When I was planning this Stateside Adventure, friends of mine were shocked that I was spending about a week in the City of Brotherly Love. “Why are you spending so much time in Philly?” they would ask. “You see the Liberty Bell, run the Rocky steps, and eat a cheesesteak. It takes, like, an afternoon.”
To be fair to the city, there is more to do in Philadelphia than these three things. There is more history in one block than most entire cities, and the art gallery is impressive for a lot more than Stallone’s exercise regime. Not to mention, it is simply a beautiful city.
Even still, I can’t think of many cities where one of the three cornerstones of tourism is an item of fast food. The cheesesteak is synonymous with Philly, and can be found at every second shop, from gas stations to diners.
For those who have never experienced, what exactly is a cheesesteak? Well, it’s a pretty self-explanatory name – there’s cheese, and there’s steak. Thin slices of meat are cooked on a flat grill, chopped and served in a bread roll with cheese. You can choose Whiz, American or provolone, and whether or not you want onions.
For my cheesesteak search, I stuck to the most classic version: Whiz wit. Some may be confused by these strange sounds, but when said in Philadelphia this means, “Shop keep, may I please have a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz and onions, thank you”. As you can see, the Philadelphian version saves a lot of time.
A lot of people are frightened of Whiz, and in many ways, rightfully so. There’s something about fluorescent orange liquid cheese being scooped out of a large can that is somewhat unsettling. But once you get passed the fact that it is clearly a long way from being natural and surrender to the experience, it’s actually not that bad. I mean, it’s not that good either, but it serves a purpose. In this case, it is the only thing that really seasons the meat. The Whiz delivers the only salt in a cheesesteak, and while doing it in a messy, gooey way, it is a surprisingly efficient, not to mention fun, way to do it.
As everywhere sells them, the eternal debate in Philadelphia seems to be, which one it the best? A lot of people, and more significantly tourist books, will send you to the intersection where it all started, and where one of the great food rivalries has been vied for almost half a century. On one corner you have Pat’s King of Steaks, who claim to have invented the cheesesteak back in 1933. On the other, Geno’s Steaks, a younger interloper, only opening in 1966. They both serve basically the same menu, entirely on outside tables, 24 hours a day. And, to be honest, they’re both somewhat average.
Geno’s steak was just a little dull, with too little Whiz, too soft a bun, and strangely flavourless onions. Pat’s, however, went the other way, with actually quite good flavour, and certainly tastier meat, but with the slices of steak so overcooked as to feel like eating rubber bands. These tourist meccas were very different, but both deficient, one in flavour and the other texture.
Away from the famed corner, things get a little better. On another Philly tourist attraction, the bustling, somewhat modern “bohemian” South Street you can find another of the regularly toted stars of the cheesesteak scene, Jim’s Steaks. An actual building that you can sit inside of, this perpetually crowded eatery is heralded by the smell of grilled onions that waft out through the store’s fans into the street. And their onions are their strongest point. Soft, properly caramelised, and clearly made with decent onions, they add that smokey sweetness that you craze as soon as the scent hits you. The meat was good, the cheese was a little light on, but the onions were stunning.
After plying their trade for 65 years, it’s good that Campo’s Deli, down in the Old City, has got their act together. A small store with a layout that is not conducive to busy lunchtimes, they nevertheless deliver a tasty, messy steak, with a good slathering of cheese. For my money they were the best that I tried.
However, when I think back over the different cheesesteaks I tried, I feel that, while the particular store you choose does make a difference, there is another consideration that is more important to the quality of your sandwich.
You will get a better steak when the restaurant isn’t busy.
Now, this may seem obvious. At peak times, when they’re churning through orders, they are more liable to make mistakes. They have to cook such large quantities of meat at a time that some of it will stay on the grill too long, or they are passing the rolls down so quickly that you only get whatever amount of cheese that hits the bread on the first pass. But go at a quieter moment, when they have to cook the meat specifically for you, when they have the luxury of spending a few extra seconds on you, the cheesesteak will improve. Campo’s at 5:30pm was significantly better than Campo’s at 12:30pm. That’s the real secret.
Because of its hallowed position in the public’s cultural conception of Philadelphia, I did concentrate my sandwich eating on the cheesesteak. As a result, I didn’t get to explore the Hoagie, and will have to leave that to other travellers. I did, however, sample another lesser-known but no less exciting Philly sandwich – the roast pork roll.
Here again a short baguette-style roll l is filled with thinly sliced meat, here roast pork that is then left to sit in what seem to be way too many juices to classify as a “roast”. These are sloppily placed in the bread with provolone cheese and either peppers or greens. The meat melts the cheese, and the juices from the meat sop into the bread to make a rich, piggy mess. At Tommy DiNic’s stand in the Reading Terminal Markets, I tried it with peppers which gave it a grassy sweetness, though I later learned that the broccoli rabe was the more traditional style. It was an excellent sandwich, and not to be missed.
In all, there is more to do in this city than just the bell, the steps, and the steak. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them. Cheesesteaks may not be a culinary masterpiece, but there’s something about them that just works, whether for lunch, dinner, or late at night. Maybe, in this town with all its history, they have the taste of freedom.
Well, freedom and Whiz.