortunately, there are no available seats. People are like scavengers, rushing to the nearest open picnic table and wolfing down their late lunches. We end up at one of the standing rails, clustered close together against the brisk wind. The sandwich tears apart easily. I take my first bite and prepare for the onslaught of meat and cheese...only to be met with nothing. Nada. Zip. Bupkis. I don’t taste bread, meat, onions, or cheese. What in tarnation?
I eat more slowly, rolling each bite around on my tongue, trying to tease the flavors out. Still, it eludes me. The preparation is either too light a touch, or Geno’s has ruined me. Maybe that’s their secret weapon: ruin your taste buds before you try the competition.
Both places are a disappointment. Maybe neither could reach the lofty heights of legend, but I can say without any qualm that I can enjoy the rest of my life without eating another Philly cheese steak. Been there, done that, enough already.
There is a definite change in scenery and the overall "vibe" as we hoof our way from downtown into South Philly. It's a little grittier and the people seem a bit more guarded, though not unfriendly. We find ourselves amongst Vietnamese pho houses, a Chinese dim sum buffet (which seems like a either a contradiction or a delicious slice of heaven to me) and a Hispanic flea market. Two blocks later we're opposite the famous Philadelphia Italian Market on the edge of Little Italy. It's like an urban version of Epcot baby! We head down the street passing pizza joints, Greek diners and one place where you can buy live poultry, presumably to butcher at home. That's when I see it up ahead...a swarm of people, slow-moving traffic and the sign reading "Geno's". We have made it to cheesesteak mecca!
The line is longer at Pat's, so we head over to Geno's. It's easy to pick out the locals immediately: they know exactly how to order. "Steak wit" or "steak witout", meaning a cheesesteak with onions and cheese or without. Cheese choices include provolone, American or Cheese Whiz. I've been in town for two days before Jeremy arrived and I've been meticulously coached by some locals on how to order. "Steak wit onions 'n whiz please," I declare at the window. "Please" clearly gave me away as a tourist and my order taker raises her eyebrows and gives a slight "MmHmf." Dammit! I wanted to blend.
Jeremy has stepped down to the other window to order a soda. I grab our paper-wrapped steak and ask him to also order some cheesefries. There's something about fries smothered in Cheese Whiz that I find strangely fascinating. Like a bad car accident or a Snoop Dog song and I can't resist.
We find am empty table and proceed to dig in, literally. I rip the cheesesteak in half as best I can. This bread is serious stuff. Not the wimpy sub bread or hoagie roll I was expecting. (A word of warning—don't talk about hoagies to folks in Philly. Like cheesesteaks, it's kind of a religion and it will get weird and drawn out. Trust me on this.) The roll has a stiff crisp crust and a chewy center. The steak is thinly sliced, topped with chunks of sweet grilled onions and covered in bright orange Whiz. It's very messy, dripping down my hands, but also very, very tasty. The bread is quite addictive and I find myself wanting more when I finish my half. This is nothing like any cheesesteaks I've had in the Midwest.
After a quick clean-up we head across the street and get into line at Pat's, where they post a sign with directions ordering. Jeremy gets a "steak wit onions and provolone" and after much jockeying for a table, we end up standing at a counter. The bread is virtually the same, but everything else is different. The steak is haphazardly chopped with lots of fatty blobs and gristle. The onions are finely diced but tasteless. The provolone is stuck to the bread, barely melted and adds no flavor. Like Geno's, it's a messy drippy process to eat. But after about five bites in, I decide it's no longer worth it and toss the rest. Clearly, I'm a Geno's girl!